Today I’ve reviewed the twenty-first story in my series on the science fictional media landscape of the future. Ray Bradbury conjures a strange new world without television.
Up Next: TBD
Ray Bradbury’s “Almost the End of the World” first appeared in The Reporter (December 26, 1957). It later appeared in his short story collection The Day It Rained Forever (1959). If you have an Internet Archive account, you can read it online here.
In multiple earlier reviews in this series, I’ve laid out television’s transformative and speedy infiltration of the American consciousness and daily activities over the course of the 1950s. Multiple Bradbury stories critique this new world. The lovely and crystalline “The Pedestrian” (1951) imagined a future night city in which its denizens are transfixed by their TV scenes. The city, observed by the solitary one-time writer Leonard Mead, is as silent as “a wintry, windless Arizona country” (90). “Almost the End of the World” (1957) ruminates on the effects on American society if a cosmic event severs the viewer from the succor of the screen.
In the near future (1961), Willy Bersinger and Samuel Fitts, two miners, approach the town of Rock Junction, Arizona. Normally their stories of the darkest of nights and the extreme isolation of the desert would transfix the urban folk: “Set a man way out in the strange lands and he fills with wellsprings of silence. Silence of sagebrush, or a mountain lion purring like a warm beehive at noon. Silence of the river shallows deep in the canyons. All this a man takes in. Opening his mouth, in town, he breaths it out” (97). Their stories and reminisces represent the possibility of escape from the realities of daily life. But as they enter Rock Junction, something seems immediately amiss as builds and fences are garishly painted and yards of barren dirt filled with vegetable gardens and flowers.
They walk into the barbershop–where normally beneath the “naked-lady calendars” they recount their “philosophy of rocks and mirages” (97)–and are met with a wall of raucous sound. And through the din, with a voice as remote “as the voice of a man describing an Artic landscape” (101), the barber Antonelli recounts the coming of “the great Oblivion” (104). Four weeks earlier on Saturday morning the TV-centric rituals of life–children watching clowns and magicians, women watching TV fashion at beauty shops, men in hardware stories transfixed by trout fishing and baseball–suddenly end (101). Extreme sunspots flooded the whole damn world “with electricity,” wiping out every T.V. screen and radio (101). Rock Junction, like countless American cities and towns, entered a state of morose confusion. Families draped themselves on their sofas waiting for the static to end… Until the “fair women of great purpose and dignity” hand the men paintbrushes and paint cans (103). And soon new rituals, once old, emerge. New attempts to occupy time–including nighttime donkey baseball (invented in the Great Depression)! New attempts to weld connection in a world suddenly severed from everyone else.
And Willy and Samuel, and their stories of silence and isolation, no longer have their allure. Without the television, most have already experienced enough silence for a lifetime.
As with so many of Ray Bradbury’s visions, there’s a craft about the scene and phrase absent from many of his contemporaries. Antonelli’s story of the Oblivion like the winter night in “The Pedestrian” (1951), takes on an icy, funerial note. This is a story about transformation on all levels. Even our passive narrators–Willy and Fitts, who lived their life separated from the status quo immersed in the worlds of the screen–suddenly feel the need to visit the cities rather than retreating back into the wilderness. “Almost the End of the World” (1957) pairs nicely with the more extreme study of technological severance–Theodore Strugeon’s “And Now the News…” (1956).
Bradbury might not be unique in his speculations about how television is but a poor simulacrum for human interaction but his well of telling is always refreshing.
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