Thursday, 7 June 2012
Ray Bradbury, who died on Tuesday, was the last giant of the ‘golden age’ of science fiction literature, the era in which many of the genre’s themes and devices, already developed over the preceding decades, began to be used as a common currency which could be directed towards more richly personal and metaphorical ends. Brian Aldiss, writing about The Martian Chronicles in his history of SF Trillion Year Spree, points to Bradbury as being ‘the first writer to recombine the old props in his own way’. The prelude, Rocket Summer (with its assigned date, 1999, creating a nostalgia for futures that never were) is justly celebrated for its poetic evocation of a brief, technologised Indian Summer caused by spaceships departing for the red planet. It’s typical of Bradbury that such a futuristic scene should be observed from the pre-modern perspective of an ‘Ohio winter, with doors closed, windows locked, the panes blind with frost, icicles fringing every roof, children skiing on slopes, housewives lumbering like great black bears in their furs along the icy streets’. The rocket takes off, turning snow to hot rain and ‘making summer with every breath of its mighty exhausts’. It ‘made climates, and summer lay for a brief moment upon the land…’ This vignette shows how Bradbury used SF devices to draw poetic similes, in a metaphorical manner, and to create moods and atmospheres. He had little interest in scientific accuracy, and was always at variance with the approach of the writers to be found in John Campbell’s Astounding Magazine. There’s an amusing moment in an episode of The Simpsons in which class swot Martin proposes the setting up of an after school science fiction group, where they can discuss the likes of Asimov and Heinlein. ‘What about Bradbury’, someone pipes up. ‘I’m aware of his work’, Martin says, with an airily dismissive wave of the hand. The Martian Chronicles, whose alternative title The Silver Locusts is a more accurate articulation of Bradbury’s symbolic language, was originally a series of loosely linked stories published separately in pulp SF magazines like Thrilling Wonder and Planet Stories, subsequently ‘fixed-up’ to form a novel. Bradbury was always more of a short story writer than a novelist. Even longer works like Dandelion Wine and Something Wicked This Way Comes have an episodic rhythm, with the feel of discrete stories held together by a common cast and setting. Even Fahrenheit 451 was originally published in serialised segments in Galaxy Magazine (as The Fireman), along with two connected stories which are generally excluded from published versions of the novel. The tendency to point to the novel as the ultimate form of literary achievement has resulted in Fahrenheit 451 being presented as the central work in Bradbury’s career, the one upon which his reputation beyond the genre walls rests. This is a shame, since it is a fairly simplistic variant of Aldous Huxley’s dystopia on the society of mass production and consumption, Brave New World, shorn of its irony and wry humour. The refusal to admit that any media other than books could convey ideas and meaning with anything like the same degree of complexity or depth was in one sense a defence of his own profession (although he did write for the cinema too), and his passion, but also suggested a shying away from the modern world, and a refusal to confront its possibilities.
All of which makes it odd that Bradbury is regarded as a science fiction writer at all. His early stories were published in Weird Tales, and thus suggest more of an affinity with the fiction of HP Lovecraft, Clark Ashton Smith, and with contemporaries like Fritz Leiber and Theodore Sturgeon. His ur-texts were more Edgar Allan Poe and Mark Twain than HG Wells and Jules Verne. Many of his works partake of the trappings of American gothic, although he was too generous of spirit to ever get really nasty in his horror stories (although some, like The Skeleton and The Jar show delight in the macabre). Some have found this generosity to verge on soft-hearted sentimentality on occasions, particularly in the later stories of the 60s and onwards, when establishment led to a certain mannered repetition of familiar themes. Brian Aldiss, in Trillion Year Spree, writes of a ‘somewhat teddy-bearish view of the Universe’. His stories ‘are perfect in their way, and their way is the way of Wind in the Willows. They belong to an imaginary American past where every town had wooden sidewalks, every house a verandah with a rocking chair, and every attic a dear old Grandma fading out under the rose-blossom wallpaper’. In the story I Sing The Body Electric, which he later adapted as a Twilight Zone episode, this grandma turns out to be a robot, a manufactured ideal, but an ideal nevertheless, who is eventually accepted by her reluctant charge. The reference to the Walt Whitman poem in the title further indicates the extent to which Bradbury’s imagination was rooted in a pre-modern America. Many of his stories take place in mid-Western settings, like the Ohio of the opening page of The Martian Chronicles, or the Illinois of Dandelion Wine and Something Wicked This Way Comes. Bradbury himself was born in Illinois, moving with his family to Los Angeles at the age of 14 in 1934, as his father looked for work during the depression. His mid-western childhood and early adolescence stayed with him and was reproduced in his fiction, as if he were trying constantly to fix the memory of a lost Eden, a time of blissful innocence and joyful simplicity. His stories often featured young protagonists, with late summer or early autumn atmospheres portending the imminence of profound and not necessarily welcome change. Urban locales and the incursions of technology are almost always portrayed in a negative light, their baleful influence damaging to the human spirit. Perhaps this was a reaction to the rapid, unstoppable growth of Los Angeles in the pre- and post-war periods when he was living and writing there, which utterly obliterated its previously semi-agrarian landscape. John Sladek wickedly captures Bradbury’s styles and concerns in his pastiche Joy Ride, as by Barry DuBray. Here, an old man tells his grandchildren of the good olden times before the telco – the telephone company – took over the government, banned letter writing and forced everyone to wear personal phones. Fleeing from the Telco police, they retreat into an old hangar where an old mail plane has long since fallen apart. The old man tells them to get on board and go for a joy ride, and the boy seems to get caught up in the imaginative flight. “‘I can see it, Grandpa!’ he yelled. ‘Just like you said: There’s a carnival and cotton candy and the Cub Scout weenie roast and a band concert in the park. It’s a fine day and the flag’s flying over the schoolhouse and kids are playing sandlot baseball and Mom’s making popcorn balls…’ The cops blow the place up with their laser ‘telecommunications magic’ before the kid can finish rhapsodising.
My favourite Bradbury books are The Silver Locusts (of course, and I prefer that title), Dandelion Wine, Something Wicked This Way Comes, and The Halloween Tree, along with the short story collection The October Country. As the titles suggest, late summer and autumn are the quintessential Bradbury seasons, and also the ideal time at which to read his stories. The Halloween Tree, with its dream flight across the world and through time to observe different seasonal traditions, and cultural responses to death and the spirit world, is perfect All Hallow’s Eve reading. Dandelion Wine is perhaps the best and most rapturously sustained of his small town reveries. Its central poetic conceit of summers past captured in the bottled glow of racks of dandelion wine inspired me to try my own hand at brewing some – alas, to disappointing effect (the elderflower, on the other hand…). Something Wicked This Way Comes is a fine variant on the dark carnival theme, also to be found in The Cabinet of Dr Caligarie, Jack Finney’s The Circus of Dr Lao and, later, in the Hammer film Vampire Circus, in which sinister sideshows offer the curious glimpses into the darker corners of their souls. It was made into a film in 1983, with a script by Bradbury, and was not wholly unsuccessful, under the direction of Jack Clayton (previously responsible for The Innocents in 1961) in capturing some of the novel’s spirit. Bradbury also expressed satisfaction with Francois Truffaut’s adaptation of Fahrenheit 451 in his profile in Charles Platt’s collection of interviews Dream Makers, saying ‘I think it’s a beautiful film, with a gorgeous ending. A great ending by Truffaut’. This is interesting, since that ending (which he seems to be specifically attributing to the French director) is often seen as going against the grain of the book by having the recitors, who have each learned a particular literary classic, walk around in circles speaking the words in dull and lifeless voices. The words in books can also be drained of meaning and emotional expression, Truffaut seems to be saying, perhaps in the end defending the validity of the medium which he loved so much. Bradbury had no regard for the 1969 anthology film The Illustrated Man, however, which adapted his stories The Long Rains, The Veldt and The Last Night of the World, calling it ‘a horrible film’. He himself wrote the script for Orson Welles’ 1956 film of Moby Dick, which gave him the chance to provide his own take on an American classic which had fuelled his own imagination, and to further prove his literary credentials. Joe Dante’s TV series Eerie Indiana was also a modern take on Bradbury’s regular siting of the small town as a locus of the weird, with its two youthful protagonists a contemporary and slightly more knowing incarnation of his wide-eyed kids, receptors for the wonders and weirdnesses which surround them. Bradbury’s influence can be found in many successive generations of writers (and film-makers), many of them great favourites of mine. It’s there in some of Harlan Ellison’s stories; in Stephen King’s small town stories; in the poetic language and symbolic imagery of the 60s novels and stories of Samuel Delany and Roger Zelazny; in the novels of James Blaylock, particularly Land of Dreams, which transports Bradbury's mid-west small town magic to Pacific Coast Northern California; in the wistful and whimsical Twilight Zone stories (and in their declamatory titles and introductions). This is particularly the case with Charles Beaumont’s Elegy, in which three astronauts find a replica of small town American life on a barren asteroid, an idea with a macabre twist which echoes The Third Expedition from The Martian Chronicles; and with Rod Serling’s A Stop At Willoughby, in which an unhappy modern executive takes a train which stops off at an idealised nineteenth century small town. Neil Gaiman’s American Gods is also suffused with the spirit of Bradbury, as are films like Groundhog Day and Pleasantville. It’s a spirit which found strangeness and the miraculous within the seemingly ordinary, and thereby recognised that, when you examine it closely enough, nothing is really ordinary at all. Everything is infused with the strange and the wonderful. Ray Bradbury helped us to discover it.