An ideal toy! A children's playroom that can transform itself into any part of the world on command. But something goes wrong when little Wendy and Peter use an African wilderness for their own destructive purposes.
Welcome to the world of Ray Bradbury, where fantasy and human drama are swirled together like batter for a cake mix.
Starting this week, the above tale (''The Veldt'') and 12 other Bradbury short stories are being dramatized on National Public Radio's ''NPR Playhouse'' (check local listings for premiere and repeats).
The series - Bradbury 13 - is this author's first appearance on radio. That's almost as astounding as these 30-minute productions, since Mr. Bradbury's science fiction is tailor-made for radio drama. Tailor-made, because settings and situations that might seem labored - perhaps even campy - on the big screen are created with vivid realness in the imagination of the listener.
True, there are two or three duds here (we'll get to those later). A bit of embarrassing overacting, too. And narrator Paul Frees - well, he seems so grimly shaken by the proceedings it might have been wise not to have let him listen.
Nonetheless, here are some of the highlights:
We have a quintessential ''Do I hear someone following me?'' thriller in The Ravine, the first offering. No spaceship/Martian adventure stuff here, just a very scary story. And as with most of the other segments on ''Bradbury 13,'' there's a 1950s feel to it - in part because all the stories were written in the '50s.
Night Call, Collect, on the other hand, has a more clever hook. An elderly man - abandoned for 60 years on a colonized planet - is taunted by an earlier mistake. In part to amuse himself, he once rigged up an elaborate planetwide telephone system that is now pestering him with calls from a younger self.
Kaleidoscope presents a scenario some of us may have mulled over. Highly publicized space walks may have made us wonder what would happen if we were out there . . . and wandered a little too far from the spaceship. Only with ''Kaleidoscope,'' it's a collision that has scattered the crew of a starship deep into space.
Things are not always quite so somber in A Sound of Thunder. A man pays $25, 000 to travel in time to the age of dinosaurs - so that he can kill one. The travel agency has one of those splendid new time machines rigged up, but it's not quite as simple as just taking a whirl in the thing. The dinosaur must be about to be killed anyway by some natural cause - and no other creatures must be disturbed - so that the future isn't changed.
Special plaudits as well go to ''The Veldt'' ''The Wind,'' and ''The Fox and the Forest.''
On the other hand, there are a several stories that aren't worth the half-hour, no matter how comfy the chair is.
There's The Screaming Women - we refuse to believe that even the heartiest of 10-year-old girls could remain so Julia Child-like cheerful while unearthing a neighbor buried alive in a couple tons of rubble. A fault of the direction.
Then there's The Man. Here, a Christ-like figure has arrived on the same planet as a profit-minded spaceship commander, messing up the spaceship commander's plans for a few lucrative business deals. It's not particularly entertaining, and it packs too much superficial preachiness.
The acting ranges from excellent (the work in ''The Wind'' was commendably true to life) to poor (mostly, the problem was cartoonlike emotion in the dramas ''The Veldt'' and ''Dark They Were, and Golden-Eyed'').
Nonetheless, this Whitman's Sampler of Ray Bradbury short stories is, overall , excellent armchair fantasy - so strap on a seat belt.
Ray Bradbury on 'Bradbury 13'
Ray Bradbury is quite pleased, thank you, with ''Bradbury 13.'' He insists he's waited at least 50 years for a series based on his stories to become radio drama. (The programs are a production of Brigham Young University Media Services.)
Mr. Bradbury is perhaps best known for his book ''Fahrenheit 451,'' which is one of several of his works made into films. His writing alone could almost populate the science fiction shelves of an average bookstore.
The other day he spoke about his new series at a press conference linked by satellite to locations across the country. Afterward, I spoke by phone for a few minutes with this master of science fiction.
Ebullient and unwaveringly optimistic, Bradbury says, ''My prediction for the next 20 years is that things will improve steadily and we're going to make it to the end of the century and we're going to be excellent.'' He foresees a rebuilding of small towns, which he feels have been permitted to become badly deteriorated.
''The country will have to be completely rebuilt,'' he feels, to make it more social and fresher. ''We've driven ourselves inside with bad architecture,'' he comments - buildings that turn a cold flat wall to face the street.
''Get people out in the streets like they do in Paris (where its many restaurants lure thousands onto the street every night).''
Looking toward space, Bradbury says he expects the earth will be colonizing other planets. ''There's no use staying on earth because if we stay here too long we're going to die off and the sun is going to get colder, explode or whatever. . . . Space travel is the means by which we leave the seabed and swim out into the universe.''
But when this begins, will we still be reading science fiction?
''Absolutely,'' responds Bradbury. ''Because science fiction is the planning ahead. When we started out in the caves 100,000 years ago we wrote our first science fiction on the walls of the caves. We put our dreams on the walls. . . .
''When we are in space you have to plan ahead when you're moving and when you get to another world . . . you have to dream how to stay there. . . . So it's always the leapfrogging of ideas.''