Well, like I said I’d do last week, I went to a bookstore and bought some Ray Bradbury — a collection of 100 of his short stories. My 10 year old son is halfway through it, and loves it. I read his tender story “The Rocket,” and adored it. And then I read a later story, “The Toynbee Convector,” because the title intrigued me. The time-travel story has to do with history, free will, truth and human destiny — and it poses a complicated moral question. It’s the kind of thing that typically starts great discussion threads on this blog, so let’s have a go. But because I don’t want to spoil it for people who haven’t read the story, I’m putting everything below the jump. I found on YouTube a three-part presentation, about 20 minutes or so in total, of the old 1980s program “The Ray Bradbury Theater,” in which is presented a dramatization of “The Toynbee Convector,” though one with a fairly important plot change. Before the discussion of the story and its moral, I’ve posted, in order, those YouTube clips, in case you want to watch them (don’t chortle over the low-budget 1980s production values). After which, I have a few remarks about the story and its moral, to jump-start the conversation. I do hope you’ll read on, because it’s a great story, and I hope our discussion will be as well. It’s not necessary to watch the clips to participate in the discussion; I’m going to give the plot summary after the clips for those who aren’t interested in the story itself.Discussion starts below these videos. “The Toynbee Convector,” Part 1:Part 2:Part 3:Here’s the plot summary (the Wikipedia one isn’t entirely correct):The story opens around the year 2100. A reporter, Roger Shumway, is flying to the residence of Craig Bennett Stiles, a 130-year-old man who’s world-famous for having invented a time machine back in the 1980s, and flown into the future. Stiles returned to tell the world that all the great problems that weighed down mankind in 1984 — environmental degradation, and so forth — had been solved in the future. He brought back films and other documentary evidence he’d made of the great, peaceful, clean world of the future. The people of the planet in 1984 were so thrilled to learn it, and regained their faith in the future. Now that 2100 was here, the world had turned out exactly as Stiles told them it would. And people were gathering to watch his time machine burst across their skies, carrying young Stiles from 1984. He had lived more or less as a hermit after his celebrated journey, and never used the time machine again. Now, near the end of his life, and on the anniversary of his epochal flight, he had chosen Shumway to speak with him.The old man tells Shumway that he had named his time machine after Arnold J. Toynbee, “that fine historian who said any group, any race, any world that did not run to seize the future and shape it was doomed to dust away to the grave, in the past.” When the moment arrives to watch the Toynbee Convector blaze across the sky, Shumway and Stiles stand on the balcony of his home and see … nothing.Stiles then confesses to Shumway that he had never traveled through time, that he had made the whole thing up, even concocting the elaborate evidence he’d presented to the world in 1984 to back up his lie that by 2100, humankind had solved its problems. Stiles explains that the people of that time were so burdened by despair and hopelessness that their fear of collapse was in danger of becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy. So he came up with a story to inspire them to do what was always within their capacity to do. Stiles then says to young Shumway:
“You see the point, don’t you, son? Life has always been lying to ourselves! As boys, young men, old men. As girls, maidens, women, to gentle lie and prove the lie true. To weave dreams and put brains and ideas and flesh and the truly real beneath the dreams. Everything, finally, is a promise. What seems a lie is a ramshackle need, wishing to be born. Here. Thus and so.”
Stiles then hands Shumway the evidence of his fraud, and charges him with going out to tell the world that it had been duped. He then climbs into his fake time machine and dies. Shumway leaves the Stiles house, and on the way out, burns all the evidence. [In the TV production, Stiles has prepared a laser-light illusion to make people think that they’re seeing his time machine appear; it’s not clear why the writers of the adaptation did this.] Bradbury writes that Shumway stepped outside into the wonderful world “[t]hat one man with one lie had created.”So, my questions to you are this:Was Stiles “noble lie” morally justified?Was Shumway right to destroy the evidence that the utopian world was built on a lie?What this story speaks to is the need for people to believe themselves part of a grand narrative in order to be motivated to achieve difficult things in the collective. You can well imagine the kinds of things the European settlers of North America needed to believe about themselves and the mission Providence gave them in order to find the strength and the courage to settle this land. More darkly, this narrative gave them the moral justification and the psychological wherewithal to do terrible things to the Indians and others for the sake of fulfilling the national destiny. But which tribes and nations don’t believe themselves to be special in some deep sense, and given a mission among the nations of the world? If they cease to believe these things about themselves, do they not risk falling apart, having given up on their will to survive? (You might say this is the case about contemporary European nations, after the spiritual suicide of the 20th century’s two wars and the loss of their religious faith). Anthropologist Wade Davis, among many others, have recorded how ancient tribes who have come into contact with modernity, and have their mythological understanding of their tribe’s place in the grand scheme of things, often die out. Craig Bennett Stiles did what he did because he wanted to give the despairing peoples of the world something to believe in: their own bright future. Is this so wrong, even though it was a lie?On the other hand, was this not the essence of the communist project? Convincing people that they could create a kind of heaven on earth by their own efforts, if only they believed strongly enough in the future? And look what happened.What seems a lie is a ramshackle need, waiting to be born. Is this Bradbury’s statement about religion, about myth? Bradbury is, I believe, a Unitarian. When you become conscious of myth as myth, it ceases to have its power to motivate and to inspire. Stiles judged that if humankind was going to pull itself out of its despair unto civilizational death, it would need a myth it could believe in. In that sense, was Stiles’ lie not a way of truth-telling, insofar as humankind had within its own power to create the future foretold by his lie?Can you think of anything we believe today collectively that are probably Stiles-like lies? And: isn’t it possible that people of 1984, having been told by Stiles that they and their descendants will have solved the problems bedeviling the world of 1984, would have given up trying and waited for the inevitable?I’m eager to hear what you have to say about all this. Incidentally, here’s a weird synchronicity. I read “The Toynbee Convector” on Saturday night. On Sunday morning, home sick from church, I decided to watch “Terminator 2: Judgment Day” on streaming Netflix. I hadn’t seen that film since it came out in 1991. I was thinking as the narrative reacquainted me with the plot how much it reminded me of “The Toynbee Convector,” but in reverse, sort of. As you might recall, the “Terminator” movies involve a man from the dystopian future coming to the present to inspire (so to speak) a child who will grow up to lead the human resistance to the machines who have caused a nuclear war and are attempting to wipe out humanity. Anyway, in “Terminator 2,” we meet a hopeful scientist who is on the verge of creating an advanced operating system that will make the world more utopian — except what he doesn’t know, but the messenger(s) from the future and those who believe them do, is that shortly after it launches, the operating system will acquire self-awareness, and quickly launch a nuclear war to preserve itself.The name of the utopian scientist? Miles Bennett Dyson. Though I wasn’t able to find online James Cameron, the film’s director and co-writer, saying that there was a Bradbury connection here, that seems too close to Craig Bennett Stiles to be a coincidence.