The Toynbee Converter, by Ray Bradbury first appeared in the January 1984 issue of Playboy magazine, along with Kurt Vonnegut’s essay, The Idea Killers.
Kurt felt Freedom of Speech was under attack. He’d been deemed by the Civil Liberties Union as the most censored author of his time. The Religious Right had targeted his books for “immoral” ideas, even though, as Vonnegut pointed out, they likely hadn’t read any of them.
We see similar patterns today in 2022, with book bans happening across the country. It’s as if we’re still living in 1972.
And, while Vonnegut was concerned with censorship, Bradbury’s sights were set upon the dystopian giants, H.G. Wells and George Orwell. Both had predicted ominous, horrible futures within their iconic storytelling.
Challenging these story lines, The Toynbee Converter is about a mysteriously reclusive time traveler, who upon his return from the future, proclaimed there was nothing to fear, and all tomorrows would be bright and optimistic.
Certainly, a rebuke of both 1984, and The Time Machine.
As you will see, Bradbury’s references to Wells and Orwell are not subtle. For example, Bradbury perfectly timed his submission to Playboy to coincide with the date of Orwell’s, 1984.
From The Toynbee Converter ...
“… a special bottle of red Burgundy with the label 1984 …
The now harmless 1984 vintage was ready for airing.”
Later in the story, Bradbury begins his own “airing” of 1984, which he surreptitiously made harmless by altering the story's outcome.
As antithesis to Vonnegut advocating for Freedom of Expression, Bradbury seems to be arguing that if The Time Machine portended positivity, and if 1984 had never been written, the world would be better off today.
From The Toynbee Converter, Craig Bennett Stiles when asked why he had lied …
“Because I was raised in a time, in the sixties, seventies,
and eighties, when people had stopped believing in
themselves. I saw that disbelief, the reason that no
longer gave itself reason to survive, and I was moved,
depressed, and then angered by it.”
“Everywhere, I saw and heard doubt. Everywhere, I
learned destruction. Everywhere was professional
despair. Intellectual ennui, political cynicism. And what
wasn’t ennui and cynicism was rampant skepticism and
This is Bradbury unleashed, arguing through his character, that if we only are told optimistic stories that instill a belief in oneself and a better tomorrow, all will be well.
The very idea of dystopia, once loosed upon the world, can never be reconciled, Bradbury seems to have been thinking.
Ray, 63 at the time, was making a commentary for times of his generation, and if you listen carefully, it sounds the same today.
“You name it, we had it. The economy was a snail. The world
was a cesspool … Melancholy was the attitude. The
impossibility of change was the vogue. End of the world
was the slogan."
Sound familiar? It’s almost as if Ray Bradbury were still alive. Things haven’t improved, obviously. But I don’t blame Orwell or H.G. Wells for it. Humans have a propensity to fuck things up all by themselves, dystopian stories set aside.
So, I side with Vonnegut on this one. Freedom of Expression is paramount to progress. Ideas can be good, bad, or evil. But we can’t eliminate them, and often we can’t tell them apart.
Banning books and ideas is the equivalent to having surgically precise lobotomies. I prefer to live with knowledge of the world around me, not live in a fantasy land of perfection that can never be achieved, no matter how optimistic a person might be.
Humans are far from perfect. It’s when we think we are that gets us into trouble.
Sure, we’re at a crossroads, and things look dire. There’s no denying it.
But even if H.G. Wells hadn’t invented the Time machine, or Orwell hadn’t written 1984, I doubt things would be better now. They could even be worse.
And aside from the obvious elephant(s) in the room, it’s hard to imagine the world getting much worse.
In the words of Craig Bennett Stiles …
“Go to bed at night full of bad news at eleven, wake up in the
morn with worse news at seven,”
A profound conundrum indeed, but I still hold out for the promise of a better future.