Reading THE TOYNBEE CONVECTOR is a bit like watching Willie Mays in his last season, a shadow of his former self. The analogy is not exact; unlike athletes, writers do not necessarily decline as they age. Still, the author of these stories--the Bradbury of the 1980’s--could not write a book like THE ILLUSTRATED MAN or THE MARTIAN CHRONICLES.
The title story, “The Toynbee Convector,” is typical of the collection. It is set in the late twenty-first century, and the world it depicts is much more hopeful than our own. How has this transformation been brought about? Late in the twentieth century, a man named Craig Bennett Stiles pretended to travel into the future, “returning” with tapes and films which he had faked to simulate a glorious world free of pollution, free of war. The time traveler’s benign trickery was accepted by the millions who watched his televised report on the future: Thus inspired, humankind proceeded to make Stiles’s lie a reality.
The story is a fable, then, meant to counter the negative thinking that has characterized so many state-of-the-world assessments in the 1980’s. Given that intent, it would be unfair to fault Bradbury for a lack of realism, yet even on its own terms, as a fable, the story does not work. The language is trite, the sentiments are saccharine (in a typical bit of overkill, the time traveler speaks of a world which has “cured cancer and stopped death”); there are no individual details to animate the reader’s interest.
Bradbury is an attractive ambassador of optimism, whatever hat he is wearing. (Among current Bradbury projects mentioned in the dust-jacket blurb, one in particular stands out: “He has been asked to help design a twenty-first-century city to be built near Tokyo.”) What he offers in THE TOYNBEE CONVECTOR is blueprints for stories, sketches from an idea man, not vital engagements with language.