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six The Remaking of Zero In Ray Bradbury’s 1950 short story ‘‘The Highway,’’ Hernando, a poor Mexican farmer who lives beside a highway from the United States, enjoying such odd fruits of this link to technology as sandals made from tire rubber and a bowl made from a hubcap, is startled by the sudden appearance of cars speeding northward in great numbers, all filled with mysteriously panic-stricken American tourists returning home. At the end of the flood comes an aging Ford, packed with young Americans who stop at Hernando’s shack to ask for water for their failing radiator. The driver explains the exodus: ‘‘The war!’’ he shouts, ‘‘It’s come, the atom war, the end of the world!’’—the tourists are all trying to return to their families. After the young people leave, Hernando prepares to resume his plowing. When his wife asks him what has happened, he replies, ‘‘It’s nothing,’’ and sets out with burro and plow, pausing to muse, ‘‘What do they mean, ‘the world?’ ’’∞ This little parable of nuclear holocaust—it’s hardly realistic speculation, since Hernando’s life obviously will be altered in radical ways that he is unaware of—raises in Bradbury’s best elliptical form some fundamental issues of stories that begin at or near the ‘‘end of the world.’’ Bradbury suggests that Hernando’s simple and apparently self-su≈cient world will continue much as it has (although , one assumes, without the interruption of tourists), while the ‘‘world’’ that has been destroyed is the world of technology and profligate wealth represented by the highway. As in most postcatastrophe fiction, the ‘‘end of the world’’ signifies the end of a way of life, the end of a culture and its system of beliefs—but not the actual destruction of the planet or its population (although this population may be reduced severely). For this reason, it is perhaps most helpful to regard such stories as tales of cosmological displacement: the old concept of ‘‘world’’ is destroyed and a new one must be built in its place. Economic and political systems, beliefs, and behavior patterns are destroyed, 100 GENRES but more often than not the Earth abides, and so, at least in part, does humanity . This type of ‘‘end of the world’’ has occurred fairly often in human history, most obviously in such dramatic genocides as the destruction of Native American civilizations or the Nazi death camps, but also, in a broader sense, such historical movements as urbanization or the Industrial Revolution. Often these endtimes are associated with new technologies or the introduction of technologically superior weaponry, and in fact many of the apocalyptic anxieties of the post–World War II period arose from just such a technological innovation: nuclear weapons. But in the fiction of catastrophe, the world often is transformed by a reversal of this historical process: technologies are removed from the world, rather than new ones being introduced as in conventional understandings of the forward movement of history. Much of the impact of such fiction arises from the speculations that it o√ers about the e√ects of the loss of technology on machine-dependent populations—such as the tourists flowing past Hernando in ‘‘The Highway.’’ Bradbury’s story reveals a number of themes common to post-holocaust fiction. The highway represents the mobility of a society that contrasts sharply with Hernando’s own deep relationship with his plot of land by the river; the larger society, no longer as mobile, will have to learn quickly the value of such a relationship. Technology appears in the story in four guises. First, the ‘‘big long black cars heading north’’ suggest a whole complex of industrial civilization: the availability of mechanics; the dependability of industries that produce and transport gasoline, rubber, metal, and plastic; the e≈ciency of governments in maintaining roads and bridges. After this initial flood of well-kept cars has passed, a second, more ominous image of the same technology appears: the dilapidated Ford, its top gone and its radiator boiling over. While this machine is part of the same society that produced the earlier ones, dependence upon it has clearly become precarious. As it wears out, the car no longer o√ers protection from such discomforts of the natural world as rain, and it must be repaired frequently by whatever means are available—in this case, well-water from a farm. Significantly, the Ford is driven by young people, since it is the young...

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Additional Information

ISBN
9780819571045
Related ISBN
9780819569363
MARC Record
OCLC
726747951
Pages
280
Launched on MUSE
2012-01-01
Language
English
Open Access
No
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