Sunday April 20, 2008

Fact-checking Ray Bradbury

James Lileks dug up an amazing bit of pop-culture this week: a TV commercial in which none other than Ray Bradbury appears, hawking Sunsweet pitted prunes.  No kidding.  Check it out:

At the end of his post (it's the most recent one at the moment, the permalink isn't working) Lileks writes, citing Bradbury's own words, "It's true: he didn't mention prunes in any of his stories."  But is this true?  The answer may shock you!

Using Amazon's Search Inside! feature, I was able to find four Bradbury books that contain the word pruneSomething Wicked This Way Comes (1962), Death is a Lonely Business (1985), A Graveyard for Lunatics (1990), and Farewell Summer (2006).  The last three books are certainly later than the commercial, which appears to be from the 60's, or maybe the 70's at the latest.  But what about Something Wicked?  If the Sunsweet ad post-dates that novel, we'll have proof.

But how can we firmly date the commercial later than 1962?  It certainly looks more late-60's than early-60's to me, but it's hard to know for sure since the design of the ad is, after all, supposed to look futuristic.  The mention of "the year two thousand and one" suggests that the ad must have been produced after the release of the film 2001, but that's just a guess.  Fortunately, the producers included a bit of footage at the end that provides a clue.  Look at this screenshot from the end of the ad:

The vehicle being launched here is from NASA's Saturn series of rockets.  From the lack of a command module at the nose of the rocket, we can tell that it's one of two launches: either the AS-203 launch (also known as Apollo 2) or the Apollo 5 launch.  It's hard to tell from the low-resolution YouTube video, but I believe it's AS-203, since that vehicle had a stubbier nose than the somewhat longer Apollo 5, which had to be large enough to carry a Lunar Module.

AS-203 was the earlier of the two launches, occurring on July 5th, 1966.  This places the Sunsweet ad a number of years after the publication of Something Wicked This Way Comes, which suggests an unsettling conclusion: that Ray Bradbury lied to us about prunes—or more precisely, about prunes.

Bradbury may have a defense, though.  In all of the examples cited above, including Something Wicked, Bradbury uses the word prunes but never actually refers to literal prunes.  In each case, prunes appear only in metaphors or similes:

... long wrinkled thing like a prune or a big grape lying ...  (SWTWC)
... heart fall over like a prune. ...  (DiaLB)

... and shriveled into a Mongol prune!" Groc laughed, and I was ...  (AGfL)
... "My stomach's a prune! They'll have to feed me ...  (FS)

Is this defense sufficient?  That hinges on whether you consider such figurative use of the word prunes to be "mentioning prunes".  This strikes me as uncomfortably Clintonian meaning-of-is-is hair-splitting, but you'll have to decide for yourself.

[True Story:  Once, in high school, I got to see Bradbury give a lecture at CalTech, during which he recommended James Burke's excellent TV series Connections, which, if you haven't seen it, appears to be available on YouTube.]

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This is an awesome post!

Posted by: Mark at Apr 20, 2008 1:07:31 PM

True Story: Ray Bradbury once gave me sex advice.

I was a band-geek in high school, and one of the mothers of one of the other kids in the marching band was an agent. Bradbury had a reading at a local community and my friends mom hosted him for an after party. I few of us showed up after playing the halftime show for our high schools football team to find him holding court next to a keg. At some point in the conversation he advised me never to read a sex manual. Which was odd because we were talking about writing at the time, as one might expect. Actually, his point was valid and relevant in that he was encouraging direct experience rather than indirect experience via reading as being more fundamental to quality writing. He did not mention anything about prunes at that time to the best of my recollection. This was probably the fall of 1978 or so.

Posted by: Merteger at Apr 21, 2008 2:24:49 PM

He's not mentioning prunes. He's mentioning things that are *like* prunes.

Bradbury would never lie to us.

Posted by: The Ridger at Apr 23, 2008 12:05:25 PM

He got the televisions just about right, but what happened to the pneumatic people-tubes?

Posted by: The Ridger at Apr 23, 2008 12:12:21 PM

You don't have pneumatic people-tubes yet? Wow, you must live in tube-over country.

Posted by: The Tensor at Apr 23, 2008 2:08:15 PM

Hey Tensor-
I saw that Bradbury speech too! 2000 Caltech Commencement? Or did he come some other time as well?

Posted by: JB at May 12, 2008 9:01:17 PM

I saw that Bradbury speech too! 2000 Caltech Commencement?

No, it was in about 1987 at some dinner-and-lecture series (at the Atheneum, I think).

Posted by: The Tensor at May 13, 2008 12:57:13 AM

That's actually a mildly famous commercial, one of many written and produced by the great Stan Freberg (who does the voice-over on this one).

Posted by: Ralph Hickok at Jul 12, 2008 2:19:02 PM