Nightmarish Glimpses of Our Inner Selves
In the few days since his death, the myriad tributes to Ray Bradbury seem to have had one thing in common: a spontaneous eruption of very personal memories of first encountering Bradbury’s fiction, accompanied by an almost touching reluctance to move much beyond that moment of discovery in order to gain any sort of perspective on his overall career or influence. I felt it myself, finding surprisingly vivid memories of first encountering The Illustrated Man in a tattered Bantam paperback or — to this day — walking alone down a suburban street at night and occasionally glancing over my shoulder, wondering if the police were following me à la “The Pedestrian” (once they actually were, and asked me if my car had broken down — they could imagine no other reason for someone out walking at night). When I was on a radio program last week discussing Bradbury, all the callers had similar tales, about many different stories — “Ylla,” “There Will Come Soft Rains,” and of course Dandelion Wine and Fahrenheit 451, which seemed to generate the most comments. Bradbury seems to provoke a kind of visceral nostalgia that makes any effort to assess his place in science fiction or in literature almost irrelevant; he was at least as much a part of our personal histories as of literary and cultural history.
In one sense, though, it shouldn’t be difficult to assess his place at all: we’ve been doing it for about fifty years. It was exactly fifty years ago this month that Something Wicked This Way Comes was published, a novel that formed a significant watershed in Bradbury’s career and reputation. For nearly a decade readers had heard rumors of a major serious novel from Bradbury, not a fix-up of stories like The Martian Chronicles or Dandelion Wine nor an extended novella like Fahrenheit 451, important as those classics had been. But when it came it bore little relationship to the loosely imagined science fiction that had made Bradbury’s prior reputation, instead returning to the dark Gothic matter of the early stories that had been collected in Dark Carnival in 1947 and again in The October Country in 1955 (still my favorite Bradbury book). It would be more than twenty years before Bradbury would publish another adult novel, and by then he had turned his attention to murder mysteries. Short story collections continued to appear, some even including the occasional uncollected Martian story, but for the most part Bradbury had said his farewells to science fiction by the end of the 1950s.
And for the most part, his immediate influence within the genre was centered on the 1950s as well. Those writers who seemed most directly in the Bradbury tradition — Richard Matheson, Charles Beaumont, Rod Serling, and others — saw the bulk of their short-fiction careers in the ‘50s, and when Serling’s The Twilight Zone appeared at the end of that decade, it was awash in Bradbury sensibilities. It’s likely that nearly every science fiction, fantasy, or horror writer whose careers started later had internalized huge chunks of Bradbury (Dennis Etchison’s seminal 1982 collection The Dark Country is dedicated to him), and today we can still identify the occasional Bradburyesque line in younger writers from Chris Barzak to Cory Doctorow to Rachel Swirsky. But I think that, starting sometime in the 1960s, it became less and less relevant to speak of Bradbury’s influence on SF, and more relevant to speak of his influence on American literature in general. He had become, simply, one of the great world masters of the short story, one whose limpid and poetic prose, brilliant titles, and tight story structures became models for everyone. He was afraid neither of overripe sentimentality nor of despairing bleakness (despite his reputation for ebullient optimism, he wrote repeatedly of dystopia and nuclear annihilation), and his greatest accomplishment in the end may have been to convince so many of us to accept and celebrate those stories as stories, and not as genre, nor literary fashion, nor even as art. He was never dishonest about that: he always loved what he did, and we always saw the love in the tale.
It may be that you had to be there. Because something rather interesting has happened. As we would have rationally expected, and has certainly occurred, Ray Bradbury’s death a week ago occasioned a flood of tributes. Some of these are from people like SF and fantasy author John Crowley, who was there in 1950 or so, who was born early enough to have begun to read Bradbury at the age of ten, when Bradbury glowed in his unassailable surely-unending pomp, in magazines not yet yellowed. But — naturally enough, given the long decades since 1950 — most of the Bradbury tributes so far come from friends and readers whose knowledge of Bradbury in his pomp is a memory. This larger moiety has the advantage of being able to see Bradbury and his work as a whole, as an estimable life and a vast career that demands of this group (and properly receives from its members) a proprietary reverence. The long life Bradbury lived, and the hundreds of stories, seem to be one thing: a kind of memorial Venn diagram whose conjoining circles are in fact one circle: only connect. And in the light of this union of vision, in which we can perceive the striations and nodules of seven decades of constant labor as being one thing, those of us who are not yet old are enabled to craft our utterances of respect and retrospect and love for Ray Bradbury, who has now “passed,” as Americans say.
I don’t think this is how John Crowley thought of Ray Bradbury (he certainly got some flak from his youngers for what seemed to them to be a grudging piece); and it is certainly not how I think of Ray Bradbury. We were both there. Crowley (who has forged the way for me) clearly felt he had to attempt to convey something of the extraordinary effect Bradbury had on those who were reading him in and around 1950; but that is only the beginning. Unless he were to lie to us (he did not), Crowley had also to convey something of the drama of Bradbury’s career — I would myself go so far as to call it a tragedy — after 1960 or so. It is not the usual American writer’s tragedy: talent desiccating in the cenotaph wind. Bradbury did not suffer from drought. From 1960 indeed, for another half century, he never stopped writing, never stopped inventing ways to tell a story, never stopped shocking us with a technical dexterity that, even 500 stories on, could seem new-minted. The tragedy — the narrative drama at the heart of his life and career — lies in the fact that Ray Bradbury lost America.
The tragedy is that once upon a time he had America. Or, more modestly, he had an America. Even a young Canadian like myself knew that: knew that he was telling me stories that could not be told about anywhere else; knew that the uncanny plenitude of his world — the scents and horrors and sounds and synaesthesia, and the wind in the chimney with messages of air and omens from somewhere else in the limitless land — was both boundless and local. It was boundless because he evoked with utter sureness the sensation of being one with a reality that both laved us with its bounty but could also kill us (his horror stories were just as central as the sarsasparilla highs we sometimes prefer to remember); it was local because it could happen nowhere else. Bradbury’s world was not the whole of America; we knew that America was way more urban, way more textured, than that. But it was nothing but America. Maybe the greater and more tortured William Faulkner in his prime conveyed something of the same near sublimity in the clutch of the land: stories of universal sanction that could be told nowhere else.
Most of us have favorite tales. The volumes that meant most to me are the usual suspects: Dark Carnival, The Martian Chronicles, The Illustrated Man, The Golden Apples of the Sun, Fahrenheit 451, and The October Country (all published by the mid-1950s). They are the windows. In the dark well of SF that we inhabited then, they were a liquid telling that illuminated us from within: the pool that washed us. Most of them appeared in magazines in the first instance, and several of the books he published with care (he left a large number of tales uncollected) continue to exist, for me, in a kind of eternal summer of sunshine and shadow, of elm canopies, and carrion deep in the Poe hole where something skinned you into naked psyche.
None of the rest of the story was Ray Bradbury’s fault, or not exactly. It is not the job of anyone to understand the world, only to try. If America, history, the world, all began inexorably to grind away at the aleph of 1930s America, where he had hidden his heart for safety, then it may be that his sin, if we are to call it that, was to have hidden his heart too well. He could not retrieve his heartwood sightedness from a world so dissevered from days he could taste. But it is unfair to ask of our storytellers not only that they tell stories better than we can, but that they know more, too. If Ray Bradbury had died in 1955 (Mozart lived no longer), we may have “known” now that we’d lost one of the sayers of the things to come: that he’d have understood us here, where we dwell, how we arrived. What’s in store. But he did not die then; but nor did the unstoppable effervescent rattleboned Ray Bradbury become one of the sayers.
We know he was a lover. Maybe after 1960 the burn was too terrible for a lover like him.
Ray Bradbury could have written about that library: old, looming, doubly intimidating for a twelve-year-old faculty brat invading a college campus. To get to the books you had to leave the reading room and enter a warren of closed stacks. Fiction was hidden on a half floor at the back; you had to go all the way up to the attic, down a narrow passage, and down a rickety metal staircase to a poorly-lit platform squeezed in to hold the overflow. There in the gloom was treasure: the sober hardcover volumes of The Lord of the Rings, not yet discovered by my peers; half-comprehended poetry by someone named Eliot; and, best of all, a set of volumes whose titles alone took you somewhere exotic — Dark Carnival, The Golden Apples of the Sun, A Medicine for Melancholy.
I recall that library with a combination of nostalgia and fear that is exactly the right mix for contemplating Bradbury’s work. At his best, he made sentiment and terror work in tandem, not against one another as in a Gothic novel or in alternation, like Stephen King. The sources of terror in his work are not outside forces or alien beings but rather home, family, neighbors, childhood haunts (that last pun is almost inescapable). Who else would depict a newborn baby as a murderous “Small Assassin”? Or turn a beloved dog into “The Emissary” that brings death into a boy’s sickroom? In “The Crowd,” he transforms sympathetic onlookers at a car accident into ghoulish collectors of pain and disaster. Members of “The Third Expedition” from The Martian Chronicles are betrayed by their own memories of friends and family. In one of his masterpieces, “The Veldt,” an automated nursery brings children’s imaginative games to life — or rather, for their parents, to death.
Bradbury could make the combination work in reverse, as well. His monsters are endearing — even, like green-winged Uncle Einar, almost cuddly. We ache for the lonely dinosaur calling out to a vanished mate in “The Fog Horn.” The chronicled Martians always have our sympathy, even when they are killing off earth invaders. The last-surviving shape-shifter of “The Martian” is a tragic victim of the competing desires of the human villagers.
In his later work, Bradbury forgot the magic formula, and the mixture came apart. His sentiment sometimes became cloying; his monsters parodied themselves. Along the way, however, he produced a number of stories in which the balance was so exact, the fear so entrancing and the nostalgia so piercing, that they became prophetic. We now live in the isolating, media-dominated world of “The Pedestrian” and “The Veldt.” Our possessions seem to have more humanity than we do, like the automated house that goes on long after its owners’ deaths in “There Will Come Soft Rains.” His stories have become bywords, touchstones that help us understand our own manmade terrors. It is hard to find anyone with whom to compare him, but perhaps two of his own favorites will do. Half L. Frank Baum, half Edgar Allan Poe, he gave us a set of utopian fairy tales that are also nightmarish glimpses of our inner selves.
Damon Knight, the first serious critic of science fiction, wrote what I still consider to be the shrewdest assessment of Ray Bradbury’s work, an essay titled “When I Was in Kneepants,” which appeared in the collection In Search of Wonder in 1956. As Knight argued, there were basically two Bradburys who coexisted with one another uneasily: on the one hand, the morbidly rancorous author of the early short stories (gathered in Dark Carnival and The October Country), obsessed with death and terrified of the loud, ugly, confusing modern world; and on the other hand, the hauntingly nostalgic bard of the later 1950s (think: Dandelion Wine, A Medicine for Melancholy), whose wistful depictions of small-town life “threaten[ed] continually to slop over into sentimentality.” These disparate figures, according to Knight, both reflected an essentially childlike perspective on the world:
Bradbury’s subject is childhood and the buried child-in-man; his aim is to narrow the focus, not to widen it; to shrink all the big frightening things to the compass of the familiar: a spaceship to a tin can; a Fourth of July rocket to a brass kettle; a lion to a Teddy bear.
Knight’s tone is sharp but affectionate, admiring but ambivalent — which is precisely how I feel about Bradbury myself. His was the first SF I ever read — a tattered paperback copy of The Martian Chronicles, which I found on my uncle’s bookshelf when I was twelve. I devoured the book with the kind of intense, blissful absorption only possible in childhood reading, and it provided me with some of my first experiences of literary irony: the automated house going dutifully about its business amidst the devastation of nuclear war, in “There Will Come Soft Rains”; the outcast family from a ruined Earth recognizing themselves — by their reflections in a canal — as the only surviving Martians, in “The Million-Year Picnic.” I reread the book many times during my teens and early twenties, but when I returned to it in my late thirties, I found it rather threadbare and, yes, disturbingly sentimental in its seeming longing for a world purged of all the nasty clutter of modernity. Knight is only slightly overstating things when he says that “Bradbury’s Mars, where it is not as bare as a Chinese stage-setting, is a mass of inconsistency; his spaceships are a joke; his people have no faces.” If I can no longer take the same youthful pleasure in the novel itself, I can at least be cheered by the fact that its blithe disregard for up-to-date astrophysical knowledge about Mars reportedly drove Bradbury’s erstwhile mentor, Robert A. Heinlein (always a stickler for scientific accuracy), crazy.
For I think this is Bradbury’s enduring achievement — sparking the decades-long project to liberate the genre from the shackles of John W. Campbell’s hard-SF orthodoxy, the notion that successful works of SF had to remain faithful to contemporary scientific knowledge, if not function as cheerleaders for a technocratic world-view. Bradbury wrote SF not from the perspective of a scientist (as did Heinlein, Isaac Asimov, and Arthur C. Clarke, his most distinguished immediate predecessors), but from the point of view of an average person trapped in a high-tech world and compelled, willy-nilly, to come to terms with it. He is, in short, the godfather of Philip K. Dick, and Robert Sheckley, and J.G. Ballard, and all the New Wave writers of the ‘60s — and, through them, of the slipstream explosion of the past decade, which has seen SF themes and imagery expand across the literary landscape. Bradbury — along with Kurt Vonnegut, his more cynical contemporary — initiated that process of expansion, escaping from the pulp ghetto into the pages of Harper’s and Esquire and The Saturday Evening Post. If he did so by means of an earnest “literariness” that appealed to the likes of Clifton Fadiman and other middle-brow gatekeepers of culture at the time, that does not diminish his historical achievement. And thus it is unsurprising to see, amidst the flood of recent tributes to his work, warm words from Margaret Atwood — who, like Knight, perceives the dual nature of Bradbury’s vision, wedding as it does the perspectives of a “wonder-filled boy” with the Gothic nightmares of his “dark twin.”
Underneath the sentimental gloss — behind the façade of what Knight called Bradbury’s “bright, pert, peppermint-stick people, epicene, with cotton-candy hair and sugar smiles” — there lurks a lugubrious malignancy, at least in his work up until Something Wicked This Way Comes in 1962. He is, in Knight’s wonderful words, “the poet of 20th-century neurosis … the isolated spark of consciousness, awake and alone at midnight,” brooding over the intractable perplexities that all our technological achievements cannot dispel: “the rage at being born; the will to be loved; the longing to communicate; the hatred of parents and siblings; the fear of things that are not self.” His best work showed that SF and fantasy could address these verities in a uniquely piquant and thought-provoking way, and for that anyone who truly loves these genres can only be grateful.
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"Fairy Tales about the Modern World" by by Jonathan R. Eller, Neil Gaiman, Robin Anne Reid and William F. Touponce
Gary K. Wolfe is a science fiction editor, critic, and biographer. He is a winner of the World Fantasy Award, the Pilgrim Award, the Eaton Award, BSFA award and been nominated twice for the Hugo Award for Best Related Book. He has had a monthly review column in Locus since 1991. He currently teaches at Roosevelt University.
John Clute is the author of six volumes of reviews and criticism, most recently Pardon This Intrusion: Fantastika in the World Storm (Beccon Publications, 2011). He coedited The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction (1979; 2nd ed. 1993) and The Encyclopedia of Fantasy (1997), both of which won Hugo Awards for Best Non-Fiction Book of the Year. With David Langford he is currently working on the ongoing third edition of the SF Encyclopedia, online through Orion/Gollancz from October 2011; it won a 2012 Hugo; further information about this project can be found here.
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