Rod Dreher

Rod Dreher

Truth, history and the Toynbee Convector

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.

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John E - Agn Stoic

posted May 17, 2010 at 8:37 am

Was Stiles “noble lie” morally justified?
Was Shumway right to destroy the evidence that the utopian world was built on a lie?
The noble lie worked – that is justification enough. Shumway probably knew his society well enough to know whether or not destroying the evidence was a good thing.
If that society had been strong enough, perhaps he could have shown the evidence and everyone could have had a good laugh about the irony. If not, the evidence was best destroyed.
Today’s noble lie is that despite the evidence that we are running out of cheap energy, that we are populating ourselves beyond our means, that industrial chemicals are be poisoning our air and water, that the nations of the world are running on unsustainable debt, somehow we will all muddle through and everything will work out okay.
Not all that different from Bradbury’s story, really…
captcha: yummiest end

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posted May 17, 2010 at 9:17 am

“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.”
Harlan Ellison taught James Cameron to keep quiet about such things.

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John in Austin

posted May 17, 2010 at 11:48 am

Rod, you have me wondering if my own 10 year old son would enjoy Bradbury.
What a great premise for a story. As a rule, I abhor the idea of the ends justifying the means, and I celebrate the quest to uncover the truth; this story challenges both of those tendencies.
I would say that Stiles’s “noble lie” was an extremely wise gamble, but not morally justified. If his account of the future had served only to reinforce society’s complacency, we would see Stiles as a loathsome fraud. So, can the morality of an act depend entirely on its outcome (especially if that outcome is unpredictable)? I am still inclined to say No.
I am still mulling over whether Shumway’s destruction of the evidence was right. I would probably do the exact same thing, though.
This topic reminds me of the discussion over whether Father Arseny was a real person, and whether it matters. I am especially averse to the “useful lie” when it involves influencing someone’s faith. But if the survival of civilization were at stake, would that change the morality of the lie? Hmmm…
(Captcha: “serbians members”; I am thankful that the first word did not include an apostrophe)

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Chris P

posted May 17, 2010 at 12:13 pm

John, I must respectfully disagree. The ends cannot justify the means. Doing wrong is doing wrong. There is a difference between setting up a “vision” for the future – giving people a goal and lying to them and allowing them to justify based on “fact”. The latter commits one to a certainty the former only points them in the direction.

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posted May 17, 2010 at 12:22 pm

I think there’s some confusion going on here about the nature of stories, and the kind of truth to be found in them. Bradbury isn’t suggesting we seriously consider the morality of propaganda in the service of a goal that seems worthwhile–at least I don’t think he is. That is the same kind of earnest, tortured literalism that, when applied to the myths of our past, has destroyed all possibility of gaining any wisdom from the tales told by our ancestors.
Bradbury gives you several clues that what he’s trying to say here is “tell better stories!” Here, for instance:
“Well, it was in my library late one night that my hand, searching along shelves, touched at last on an old and beloved book by H.G. Wells. His time device called, ghostlike, down the years. I heard! I understood. I truly listened.”
A writer who calls on the spirit of Wells is not calling on us to consider how much we should lie to people (or ourselves) for our own good. Rather, he is pointing out that the vision we hold for ourselves is what creates the future. He’s saying what Robert Kennedy said: “There are those who look at things the way they are, and ask why… I dream of things that never were, and ask why not? ” And he’s saying what was said of Frodo in the film version of “The Lord of the Rings”: “Even the smallest person can change the course of the future.”
Bradbury challenges us, provocatively, by calling his stories “lies.” Consider that. Consider the difference between story and lie, between story and propaganda. A lie destroys truth, destroys hope. A story creates the reality that it embodies. The danger there is that stories create devastation as easily as they create hope. The stories you tell yourself are remaking you every day, whether you know it or not, just as the fake time machine carried its world into a real future.

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John E - Agn Stoic

posted May 17, 2010 at 1:02 pm

Chris P, I think sigaliris above has the correct response for both of us.

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Franklin Evans

posted May 17, 2010 at 1:09 pm

Excellent thread, Rod. More, please? ;-)
There’s a bit of a spoiler for Farenheit 451 in the last paragraph below, for those who have not read it or seen the movie yet.
In mulling over my favorite stories (of any medium), I find a personally significant common theme amongst nearly all of them: Each plot seems to ask — and answer in different ways — about the balance between reality and desire.
Our culture has not worked that out, despite the “jump-start” provided by the founders. Equality and liberty, as concepts, require strong, objective standards. Ours is not the first society to attempt that, nor can our success be a source of much pride, given how difficult it was and remains to hold to those self-evident truths the founders thought they’d found.
As a storyteller, Bradbury chose to define the morality of his story by a balance: One man sees a way to improve (and even save) his society, and sacrifices the truth to bring it about. Implicit in the story is Stiles’ conscious sacrifice of his own integrity to accomplish his goal. I compare this to many modern situations, some of them real-life (!), where the perpetrator of the original lie comes to believe the lie. Stiles did not go that far. One could say (and I am saying) that Stiles took it upon himself to be the keeper of morality as the only one alive who knew the truth.
Since Bradbury’s work is the primary focus here, I suggest a direct comparison with the emotional and perceptual journey of the “fireman” Montag in Farenheit 451. He starts out believing the same lie as almost everyone else. He ends up abandoning his comfortable, mainstream life to live the truth.

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Karl G

posted May 17, 2010 at 2:05 pm

Our world is actually currently saturated by such lies- the only difference, though is that they’re pointing the wrong way; discouraging us from achieving greater ends or worse as in the case of much commercialism, designed to get us to achieve great profits for others rather than ourselves.
The Communism example you noted serves as a brilliant case in point. The biggest reason it failed (not saying that it would have otherwise succeeded; in such cases success can be characterized as a long string of things that didn’t fail) was that, whatever the original intention, the real lie behind it was that the leaders creating the narrative were more interested in their own personal comfort and profit than they were in believing their own words. They used the lie , not to create a better society, but to cement their own grip on power and justify oppression.
And that’s true across the board. When such narratives begin to work, they have a huge amount of power, and even if the initial holder of that power is secure from corruption, power attracts those that will do whatever they can to twist it to their own profit and squander that power on their own personal avarice.
Bringing up the Lord of the Rings as someone did up above is also pretty relevant in this context. You just have to remember this one point- Frodo failed to destroy the ring; he failed to resist its corruption. The good forces only won there because of the self destructive nature of evil, not because good was able to resist it to the end.

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Tisa White

posted May 17, 2010 at 2:20 pm

“Some rules apply in every case:
–One may never do evil so that good may result from it;
–the Golden Rule: ‘Whatever you wish that men would do to you, do so to them.’
–charity always proceeds by way of respect for one’s neighbor and his conscience…….it is right not to…do anything that makes your brother stumble.” (Catechism of the Catholic Church para. 1789)

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Erin Manning

posted May 17, 2010 at 2:51 pm

This story isn’t among my Bradbury books; I’ll have to read it, as it sounds intriguing.
As to the moral question:
I’d like to see a sequel, in which Shumway or some other character visits an alternate/parallel universe in which Stiles’ lie has had the exact *opposite* effect–that is, that the lie that everything was going to be grand in the future had made the people of the present sit on their duffs and do nothing to fix their current problems, because, hey, at some point some future dudes were going to solve everything. In this reality, the future is chaotic, uncertain, and violent, and Stiles lives in impecunious disgrace, having been discredited long ago.
Because, of course, the problem with a “noble lie” is that *without* a working time machine one simply can’t forecast the probable outcome–reason enough from a pragmatic, if not a moral sense, to avoid such things.
The things that are wrong are wrong for good reasons. For how long did various bishops buy the “noble lie” that sex offenders could be rehabilitated, for instance? It was what they wanted to believe, and it was told in opposition to the evidence, but what disastrous consequences have followed from the belief in that lie! There are dozens of other examples from history of leaders or politicians or generals spreading some “noble lie” about the strength of the enemy, or the importance of adopting some piece of legislation (temperance, anyone?) or the necessity of getting involved in a war or conflict. (Recent past: there absolutely *are* WMD’s in Iraq which Saddam Hussein absolutely *does* intend to use against American targets.)
The nobility of a “noble lie” is always going to be in the eye of the beholder. The ignobility of the same will usually be a matter of historical record. And if, in Bradbury’s story, it’s important that evidence of the lie be obliterated for the sake of society, then perhaps the future isn’t as good as everyone thought it would be.
[Captcha: slowest return]

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John in Austin

posted May 17, 2010 at 3:22 pm

Erin, I agree with most of what you said, and I like the suggestion of the alternate universe with the opposite outcome. Now, in both scenarios, let’s say that you are Shumway, and you have access to an actual time machine. In the universe with the dystopian outcome, you will probably feel compelled to go back to 1984 and expose Stiles as a fraud.
What about the universe in which everything turned out just peachy? Would you have a moral obligation to travel to the past and prevent the world from being duped?
(Captcha: “wights new”; Not much. Wights new with you? [couldn’t resist])

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Major Wootton

posted May 17, 2010 at 11:36 pm

“Live not by lies.”
–Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn

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Matt Cardin

posted May 18, 2010 at 12:04 pm

Excellent post. Thank you, Mr. Dreher.
Want to hear some more interesting synchronicities? A few days ago on my Facebook page I posted a link to that same Slate story about Bradbury. Afterward, while doing some online browsing, I found your online comments about the story and your announcement that you were planning to dig into Bradbury’s work. Okay.
Just today I read a new blog post by Irish journalist Brian Kaller at his peak oil-based blog Restoring Mayberry, about the hope that Hollywood might be able to provide us with some more hopeful visions of the future than the ones typified by Mad Max, the Terminator Movies, The Road, and so on. The post inspired me to write a post to my own blog, The Teeming Brain, in which I linked to one of your columns from 2007 (“Reaching our peak oil supply”). Again, okay.
After completely writing and revising the post for publication, I had the nagging feeling that I wanted to mention Bradbury’s “The Toynbee Convector,” which has been a very meaningful story for me ever since I first read it circa 1989, not long after the collection with that title was published. So I added the reference and then did an online search for an appropriate page to link to, for those who aren’t familiar with the story. And thus did I stumble across your post here.
Methinks the collective unconscious is having a good laugh. Thanks again for the stimulating thoughts.
(My blog post, incidentally, is at

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Matt Cardin

posted May 18, 2010 at 12:09 pm

Oops — bad URL above with that period included in it. Sorry about that.
My Toynbee-featuring post is at

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Erin Manning

posted May 18, 2010 at 2:02 pm

John in Austin, sorry I didn’t see what you wrote sooner! I would just point out that the principles of time-travel fiction would make the effect of the traveler’s actions conveniently unpredictable–e.g., in the “messed up” future the time traveler might actually *cause* that future by warning people about Stiles, or in the just-peachy world his failure to warn them about Stiles might change that future into something grim even though it looked fine to him when he observed it.

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Steve in NYC

posted May 24, 2010 at 5:12 pm

You might like to know that the Bradbury story “Way in the Middle of the Air” (in the anthology you have) has a very touching sequel “The Other Foot” found in the collection “The Illustrated Man”.
Both deal with race relations, basically of the South. The sequel is about reconciliation.

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