Thursday, June 07, 2012
Bradbury's Speculative Fiction
"The party moved out into the moonlight, silently. They made their way to the outer rim of the dreaming dead city in the light of the racing twin moons. Their shadows, under them, were double shadows. They did not breathe, or seemed not to, perhaps, for several minutes. They were waiting for something to stir in the dead city, some gray form to rise, some ancient ancestral shape to come galloping across the vacant sea bottom on an ancient, armored steed of impossible lineage, of unbelievable derivation." (The Martian Chronicles --"And the Moon Be Still as Bright")
Ray Bradbury, the literary, fantasy, horror, science fiction, and mystery writer died on Tuesday. I have been a fan of his since reading The Martian Chronicles, and other works including Fahrenheit 451, when I was a teenager. He became one of my favorite authors almost immediately and his tales, including those of Humans and Martians collected in The Martian Chronicles, were mesmerizing. He grew up in a relatively impoverished family in the 1920s and his early reading was in Edgar Allan Poe (also a favorite of mine since my pre-teen years) and others like Edgar Rice Burroughs. Even after he became famous for his own fantastic stories Bradbury was considered an outsider in traditional publishing circles, but maintained popularity with everyday folk. Time magazine labelled Bradbury "poet of the pulps" that seemed to sum up the cognoscenti's opinion of him. While the Martian Chronicles is a short story collection that reads like a novel as the stories share the theme suggested by the title. He was widely considered to be one of the greatest and most popular American writers of speculative fiction during the twentieth century.
I read these novels more than forty years ago and have reread them since. In my reading I found Bradbury's writing memorable in many ways. In The Martian Chronicles he demonstrates an ability to capture both the wonder of space and its impact on the lives of the people who colonized Mars. In it NASA repeatedly sends teams to explore; finally, one of them is successful. Rapid settlement follows, much like Westward Expansion in American History. Some colonists are looking for escape from civilization, but most only want to bring civilization to Mars--American civilization, that is. Finally, atomic war breaks out on Earth, and so all the humans go home. But once more a few humans flee the war and head to Mars; when they get there, they don't make the mistake of trying to recreate American civilization. They have seen that the result of Earth civilization was war, so they burn their maps of Earth and decide to become Martians. The stories adhere to create a novel with a dreamlike quality that made it different than the average genre fiction. This was noted by another of my favorite authors, Christopher Isherwood. A chance encounter in a Los Angeles bookstore with the British expatriate writer Christopher Isherwood gave Bradbury the opportunity to put The Martian Chronicles into the hands of a respected critic. Isherwood's glowing review followed and substantially boosted Bradbury's career.
Fahrenheit 451 has rightly become a classic with its allegoric telling of the dystopian future where books are burned by firefighters. It describes a world where book lovers hide in the forest literally becoming the books that they love in acts of self-preservation. Like the Phoenix, a small band of people survive a holocaust to rise again in the rebirth of a new world. You never forget the opening line: "It was a pleasure to burn."
Bradbury has written many other fictions worth reading, particularly short stories evocative of his own Midwest roots in Waukegan, Illinois. Perhaps my own roots in southern Wisconsin explain in part why I enjoy his writing. Some of his other writings that I have enjoyed over the years include Dandelion Wine, Something Wicked This Way Comes, The Illustrated Man and The Stories of Ray Bradbury ( I particularly cherished the collection The Vintage Bradbury). Perhaps this comment about books by Bradbury is a good way to conclude:
“The magic is only in what books say, how they stitched the patches of the universe together into one garment for us.”
The Martian Chronicles by Ray Bradbury. The Heritage Press, Norwalk Connecticut . 1974 (1950)
Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury. Simon & Schuster, New York. 2003 (1953)