Ray Bradbury’s short story, “The Veldt”

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My first short story of 2013 as part of my annual project (see here for more details) is Ray Bradbury’s “The Veldt” from his collection of stories titled “The Illustrated Man.” The stories in The Illustrated Man are introduced and linked by the title character, who is covered head to toe in tattoos (or “skin illustrations” as he insists they be called). The first story, “The Veldt,” is introduced by a tattoo of a lion. The story was first published separately in the September 23, 1950 edition of the saturday Evening Post under the title “The World the Children Made.”

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“Handing Over the Reins”

George and Lydia Hadley are, we are to assume, a typical couple of the future. They want the best for themselves and their family and spare no expense when acquiring a sort of “automated” house complete with a “nursery” for their two young children. This is a special nursery, however – one that reads the thoughts of the children and creates whatever landscape or situations they dream up (think of the “holodeck” on Star Trek, only with the programming coming directly from the minds of its inhabitants).

The Hadleys discover there is a price to pay for “turning over” control of their lives to machinery (of course, they ponder this as the mechanism of the house is preparing their dinner ). They are disturbed because the children are spending too much time in the nursery and are apparently obsessed with its setting of an African grassland (the “Veldt” of the story’s title). The lions that inhabit the Veldt give the parents quite a scare when they visit the room while the children are away at a party, and the Hadleys decide it is unhealthy for the children to be interested in a place where there is “so much death.” (The lions are always “feeding on” something and sometimes the parents can hear screams from behind the door that sound “familiar.”)

When they confront the children about Africa, the kids deny that the nursery has that setting. When challenged to “go see for yourself,” the daughter heads down the hall and into the nursery, which then produces a lovely forest scene. The kids are hiding something. Willfully. Perhaps they are rebelling because they were denied “a rocket trip to New York” referenced earlier, or perhaps they have just reached “that age.” Whatever the reason, the elder Hadleys are concerned and consult a psychiatrist, who recommends they shut down and dismantle the “nursery.” They agree, but did they wait too long?

(below: Claire Bloom & Rod Steiger in the Veldt from the movie version of “The Illustrated Man”)

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I found a copy of this story on line at http://www.veddma.com/veddma/Veldt.htm  Give it a read. It’s not very long.

When reading this story, I was reminded a bit of Kurt Vonnegut’s first novel, Player Piano (which I’ve blogged about before), where protagonist Paul Proteus discusses the industrial revolutions that have taken place in human history: the first one produced machines that devalued human muscle, the second one, devalued human routine mental work, the third one – currently in progress, he argued in 1952 – would produce machines that devalue human thinking. The Hadleys have accepted the machines of this third wave, even turning over the duty of “babysitting” to machines – with predictable results.

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Have you read Bradbury? Any favorite stories? Have you seen the (often critically panned) movie adaptation of The Illustrated Man (with Rod Steiger and Claire Bloom)?

(below: the edition of The Illustrated Man that I own)

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The Latest “Checker Charley” – or something more ominous?

A week from this Thursday I’ll be attending the Kurt Vonnegut Memorial Library Book Club meeting to discuss his first novel, Player Piano. I’ve already posted about the book, which anticipates a future where the scale is about to tip in favor of the machines of the world, but coincidentally I’ve also learned this week of a new, real life “challenge” to human-based intelligence.

An IBM supercomputer dubbed “Watson” is going to play a game of Jeopardy against two of the game’s greatest human champions. This is reminiscent of the Kasparov-Deep Blue chess matches (and – perhaps less so – the appearance of “Checker Charley” in Vonnegut’s book), but this is also different. Chess and Checker playing programs are able to use “brute force” calculating power to defeat their human opponents. “Watson” must be able to use language recognition and other skills further up the artificial intelligence food chain.

IBM was running commercials this past weekend during the NFL playoff games and will no doubt get tons of publicity as a result of this event. I know I’ll be tuning in next month to watch, and I know who I’ll be rooting for. But… Just like watching Kasparov and other chess grandmasters face off against computer programs in the 90’s, I know that – even should one of Watson’s human opponents win – it’ll still be just a matter of time before the computers will overtake “us” in this field of competition as well.

I cant help wondering this morning what Kurt Vonnegut would be thinking about this. I also wonder what he thought about the computer vs. Human chess matches years ago. I’m going to have to do a little research on the latter, as I’m sure he would have had something to say about that.

Below is a link to an article about the match. It seems Watson has already won the practice round…

http://www.technewsworld.com/story/Mild-Mannered-Watson-Skewers-Human-Opponents-on-Jeopardy-71651.html?wlc=1295218211&wlc=1295352224

Player Piano by Kurt Vonnegut

sab-o-tage
Function: noun

1: destruction of an employer’s property (as tools or materials) or the hindering of manufacturing by discontented workers
2: destructive or obstructive action carried on by a civilian or enemy agent to hinder a nations war effort
3: a: an act or process tending to hamper or hurt b: deliberate subversion

Player Piano was Kurt Vonnegut’s first published novel (1952). It describes a future America where a second Industrial Revolution has run amuck and a third one is nascent.  A schism is growing between people with “know how” (particularly engineers, but generally those with higher IQs) and those without (who are assigned menial jobs or to the army, or to the reeks and wrecks – kind of civilian manual labor force). To me, this sounded a lot like Huxley’s “Alphas” and “Deltas” from A Brave New World. (in fact, I read that Vonnegut ‘cheerfully admitted’ ripping off plot elements from that classic. BUT, there is no Soma drug in Player Piano to keep everyone pacified, and you don’t hear citizens walking around proclaiming “I’m glad to be in the Reeks and Wrecks!” as Huxley’s Deltas did.

The “upper class” of engineers and “smart people” enjoys greater privileges than their less gifted brethren, and the novel’s protagonist, Dr. Paul Proteus, and his upwardly mobile wife, Anita, are no exception. Proteus, however, is ironically smart enough to sense something is not right with the way things are, and has second thoughts about being a willing part of this social structure. He learns of a growing “resistance” movement in opposition to the
current state of affairs, and eventually becomes swept up in it.

Part of the consequences of this is that he is condemned as a saboteur – the worst thing one can be in this dystopian society.  This term is particularly apropos considering the popularly accepted origin of the word. Legend has it that, in the early years of the actual Industrial Revolution, disgruntled French peasants, who were gradually losing their livelihood due to the emergence of weaving machines, would destroy them by throwing their wooden shoes (“sabots”) into the works of the machines. (below: Sabots – I can’t imagine they’re very comfortable)

This was a consequence of the first Industrial Revolution, described by Proteus in the book as “devaluing muscle work.” The second Industrial Revolution is one that “devalues routine mental work.” Proteus’s secretary wonders aloud “do you suppose there’ll be a third Industrial Revolution?” To which he replies,  “A third one?  What would that be like?”  She says,“I don’t know exactly. The first and second ones must have been sort of inconceivable at one time.”    He says, “To the people who were going to be replaced by machines, maybe. A third one, eh? In a way, I guess the third one’s been going on for some time, if you mean thinking machines.  That would be the third revolution, I guess – machines that devaluate human thinking.”

While reading this book, I often caught myself pausing and kind of staring off into space as I pondered some of the ideas and themes within.  It’s a good book that can do that to the reader, I think.  The subject matter was somewhat depressing to me, as a card-carrying rat-race participant, but it’s better to think about these things instead of simply burying one’s head in the sand and “trying NOT to think about them.”

This book was also re-published with a different name (Utopia 14 – see pic below) to play to the Sci-Fi crowd and increase sales. I’m not sure which Vonnegut book I’ll read next, but I plan to continue to work my way through them this year…

What about you?  Have you read Player Piano or other books by Kurt Vonnegut?  What were your impressions and which were your favorites?

Checker Charley and Deep Blue

What a shock this morning as I was reading Kurt Vonnegut’s first novel, Player Piano. I’m only about 20% into the novel when I encounter a great scene. ***Spoiler Alert*** At a kind of ‘company party’ the protagonist, Paul Proteus prepares to defend his title as undefeated, undisputed checker champion against the latest challenge from among the ranks of the young lions who work at The Ilium Works. Lo and behold, what happens next but they wheel out a checker-playing machine dubbed “Checker Charley!” (I should mention that this book was written in 1952, in the mere infancy of the computer age.)

At first Proteus begins to walk away from the challenge, (“I can’t win against the damn thing. It can’t make a mistake.”) but is somehow convinced to play. His friend, Finnerty, is confident in his chances and even wagers money on Proteus, eagerly covered by supporters of the machine. When the game starts, Proteus suspects something is up, as he is able to capture a man without seeing any drawbacks. He assumes that the machine’s plan is so long-range and deep that he simply doesn’t grasp it yet. The captures continue, however, and soon the rout is on. Clearly something is wrong with the machine. It’s operator touches a panel and explains it’s running “hot as a frying pan.” The machines backers try to get out of the bet, arguing that if its circuits were sound, the game would be fair. (Finnerty, it seems, had discovered the bad connection before the game, but hadn’t told anybody). When chided that he “should have told somebody about that connection,” In a great triumph of man over machine, he says:

“If Checker Charley is out to make chumps out of men, he can damn well fix his own connections. Paul looks after his own circuits; let Charley do the same. Those who live by electronics, die by electronics. Sic semper tyrannis.”

I love it. I’ve written before that I used to compete in chess tournaments, and was quite serious about them for many years. I even was editor of “Chess in Indiana” magazine for a stretch which included the year 1997. This part of Player Piano reminded me of how, In May of that year, the inevitable finally happened when a computer, IBM’s “Deep Blue” (a less catchy name than “Checker Charley,” don’t you think?) finally defeated the World Chess Champion (Garry Kasparov in this case) in a match. I remember following the match on the Internet Chess Club, along with thousands of others. I even saved a screenshot of the final position of the final game – which included the notification that Kasparov had resigned and published it in my magazine.

An odd thing I just remembered: the display of the games on the Internet Chess Club site would default to showing the White pieces at the bottom of the board, but in my picture, it is the Black pieces (users were able to customize the display if they wanted) leaving little doubt as to which side of the contest I identified with. 🙂

How prescient this scene of Vonnegut seems when reading it today. It predates the ultimate defeat of man by machine by 45 years.

Below: Kasparov vs another incarnation of Deep Blue

Sent from my iPad

December Reading- The Month Ahead

I have a lot of reading “obligations” this month. So many I’m not sure if I’ll get done with them all. I am currently working on a book called The Warded Man by Peter Brett. Yet another in a recent bent of “post-apocalyptic/dystopian” novels for me. I’m a little over halfway through this one and am enjoying it immensely. I heard of this book through a fellow blogger.

I also have a Project: Civil War book I’m just getting started with, The Class of 1846: From West Point to Appomattox. This is my eleventh Civil War book of the year, and I don’t see how I’ll get through it AND another one to make it to my goal of twelve for the year. Another incomplete project .

As far as book club books go, my main club, The Indy Reading Coalition, is reading Greg Iles’s The Quiet Game. This is “due” by 12/23 and rather long too. I really need to knuckle down and get reading if I hope to finish it. Then, on top of all that, the KVMLBC (Kurt Vonnegut Memorial Library Book Club) is meeting on 12/16 to discuss Player Piano. I had to miss last month’s meeting due to some training classes for work, and I may have to miss this one to as next week we are implementing the system that the training classes were for. A curse on system conversions and upgrades! :-). I plan to read the book nonetheless, as I did with Mother Night (the KVMLBC’s November selection).

Oh, and I also just bought an interesting, very short book titled The Bed of Procrustes by Nassem Nicholas Taleb. A great book of thought-provoking aphorisms. Only 68 pages, but very deep.

What about you? What are you reading this month? Do you find you get more reading in during the holiday season or less?