This story takes place in A.D. 400, with Emperor Yuan of China inspecting his dominion. One morning, his servant enters his chambers and tells him that he has seen a miracle. The Emperor names numerous ordinary things - such as the color of the sea, the sweetness of the air, or the taste of his tea, as possible miracles that the servant is referring to, but the servant insists that it is something greater. The servant reports that he has seen a man fly. When the Emperor insists that he was merely dreaming, the servant asks him to come with him and look up at the sky.
When the Emperor went outside and looked up at the sky, he did in fact see a man flying. He had large paper wings that were vibrant and colorful, and the man looked like the largest bird he had ever seen. The Emperor was awestruck by the sight, and he asked his servant to call the man down to earth. It is unclear what the Emperor wants with the man, but the general impression is that the Emperor is very impressed and wants to praise the man.
When the man lands on Earth, the reader discovers that the Emperor actually wants to do something drastically different than praise the inventor. The Emperor asks the flying man, "What have you done?" and the man responds, "I have flown in the sky, Your Excellency" (1.) This answer is not satisfactory to the Emperor - in his eyes, the man has done much more than fly into the sky. He believes that despite the beauty of the device, its creation opens the door for malevolent interpretations of the flying machine.
He asks the flying man who knows about this, and he finds out that this man is the inventor and the only one who knows about the creation. Upon hearing this, the Emperor leads him into the palace, and there he calls his guards to detain the man. The inventor and Emperor's servant are both very surprised - they never expected that the Emperor would disapprove so strongly of the beautiful creation.
Once the guards have seized the inventor, the Emperor calls for the executioner. The inventor is terribly confused. He does not know why he is being killed for doing something so beautiful, especially something that the Emperor also believes is beautiful. The Emperor explains to him that he fears that an evil man will manipulate the technology and destroy its beauty - for instance using the flying machine to throw rocks down upon the Great Wall of China. The Emperor says to the inventor, "There are times when one must lose a little beauty if one is to keep what little beauty one already has" (2.)
The inventor begs for mercy, but the Emperor shows none and orders the executioner to kill him. He orders his other guards to burn the flying machine and dispose of it with the inventor's ashes. The story ends with the Emperor playing with his own invention, a miniature version of his empire where men walk through the valleys and forests and birds flew through the sky. With this creation, the Emperor is in control the entire time and is never forced to be vulnerable.
In "The Flying Machine," the ethics of technological improvement with no clear goal in sight is called into question. Written in 1953 in the midst of the Cold War and nuclear proliferation, these were important questions when Bradbury was writing, and they continue to be important questions today. How can technology be developed responsibly, and who would be accountable for this type of responsible development? Should inventors consider the possible negative ramifications of an invention, or should they proceed by only focusing on the benefits of it?
It raises the important question of how, and if, technology should be monitored and regulated. While there are risks and drawbacks to developing the Flying Machine, the contraption also creates a lot of beauty and releases it into the world. Bradbury's story introduces the concept of weighing the rewards and drawbacks of technology, as well as the negative sides of censorship, which in this case result in the death of the inventor of the Flying Machine. We rarely hear of the invention process being stopped because of negative externalities. Should that be reported and talked about more often? These are ideas that Bradbury would like for us to debate.
If inventors do not think about these possible side effects or choose to move past them, is it then the government's responsibility to step in and censor ideas? It would be seen as very controversial for a government to halt progress simply because they believed that it had the possibility to create evil (and that possibility was not guaranteed). This story forces us to examine censorship from all angles, especially because the censorship ends in the tragic death of the inventor. Is it really protecting society in this case?
The story also examines the idea of beauty. The Emperor adores his invention that allows him to watch the controlled, fake motions of the people living in his Empire. They walk as they should walk, the birds fly as they should fly, and everything operates under his control in this idyllic toy-like microcosm. He finds great beauty in it, and he revels in the idea that he controls all of the actions of these people. The device does not force him to be vulnerable. He is able to maintain constant control.
The beauty produced by the Flying Machine trivializes the Emperor's possession, but it also scares the Emperor because he cannot control it or account for all of the unexpected consequences that the machine could produce. Does beauty need to be controlled in order to be in its ultimate form, or are the most beautiful things unpredictable? These are questions that "The Flying Machine" forces us to ask ourselves.