By Dr Oliver Tearle (Loughborough University)
‘The Flying Machine’ is a 1953 short story by Ray Bradbury, included in his collection The Golden Apples of the Sun. Often analysed as an allegory for nuclear proliferation during the Cold War, ‘The Flying Machine’ is in fact a subtler story than this critique implies, and so its symbolism requires further analysis and interpretation to be more fully understood. It is a story in which a Chinese emperor discovers a man has developed a machine that enables man to fly, and promptly orders for the machine to be destroyed and its inventor put to death.
Before we analyse the story, though, let’s take a closer look at what happens in it.
‘The Flying Machine’: plot summary
The story is set in imperial China in the year 400 AD. A servant rushes to tell the Emperor Yuan that he has seen a man flying in the sky. A farmer in a nearby field has also witnessed it. The Emperor does not rush to see this sight himself, but instead insists on drinking tea and sitting with the servant for a while. When the servant eventually insists that the Emperor see the flying man, Yuan agrees.
When he has seen this man flying high above in the sky like a bird or a dragon, he commands the servant to go and shout up to the man to come down to earth again and present himself before the Emperor. The Emperor asks the man what he has done, and the man replies that he has flown in the name of innovation. Yuan, unhappy with this answer, commands his guards to seize the man and execute him.
When the man asks why he must die, the Emperor responds by showing the man a miniature wind-up world full of tiny people which Yuan himself has created. That is beautiful but it does not pose a risk to civilisation the way the flying machine does. If such a device fell into the wrong hands, an evil man might use it to fly high above the Great Wall of China and drop huge stones upon it.
As the flying man is taken off to be beheaded and Yuan’s servants begin burning the flying machine, Yuan tells the servant who witnessed the man flying that he is to forget he ever saw it, and that he must tell the farmer who witnessed the flight the same thing. If word gets out to anyone, Yuan will have them both killed.
The story ends with the Emperor admiring his wind-up world full of tiny people and praising the tiny birds in the toy garden he has made.
‘The Flying Machine’: analysis
Quite a few of Ray Bradbury’s short stories from the early 1950s, when he wrote ‘The Flying Machine’, are allegories for the Cold War and, in particular, the arms race between the United States and the Soviet Union. With the development of the atomic bomb during the Second World War, both superpowers had seen how nuclear weapons provided a new method of waging war on one’s enemies.
Another of Bradbury’s stories from this era, ‘The Golden Kite, the Silver Wind’, is also about the arms race but takes place in ancient China, where two cities are locked in a constant state of one-upmanship as they try to best or destroy their rival by devising the shape of their city to resemble something capable of outdoing the other.
That story’s allegorical message is more straightforward, however. The two cities end up running themselves into ruin in their determination to outdo their rival. The ‘message’ of the story is clear: the Cold War is a pointless and self-destructive undertaking for both sides.
But ‘The Flying Machine’ raises more difficult questions. Is the Emperor right to destroy the machine and its inventor, because, as he claims, one man’s death is better than a million people potentially dying as a result of his invention? After all, if the flying machine symbolises nuclear armaments, surely we have to conclude that Yuan was right to suppress this dangerous new contraption capable of changing the world forever and potentially killing untold numbers of people.
But of course, the allegory is subtler than this. Bradbury goes out of his way to portray Yuan as a petty tyrant intent on controlling everything within his empire. He is obsessed with the miniature world he has created with its tiny people, over whom he has complete control. His last words in ‘The Flying Machine’ are in praise of the birds he has created: miniature flying machines which exist in his carefully controlled microcosm of his empire. He sees the flying man’s new invention as a threat to the stability of this world. He is a tyrant worried about losing his grip over his empire, rather than someone necessarily worried about the possible deaths of his own people.
At the same time, he may well have a point about the flying machine making it possible for mass death and destruction to follow, if the contraption were to fall into the wrong hands. Just eight years before Bradbury wrote ‘The Flying Machine’, the US had used flying machines – fighter planes – to drop two atomic bombs on the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, leading to the deaths of thousands of people.
Yet, curiously, the very argument that Yuan gives for destroying the flying machine – that it is better for one man to die than for millions to be allowed to be killed – is a common one in time of war, and is often mentioned in connection with the dropping of the bombs on Japan. The attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki claimed thousands of lives, but may have saved millions of others, by bringing the war to an end. (Famously, shortly after the attacks, the Japanese emperor addressed his people as he got ready to surrender, informing them that the war had developed in a way not necessarily to their advantage.)
So ‘The Flying Machine’ is a story which encourages us to ask some important moral questions about the relationship between technology and morality, rather than offering any clear-cut moral answers to these ethical questions. And that is one reason why it is so deserving of study and analysis.