‘The Pedestrian’ by Ray Bradbury (1951)
Collected in Brave New Worlds: Dystopian Stories, edited by John Joseph Adams, Night Shade Books, 2011-12, 2nd edition, approx. 4-5 pgs (p. 191-195).
There’s nothing Leonard Mead likes more than walking by himself through the streets. Sometimes he wanders by day, but he enjoys his late-night stroll around the neighbourhood, when the streets are deserted and everyone is at home in their dark houses, watching their televisions. Leonard Mead enjoys walking – just walking.
Written by the famed author of Fahrenheit 451 and The Illustrated Man, Ray Bradbury, as mentioned in this story’s introduction, has “more than 400 published stories to his credit” [p. 191] and this is an incredibly short, though effective, example of one of them. Despite its simple premise, ‘The Pedestrian’ is loaded with plenty of food for thought. One man’s harmless, perhaps even dull, enjoyment of strolling the pavements of his neighbourhood, an action completely unremarkable by itself, becomes a source of concern and transgression to an increasingly isolated society.
This is a short example of the dystopian form of science fiction (a movement that seems to be growing even today) wherein a society is depicted as negative in some way. Damaged, counter-productive, oppressive, hostile, empty, soulless. Dystopias, like their opposite utopia, can come in all shapes and sizes, both on Earth and far away from home. They can be set in the future (such as Octavia Butler’s excellent duet, The Parable of the Sower and …Talents, and Anthony Burgess’ A Clockwork Orange), or set in our world but one changed (Philip K. Dick’s Axis power-ruled The Man in the High Castle, or a changed religious America in The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood), they can post-apocalyptic (The Postman by David Brin) where the world has already collapsed and may be trying to rebuild, or they can be set in restrictive societies where everyone must conform or else (1984 by George Orwell). It’s a sprawling sub-genre of science fiction and one which has many, many examples to its name for all the many dark and twisted forms it can take. This short, ‘The Pedestrian,’ is a great example of how dystopia can be concerned with the simplest subjects.
Leonard Mead enjoys strolling his neighbourhood on a night, and sometimes during the day. He is a writer, though that’s not really considered a job in his world, and is unmarried. He isn’t as transfixed with televised entertainment as the rest of the populace. When his neighbours are at home in their dark rooms at night, watching their shows, he prefers to leave his well-lit house and walk around aimlessly. He takes pleasure in this simple hobby. He is certainly alone in this activity, as he notes “he had never met another person walking, no one in all that time,” [p. 192] with all that time being the ten years he has carried out this daily exercise. For Leonard, this is an individual experience, truly individual. He shares it with no one, because no one cares, and he does it totally alone, causing no mischief to himself or others. On a nighttime, the world around him is “tomb”-like [p. 192], as his neighbours stay home. He doesn’t do it as a message to anyone, he isn’t encouraging them to leave their sets behind and join him, he just walks by himself. A completely harmless past-time.
For Leonard, even the experience of breathing freezing cold night air into his lungs, uncomfortable as it is, is pleasurable too. He will stop and lift up a leaf from the pavement and look at it, smell it, let it drop. He experiences. He experiences the things around him by actively engaging with nature, in the easiest way possible: walking. He just looks, breathes, wanders, thinks. Then returns home. He does nothing malicious, though he occasionally mocks his neighbours obsession with TV shows – but only internally and to himself. He “listen[s] to the faint push of his soft shoes through autumn leaves with satisfaction” [p. 192] and experiences the little things in life; such as the quiet, compared to his day strolls when the cars racing on the roads fill the air with roaring sounds. The silence of the night, and the flickering of light from his neighbours’ homes is peaceful. It is almost lonely, and there’s perhaps an eeriness there too. The pavements are unkempt and cracked, overgrown, as people hardly walk on them anymore, they’ve been left to rot. To us, this could be seen as unsettling, but to Leonard this is his world. A world where people don’t really walk anymore. And they certainly don’t walk for no reason. This is where Leonard’s troubles lie.
The crime rate, we learn, has dropped so much (again, likely due to people’s lack of wandering or doing much else other than the agreed upon obsession of television and use of vehicles to get around), that there is now only one police car on the roads. Leonard encounters this machine during his stroll. Its mechanical voice immediately begins to interrogate him. Its electric light beam shines on him blindingly. His relaxing stroll is disturbed. Leonard keeps it pleasant, however. When the vehicle asks him what he’s doing, he has a calm and friendly demeanour, replying that he is “just walking” – which the vehicle finds hard to believe. The vehicle – and it is just a vehicle, as Leonard notes there is no driver, and so is automated – continues to question him. What alibi does he have? If he has no wife to verify he is ‘just walking’ then something must be wrong.
Ironically, the vehicle isn’t that dissimilar from Leonard. It is alone, “wandering and wandering the empty streets.” [p. 193]. It rolls around the streets looking for crime, whilst Leonard meanders with no real purpose. It is the lack of purpose that is considered wrong here. The vehicle does not like that Leonard can’t give a concrete answer. He can’t explain why he does what he does. Leonard’s enjoyment of strolling isn’t particularly easy to describe. It relaxes him, probably, and it’s more engaging to him than sat in a dark house watching television, but why that is for him and not so for everyone else is hard to pinpoint. The vehicle has a purpose, even if the need for the police car has dropped dramatically; its wandering makes sense. When Leonard says he walks to ‘take the air’ [p. 193], the vehicle can’t comprehend: isn’t there air at home? Yes, there is. He mentions he walks ‘to see.’ The vehicle asks if he doesn’t have a “viewing screen” [p. 194] at home to ‘see’ with. He says he doesn’t. The vehicle seems surprised. This lack of conformity, where the non-conformer is seen as something odd and to be feared, is a common concept in dystopia – how many dystopian protagonists break the mould, on purpose or accidentally, to be met with aggression by the dystopian society itself? Leonard experiences this too. He does nothing harmful. He doesn’t threaten the society on purpose. He’s one man walking. A simple action. Bradbury turns a man’s enjoyment of just walking into something the dystopia here fears. It’s weird. Why would you walk without purpose?
Ultimately, the vehicle decides to take Leonard to the “Psychiatric Center for Research on Regressive Tendencies” [p. 194]. Leonard climbs into the empty vehicle and is ferried away through the night streets, passing his home. It looks “square and warm in the cool darkness” with its “loud yellow illumi[nated]” windows [p. 195], setting his home apart from his darker neighbours’ dwellings. He doesn’t resist much, just sadly observes as his house passes him by. It is a warm, lived-in place. His house doesn’t conform to his neighbours’. As he is taken away, the vehicle has deemed his harmless, meaningless exercise a ‘regressive tendency’ – implying he has somehow regressed to some animalistic practice which should be observed and analysed under a psychological lens. It makes one wonder: why do we do what we do? What makes us all conform like the neighbours? Or what makes us, like Leonard, just enjoy somethings meaninglessly? Is it transgressive, or natural? If machines, like the vehicle, are made with purpose, do we also have inherent purpose in ourselves, in our actions, or is this humanity and its inexplicable quirks seen under a machine lens? A machine cannot comprehend something meaningless, so it sees it as a mistake, or an error. Bradbury presents us with a society so obsessed with meaning, even if its a boring meaning (to sit at home and watch television in a dark house makes more sense than exercising ones legs and enjoying their surroundings), so long as there’s a purpose. The one sole individual who just enjoyed walking for walking’s sake is taken away and so the streets are empty again.