Tag Archives: ray bradbury

The thin grasp of reality (Ray Bradbury’s poetic SF)

In my first year of undergrad, I was deeply offended by a dismissive sentence in my English lit textbook, setting aside all ‘genre fiction’ — mysteries, science fiction, fantasy, horror — as not being for the literati or being great, interpretive, artistic literature. It’s been 15 years, so I honestly don’t recall the wording. But something to that effect.

I was offended, of course, because I was 18 and a science fiction and fantasy fan, and all 18-year-olds are easily offended by people who challenge the stuff they like. Nonetheless, even if a lot of SF is pure escape (which may still be art, after all), a lot of it is also great literature. If only more people read it!

I am slowly, one story every once in a while, working my way through Ray Bradbury, Stories, Vol. 1. Whenever anyone disregards the entire genre of science fiction, dismisses it with a sniff, looks down his’er nose at it in scorn, I think fondly on Ray Bradbury and his poetic science fiction. This morning, I read his story ‘No Particular Night or Morning’. This is a snapshot of life aboard a rocket ship in the vast emptiness between the stars. One character, Hitchcock, has started to lose his grip on reality. If he can’t see it, can he know it’s real? Does earth exist — has it ever existed? The sun? Yesterday?

Soon, he begins to doubt the very fabric of the present moment. Are the people in the next room real? Is his friend Clemens, standing in front of him, real? How can Clemens prove his reality to Hitchcock?

One of the things that makes good science fiction very good is when it is a story that needs its imagined context. That’s a tall order at times. One could imagine a similar story to this aboard a sea vessel. Yet in the sea there is still day and night. In space, there is nothing but an endless night. The psychological effects of long-term, interplanetary space travel would probably be grievous. But they are rarely explored in the staples of our SF diet, not in Star Trek, barely in Battlestar Galactica.

You can read this story as just a psychological thrill, the horror of deep space.

But it penetrates to one of the big questions of human existence, interstellar or earthbound.

How do we know what is real? Why do we trust our memories? Why do we trust our senses? Why trust our reason? Indeed, can we trust our memories, senses, reason? Pontius Pilate comes to haunt us, ‘What is truth?’

Ray Bradbury thus brings us from simple entertainment to the horrors of our own inner life, into the realm of psychology, philosophy, theology. This is the sub-branch of philosophy called epistemiology.

How do you know you are real? How do you know that I am real? Least real of all, this digital life. Go feel the sun, kiss your children, eat some pie. Hope that it’s real before it’s all gone…

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The Martian Chronicles

As those of you who have been reading this blog for the long haul know, I am a fan of the late Ray Bradbury, for whom I wrote this tribute when he died last year. I recently acquired a copy of The Martian Chronicles, in the lovely edition pictured to the left. This was one of the first Bradbury books I read, back in my early teens.

I remembered only bits and pieces of images and people from that first read over a decade and a half ago. So it was kind of like reading it for the first time.

And it was magnificent.

Bradbury never gives you a ‘stereotypical’ science fiction story. His is ‘poetic science fiction’ (a phrase I think he used himself; Mr Storm certainly used it in Grade 10 when we read ‘Zero Hour’). The Martian Chronicles only contains three of what one would consider stereotypes for Mars stories/1950s sci-fi: Martians, rockets, and nuclear war.* Unlike, say, Philip K Dick, Bradbury imagined we’d make it out of the 20th century before having nuclear war.

Anyway, The Martian Chronicles is unlike anything else you’ll ever read. It shows forth the full splendour of Bradbury’s imaginative force — and his is an imagination as broad as deep as vivid as any other science fiction author, an ocean of images, a tapestry of words you can run the fingers of your mind across and delight in the colours with your mind’s eye.

There are sublimely beautiful stories and images in The Martian Chronicles, such as ‘Night Meeting,’ a time-tale of an encounter between a Martian and an Earthman, and ‘The Fire Balloons’, the beautifully theological story of the first missionaries on Mars.

There is the dark, present in so much of Bradbury’s fiction, often just under the surface of the beauty (remember ‘The Veldt’?). This we see in the fate of ‘The Third Expedition’ or the dreadful folly of Parkhill and hubristic hot dog stand in ‘The Off Season.’

Ray Bradbury’s is also a playful mind, as in the beautiful image of ‘Rocket Summer’ with which he opens the collection or the fate of ‘The Earth Men’ though mad by Martians.

I tried so hard to savour the book this time through, but Bradbury’s delicious prose sucked me in, pulled me inexorably along. I’ll have to reread to get the full effect in years to come. Here’s some of that lovely prose to enchant you as I go, from ‘Night Meeting’ (it made me think of the Doctor [who?]):

There was a smell of Time in the air tonight. He smiled and turned the fancy in his mind. There was a thought. What did Time smell like? Like dust and clocks and people. And if you wondered what Time sounded like it sounded like water running in a dark cave and voices crying and dirt dropping down upon hollow box-lids, and rain. And, going farther, what did Time look like? Time looked like snow dropping silently into a black room or it looked like a silent film in an ancient theatre, one hundred billion faces falling like those New Year balloons, down and down into nothing. That was how Time smelled and looked and sounded.

*Who’d’ve guessed that we’d end up destroying humanity by driving cars rather than by the atom bomb?

Ray Bradbury, the man who will live forever

Ray Bradbury (1920-2012) came to me recommended by my brother Michael (see his tribute to Bradbury here); I mostly read Bradbury in Junior High, starting with S Is for Space and R Is for Rocket then moving on to his more famous The Martian Chronicles, Fahrenheit 451, and Something Wicked This Way Comes. I gladly devoured the short stories drawn together in The Illustrated Man.

These stories and novels demonstrated that Bradbury was a master of poetic science fiction. With Asimov, it was the story and the people that really mattered, even when inspired by real or hypothetical science and technology. With Bradbury, it was every jot and tittle that mattered. His words are exquisitely arranged, perfectly selected. He grew up on Shakespeare and the Psalms (KJV, if I recall aright), and the beauty of his own work demonstrates the effect of these beautiful works of art.

When I was in my undergrad, I read his more recent short fiction gathered in Quicker Than the Eye and Driving Blind, and last summer I read his classic Dandelion Wine. Here was everyday life turned magical, mystical, and at times terrible (in the true sense of the word). I remember vividly the wondrous tale of a man who created a symphony out of birdsong (a proper symphony, not that odd ‘modern’ creation of Rautavarra).

Lying just beneath the surface of Bradbury’s fiction is a world of magic and terror, a world waiting to be made visible by scratching the itch of our own. The horror of ‘The Veldt’ and Something Wicked This Way Comes, the fearful plausibility of Fahrenheit 451 — these are the horrors that lie around the corner in our culture, our homes, our souls. In Driving Blind there is a man who can literally drive blind. This is the wonderful magic of human existence, whether in the sands of Mars’ canals or the fields of Illinois.

When he was a boy, Ray Bradbury was told he would live forever. Two days ago, he passed from this life. Yet he will live forever, in his haunting, beautiful, terrible, majestic, ordinary, magical prose that invigorates science fiction as ‘true’ literature and not the ‘sub-literary’ genre it is often mistakenly denigrated as being.

We’ll miss Bradbury, but his words will endure, and our imaginations will be turned to the magical realism that surrounds us on all sides at every turn.