Nerdclave’s Classic Spec is a regular look back at formative short science fiction and fantasy from the 19th and 20th centuries, in order to keep them alive for modern genre devotees.
Ray Bradbury’s The World the Children Made, later re-titled The Veldt, was far ahead of its time, which might not be good news.
SPOILER WARNING: Some plot points must be discussed in order to unearth The Veldt’s themes. The story is not particularly long, and for reading-averse there are some particularly great audiobook recordings. For instance, the Stephen Colbert reading at Symphony Space in New York manages to give the story’s outdated technological predictions a whimsical spin, which breathes new life into the story for those who read it previously.
First published in the September 23, 1950 issue of The Saturday Evening Post, The World the Children Made (The Veldt) has managed to stay alive in the minds of reader for more than 60 years. With themes still relevant today, its influence extends beyond readers alone.
Written in lucid and unobtrusive prose characteristic of a science fiction master from the old school, The Veldt accomplishes many things at once. It deals with complex themes such as distrust in technology’s supposed comforts and paranoia over losing control of one’s children, while introducing us to a mystery involving a bananas-for-the-time concept.
That brings us to our jumping off point, and we wish to warn you again that spoilers do follow. Go read it quick. We’ll wait.
”I wish you’d look at the nursery.”
George and Lydia Hadley are the happy owners of a new Happylife Home, and the happy parents of twins Peter and Wendy.
The story opens with the quote from the line above, except preceded with George’s name. We learn that the nursery is a room that projects a hologram, and through various technological contraptions, a full sensory experience. We’ll get to the obvious comparisons to Star Trek: The Next Generation in a bit, but it’s important to keep in mind that this was a new concept at the time.
It seems like the parents don’t care much for the room–it’s more meant for children, they think. Except they keep hearing screams coming from it lately. And when they go to investigate, after the very quick opening, they’re struck with an African veldt instead of the serene fantasy land their children had been playing in.
What’s more, when the parents try to turn the room off they’re unable. They cannot even dim the sun or cool the air, and in the distance they see lions. The beasts are cleaning up their last meal, but they stare the adults down, ready for their next.
The story’s remainder is funny, terrifying, and eerily convincing even today. George and Lydia attempt to confront their children and find out the truth. What have the children made in there?
Distrust in Technology
Bradbury is not shy in his metaphors, depicting the story’s most technologically advanced element as a cruel and hot African veldt. Mankind began there. We rose up through our mastery of nature. Now, the mastery is a detriment.
This love/hate relationship with technology did not originate with The Veldt or Ray Bradbury. Certainly, one could say it started with Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. In fact, Asimov coined the phrase “Frankenstein Complex” in 1947, just three years before The Veldt.
It’s relatively safe to say that it is a theme touched upon at least once by every significant science fiction author from Bradbury’s era onward. Of course, it’s just another form of the age old adage of “power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely.”
But The Veldt deals with distrust in technology in more than just the sense that technology is a visible threat. It works in, with George’s and Lydia’s discussions about their disillusionment with the Happylife Home, dissatisfaction with comfort–a novel concept in its own right. Here, George discusses shutting off the house’s automated systems, including the nursery, with Peter.
“I suppose I have been smoking too much.”
“You look as if you didn’t know what to do with yourself in this house, either. You smoke a little more every morning and drink a little more every afternoon and need a little more sedative every night. You’re beginning to feel unnecessary too.”
Lydia’s stereotypical 50s-housewife association of self-esteem with cleaning skills notwithstanding, this is one of a few telling exchanges depicting the couple as unhappy with having nothing to do. There’s an irony there. A bitter twist.
It’s not quite clear what makes George so nicotine dependant lately, but there are certainly clues. Taking the flippant comment above, about 50s housewives, a bit further: one must consider the male role at the time. Bradbury raised a question of the utmost importance to heads of households at the time, even if they themselves were not aware yet of it.
When technology empowers both us and our children equally, is there an important division being lost?
Losing Children to Technology
Echoing back to the Frankenstein complex–growing distrust in the technology we create–The Veldt shows growing distrust in the biological beings we create.
Science fiction is great at predicting the future, especially in abstractions, because by removing itself from strict reality it has freedom to better concentrate on universal themes.
As a group, who adapts easier to new technology than children? In 1950, Bradbury had a front row seat to see how well children took to television, at the time a relatively new invention. One that was becoming the focus of the house, and one that children took to like fish to water.
Recent studies have shown that kids today sometimes have better technology skills than life skills. And in a reversal predicted 64 years ago, children are the ones teaching adults these days to use technology.
And of course, there’s no telling if this is a good or bad thing, as cases could be made for either side. One could argue that parents cannot accurately predict what their children need in terms of knowledge, because their own knowledge is based on past demands. On the flip side, what is there to differentiate parent from child, if parents lose the reins? If technology can one day provide everything a child might need, then what do they need parents for?
And so, the themes collide. Brilliantly.
Here is an exchange between George and Dr. McClean, the children’s psychologist, starting with George explaining what might have put the kids in a bad mood.
“Does that mean anything?”
“Everything. Where before they had a Santa Claus now they have a Scrooge. Children prefer Santas. You’ve let this room and this house replace you and your wife in your children’s affections. This room is their mother and father, far more important in their lives than their real parents. And now you come along and want to shut it off. No wonder there’s hatred here. You can feel it coming out of the sky. Feel that sun. George, you’ll have to change your life. Like too many others, you’ve built it around creature comforts. Why, you’d starve tomorrow if something went wrong in your kitchen. You wouldn’t know how to tap an egg. Nevertheless, turn everything off. Start new. It’ll take time. But we’ll make good children out of bad in a year, wait and see.”
It’s somewhat chilling to see the youth revolt of the 1960s just 10 years later, when Peter and Wendy would have been prime flower child age if the story had somehow taken place in the 50s instead of the future. Practically speaking, Bradbury had to have used children from the time of his writing The Veldt as his inspiration, children who listened to Fats Domino and the origins of rock and roll. Contrast this idea of children being overindulged and “spoiled,” through technological comforts like television, with the backlash against traditional power structures that came in the 60s.
It’s a stretch, but not Yoga-level. Because this idea of holding children back, stomping on them in fact, is repeated throughout The Veldt, as is the alternative of spoiling them. But then, that has its own onion layers.
There’s no utterance of the phrase, “spare the rod, spoil the child,” but the concept is tackled and challenged from several angles.
George represents discipline. He punished the children before, which is perhaps what led to their resentment and behavior, taking away a trip to New York, a “picture painter,” and the nursery itself.
Lydia shows compassion, maybe a little too much. Although she instigates the story with her prompting George to look at the nursery, and she’s practically shivering with maternal worry throughout, one could argue that Lydia contributed to the children’s attitudes as much as George.
Dr. McClean plays centerfield. He starts with nonchalance, seeing this as all a big to-do over nothing, and then shifts as soon as he sees the veldt itself. Similarly, he supports the nursery at first, and then it’s his suggestion that it be shut off. McClean helps the reader commit to disliking the nursery with his tie-breaking, as it were, third vote.
Read as George and Lydia discuss their children as if they must be managed delicately, a tone integral to the story and in itself a commentary on the parent-child dynamic.
“It’s supposed to help them work off their neuroses in a healthful way.”
“I’m starting to wonder.” He stared at the ceiling.
“We’ve given the children everything they ever wanted. Is this our reward—secrecy, disobedience?”
“Who was it said, ‘Children are carpets, they should be stepped on occasionally’? We’ve never lifted a hand. They’re insufferable—let’s admit it. They come and go when they like; they treat us as if we were offspring. They’re spoiled and we’re spoiled.”
“They’ve been acting funny ever since you forbade them to take the rocket to New York a few months ago.”
“They’re not old enough to do that alone, I explained.”
“Nevertheless, I’ve noticed they’ve been decidedly cool toward us since.”
But as the parents struggle to decide between what technology is harmful or helpful for their children, similarly questions arise about the two adults. Remember, Lydia tells George she feels she does not belong in the Happylife Home, and she suspects George feels the same. She explains how she feels the house has filled her roles, of wife, mother, and nursemaid.
She’s expressing her feelings of not being important anymore to her children, but there’s also a general sense in the story that George and Lydia are unfulfilled with the house. George himself says it toward the end, when it’s too late. He announces that the nursery will be left off, and furthermore, George intends to shut down the entire house, saying “Now we’re going to really start living. Instead of being handled and massaged, we’re going to live.”
Compare this to much earlier in the story, when George and Lydia first step inside the nursery and encounter the veldt.
One could take this as highlighting the dynamic between the house, the nursery, and the actual African veldt, including how it’s depicted within the story. We humans came from that harsh environment and have been running ever since. We have devised ways to get out of the heat and to protect us from the elements, but there’s always a primordial fear in our minds linked to survival. When we hear the roar of an apex predator, our first thought is fight or flight.
That this environment exists inside of the pillar of technological comfort is cruel irony. Consider also that the parents wonder if it would be better roughing it, yet they fear the epitome of roughing it–the veldt and its terrors.
Given the story’s conclusion, learning to fear new apex predators in this growing, technological environment may be the story’s greater statement.
Influence on Future Science Fiction
Well, we mentioned Star Trek above. Here you have it. Star Trek: The Next Generation premiered in 1987 with a pilot that featured a scene showing off a new technology: the holodeck.
Bradbury managed to scoop Star Trek, an intellectual property famous for predicting the future, 35-plus years ahead. Even more impressive, The Veldt beat the original Star Trek series by more than 15 years. Not that the show could have actually afforded, or even created, such effects.
Years later, one can see the same unique concept of technology stripping humans of a necessary experience–effort–in Wall-E. In the Pixar movie, our species is pampered to the point of near self-extinction.
At one point in The Veldt, Peter tells his father, when George discusses shutting off the house, that “I don’t want to do anything but look and listen and smell; what else is there to do?” Peter would have been at home with the blubbery, small-boned humans of Wall-E’s future.
Also of note is that Bradbury published There Will Come Soft Rains the same year. The story is about a smart (for the time) house, narrated from an objective perspective, and it too ends badly for humans. This is definitely a year for skepticism from Bradbury, and the writer was part of a larger trend that flowed from the era’s fears, of technological power and those who controlled such powerful technology.
The Veldt is still considered one of Ray Bradbury’s best. You can find it collected in The Illustrated Man along with more of Bradbury’s classics. Its ruthless approach to technological fear is forever legendary.
And it lives on to this day. We see shades of it and its contemporaries in nearly every speculative work from the last half a century. But The Veldt, in particular lives on for its daring vision of not only a smart house but of a holographic nursery/holodeck, as well as the drawbacks that such marvels might bring.
Disagree with the take above, share your thoughts below. What did you think of The Veldt? If you had a holographic nursery, could you think of a worse place for playtime than an African veldt?