06 February 2008

Yesterday's Tomorrows: Ray Bradbury

by Graham Sleight

from Locus Magazine, October 2007

Ray Bradbury, 1950s The Illustrated Man, Ray Bradbury (Doubleday, 252pp, first edition, hc) 1951. Cover by Sydney Butchkes; (Flamingo Modern Classics 978-00-0647922-2, £7.99, 240pp, pb).

Fahrenheit 451, Ray Bradbury (Ballantine, 202pp, first edition, hc) 1953. Cover by Joe Mugnaini. (Del Rey 978-0-345-34296-6, $6.99, 208pp, pb). (Voyager 978-0-007-18171-4, £6.99, 192pp, pb).

The Martian Chronicles, Ray Bradbury (Doubleday, 222pp, first edition, hc) 1950. Cover by Arthur Lidov. (Bantam Spectra 978-0-553-27822-4, $7.99, 192pp). (Flamingo Modern Classics 978-0-006-47923-9, £6.99, 240pp, pb).

Something Wicked This Way Comes, Ray Bradbury (Simon & Schuster, 318pp, first edition, hc) 1962. Cover by Gray Foy. (Avon 978-0-380-72940-1, $7.99, 304pp, pb). (Gollancz Fantasy Masterworks 978-0-575-07874-1, £6.99, 272pp, pb).

Bradbury Stories: 100 of His Most Celebrated Tales, Ray Bradbury (Morrow 0-06-054242-X, $29.95, 893pp, first edition, hc) 2003. (HarperPerennial 978-0-060-54488-1, $17.95, 912pp, tp).

Of all the SF writers I read in my teens, there are only two whose names still evoke a kind of pre-verbal response, an intensity of feeling that I can't pin down to one work or setting. One is Theodore Sturgeon, and the evocation there is of emotion — love or fear or hate communicated so directly that they short-circuit my usual critical or eaderly responses. I could point to favorite bits in Sturgeon's work, but that's not the point. Sturgeon-world, that particular affective colour, gets to me too early. The other author is Ray Bradbury, and the association there is visual. Just saying his name conjures up (for me) a dusty, sunlit American landscape with tiny human figures taking joy in it. It may be the idealised childhood of Dandelion Wine, or the "rocket summer" Ohio at the start of The Martian Chronicles.

Or, most likely, the opening of The Illustrated Man, which is — if I remember rightly — the first "proper" science fiction book I ever read:

It was a warm afternoon in early September when I first met the Illustrated Man. Walking along an asphalt road, I was on the final leg of a walking tour of Wisconsin. Late in the afternoon, ate some pork, beans, and a doughnut, and was preparing to stretch out and read when the Illustrated Man walked over the hill and stood for a moment against the sky.
I don't think a critic should go on too much about their own personal experiences, because the point of criticism is after all to get past the personal and find responses to a work that are of more general use. But I can't do that so easily with Bradbury. That opening passage has an almost Proustian specificity for me, not just for what it describes but what it implies. The freedom of the road and the size of the landscape are all there in my head even if not stated in the text. (Justified or not? I don't know, but I'm sure every reader makes these sort of leaps when the text allows them to.) And then, on the next page, there's an even more famous passage of description as the Illustrated Man shows his tattoos for the first time:
As for the rest of him, I cannot say how long I sat and stared, for he was a riot of rockets and fountains and people, in such intricate detail and color that you could hear the voices murmuring small and muted, from the crowds that inhabited his body. When his flesh twitched, the tiny mouths flickered, the tiny green-and-gold eyes winked, the tiny pink hands gestured. There were yellow meadows and blue rivers and mountains and stars and suns and planets spread in a Milky Way across his chest.

There are two levels on which you can respond to a passage like this: the intellectual and the emotional. On the intellectual level, the illustrations are a device. Each one cues in a story in the book that the Illustrated Man narrative frames. In a sense, therefore, Bradbury has just given us a sales pitch for what's to follow. But sales pitches, by and large, don't work on the intellectual level. What sucks us in here is the language, the vividness of the description. There are plenty of purely technical things that could be remarked on in that passage: the attentiveness to colour, for instance — an enduring Bradbury trait and one that he shares with, of all people, J.G. Ballard. There's the alliteration ("a riot of rockets"), the repetition of "tiny" so that you're reminded what a miracle of precision these illustrations are. But more than that, there's an emotional color, an eagerness to explore. It's very different from the emotion you get in, say, Heinlein, even though he was also profoundly attached to talking about humanity taking the next step. Perhaps the distinction is something like this: Heinlein wanted to sell us on the fact of exploration; Bradbury wanted to sell us on the idea of exploration, the image of it.

The first story in The Illustrated Man, "The Veldt", describes a family of the future that has an artificial nursery depicting, for instance, nursery rhymes, fairy stories, or the African veldt for the amusement and education of the children. The description of how the nursery works, through "crystal walls" and "dimensional superreactionary, supersensitive color film and mental tape film behind glass screens" feels like flummery. When Bradbury is called on to infodump, he can often be no better than average. But the point of the story is the allure of the image of the veldt (literally the image, in this case). When the parents try to stop their children using the nursery, it proves to be more dangerous than just an image.

"The Veldt" is a neat morality tale, perhaps too neat — though that may also stem from its relative brevity. (A very crude statistic: the much later retrospective Bradbury Stories contains 100 stories in just under 900, admittedly large, pages. Bradbury is at his most characteristic at these shorter lengths; sometimes, his stories benefit from it and sometimes they don't.) Take, as another example, "The Long Rain", also from The Illustrated Man. It opens with a rare passage of Bradbury writing that fails to work, that's reminiscent of no-one so much as Lionel Fanthorpe:

The rain continued. It was a hard rain, a perpetual rain, a sweating and steaming rain; it was a mizzle, a downpour, a fountain, a whipping at the eyes, an undertow at the ankles; it was a rain to drown all rains and the memory of rains.

"Mizzle," for the record, was the point where it began seeming like arbitrary word-spinning to me. We're on Venus, whose hostile landscape is defined by these rains. A group of human astronauts is gradually driven mad by them, until one manages to find shelter. The narrative is almost beside the point, secondary to the fact (and the symbolism) of the rains. Other stories in the book manipulate symbols that Bradbury was to return to again and again: rockets, religion, Mars, childhood, flight, the stars. Each story, you could say, works out a relationship between humans and the image at its heart. Even in a story like "Marionettes, Inc.", which has at its heart the Dickian/Wolfean premise of being able to make human facsimiles, what sticks with you is the sensual evocation of it. We're told, for instance, that a replica of one of the characters "even smells like you: Bond Street and Melachrinos!" This is very far from the science fictional way of working, where imagery is an emergent property from the extrapolative work of describing a new world. For Bradbury, it's means and end.

This is perhaps most obvious in his one novel of pure SF, Fahrenheit 451. Its core premise is, again, not extrapolative but satirical: firemen exist to set fire to books, not to stop fires. Montag, the central protagonist, is a fireman who believes that his job is in the common interest until he meets a girl called Clarisse who suggests otherwise. The future America that Montag inhabits is dulled into conformity by advertising and television; books are despised because they represent pluralism and contradiction. The most striking passages in the early sections of the book are those where Montag meets Clarisse or thinks about her. They're rhapsodic Bradbury at his best, but at the same time they're not totally believable in the context of this dystopia.

One two three four five six seven days. And as many times he came out of the house and Clarisse was there somewhere in the world. Once he saw her shaking a walnut tree, once he saw her sitting on the lawn knitting a blue sweater, three or four times he found a bouquet of late flowers on his porch, or a handful of chestnuts in a little sack, or some autumn leaves neatly pinned to a sheet of white paper and thumb-tacked to his door.

This is a world, we're repeatedly told in other contexts, that has been mechanised, homogenised, stripped of its connections to nature. So this feels like a visitation from another plane.

But Clarisse exits the book fairly soon, and the core subject becomes apparent: why it's worth celebrating pluralism. Bradbury becomes somewhat dogmatic here, putting strawman arguments into the mouths of those advocating the status quo (as represented especially by Beatty, the head of Montag's firehouse.) Beatty describes the replacement of books by, say, the "vanilla tapioca" of magazines — not because of any kind of state-sponsored censorship but because the people themselves no longer want to be confused by difficulty. Beatty's extended sermon on this issue is just the most extreme example of Bradbury's tendency to the didactic. We might now look askance at Fahrenheit 451's value scheme placing books on a pedestal that, say, comic books or television could never aspire to. And Bradbury's closing plot turns, as Montag falls in with a group of underground readers who have memorised canonical books, seems borderline sentimental. It's not just that, nowadays, we'd expect any SFnal future to have digital storage of text available for almost no cost. It's that the elevation of books and what they represent above almost everything else in the world feels rigged — just as does the creation of "firemen" who destroy them. A book that's centrally about the value of books risks feeling smug: you're reading a book, so you must be on the side of good, right? So what I at last took away from Fahrenheit 451 was not its central argument but its incidental pleasures of rediscovering human feeling. It's an old charge, but entirely relevant here: Bradbury is at his strongest when he shows, not when he tells.

A similar problem, of Bradbury's rhapsodic love of the world grating against the premises he's chosen, arises with The Martian Chronicles. Even when it was written, it must have been clear to its readers that the version it presented of the planet was a dream, and to be read as such. The Martian realist novels of the early '90s, most obviously Kim Stanley Robinson's work, one irrelevant to Bradbury's vision of Martians living in a pseudo-America, offering a funhouse mirror back to their Earth explorers. If The Martian Chronicles has a successor, it's in SF tales of understanding and misunderstanding native populations like Dick's Martian Time-Slip or (more distantly) Wolfe's The Fifth Head of Cerberus. When you get to the point, in "Interim", at which a human-built Martian town is explicitly compared to a Midwestern one swept up by a tornado and deposited on another world, you know very clearly that Bradbury's a writer for whom the aesthetic side of science fiction will always be more important than the realistic.

That's not to say, though, that he wasn't responsive to his times. One of the most famous sections of The Martian Chronicles, "There Will Come Soft Rains", returns to a periodic Bradbury concern, the destructive possibility of an atomic war. Back on Earth, an automated house has survived its inhabitants' destruction in a nuclear attack. (The inhabitants remain only as white shapes on the otherwise blackened west wall of the house.) The house chatters on through its merry routines, waking its now-dead dwellers, until the bough of a tree crashes through the kitchen window, starting a fire. The house is reduced to ruins, inducing a kind of pathos that's surprising and effective.

Pathos is also one of the key notes of the book's stories of exploration, like "—And the Moon Be Still As Bright", which begins by showing us some of the early human explorers on Mars. They make a fire from Martian wood, and one of them thinks about the "imported blasphemy" that will come later: "There'd be... time to throw condensed-milk cans in the proud Martian canals; time for copies of the New York Times to blow and caper and rustle across the lone grey Martian sea-bottoms." It's a very different emotional charge from either, say, Heinleinian gusto or Stapledon/Clarke awe at the cosmos. It's one of those occasions when Bradbury's imagery points not to something describable, like the primitive VR of the veldt or the desirability of Clarisse, but to pure otherness, strangeness. Throughout the book, we keep being reminded of how humans are failing to grasp the planet they are on, and that this has destructive consequences. "—And The Moon Be Still As Bright" ends with the memorable image of one of the crew in the Martian cities, "shooting out the crystal windows and blowing the tops off the fragile towers."

The Martian Chronicles, like Fahrenheit 451, The Illustrated Man, and much of Bradbury's other work, is fixed up from shorter pieces culled from the magazines. One can argue that he's always had a problem sustaining the structure of his work at novel length, though there are exceptions. Something Wicked This Way Comes, for instance, feels almost like the central Bradbury work if one looks at the motifs it carries. A carnival comes to a small Midwest town, bringing surface excitement but deeper danger. Two teenage boys are the main protagonists; Bradbury seems most attuned to that time of life, to the moment when possibility and hope haven't yet been crippled by the constraints of adulthood. In a 1998 afterword reprinted in the UK Fantasy Masterworks edition, Bradbury acknowledges a number of debts in writing the book, but the most potent seems to be his own encounter with a carnival at a similar age. I don't want to diminish him by saying that capturing that moment of adolescence is the only thing he's good at, but it certainly seems to be one of the deepest wells he can draw on. Perhaps it's this that enables him to sustain the narrative so well; though one has to say that its simplicities about good and evil are offputting to an adult reader.

So Bradbury's most characteristic work is to be found in his short stories, and, from the retrospective Bradbury Stories he seems to know it. For every story that verges on sentiment or predictability, there's another — at least from his peak period in the '50s and '60s — that cuts deep. I'm not convinced that the selection represented in this volume is as good as it should be, though that may be just me. (A lot of personal favourites are omitted, for a start, such as the chilling urban nightmare "The Crowd".) Bradbury seems to think of his work as a unity, which is a shame given that a later story like "The Toynbee Convector" is so obviously inferior to the work of the earlier decades. It bullies and cajoles, even more extremely than Fahrenheit 451. It's a story that uses SF devices to assert that the world we have right now is worth celebrating, like Harlan Ellison's "Strange Wine". But the deck is so stacked by voice-of-the-author pronouncements like "Everywhere [in the '60s, '70s, and '80s] was professional despair, intellectual ennui, political cynicism," that one finds oneself wishing for the subtlety and restraint of Ellison.

It's rather a shame, since there's so much good stuff in Bradbury Stories, some of it representing the author at his very best. "And the Rock Cried Out", for instance, or "The Pedestrian" manage to hone Bradbury's love for certain tropes into what feels like definitive form. To return to my first point, more than with most authors, reading Bradbury you're always conscious that each story, good or bad, is part of a body of work. You know the kind of person who wrote them, what he loves, what he believes in. Even if those beliefs are sometimes too simple to command adherence, especially in the world we now have, you long to inhabit their world.

Graham Sleight was born in 1972 and lives in London, UK. He has written reviews and essays on science fiction and fantasy for The New York Review of Science Fiction, Foundation, Interzone, SF Studies, SF Weekly, Infinity Plus, Strange Horizons, Vector, and Locus Magazine. He's served as a judge for the Arthur C. Clarke Award for 2005 and 2006, and becomes editor of Foundation from the end of 2007.

Graham Sleight is one of eight regular Locus reviewers. Every issue, we review dozens of new books and magazines, most before they appear in print. A subscription will get you all those as well as the rest of the magazine -- news, People & Publishing, commentary, reports on events, and a list of all books and magazines published that month.


At Thursday, February 07, 2008 12:10:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...


I enjoyed your column on Bradbury. You mentioned in your discussion of BRADBURY STORIES that "The Crowd" was omitted along with other of your personal favorites. This story and many other well known stories were included in the 1980 collection THE STORIES OF RAY BRADBURY (Knopf, 0-394-51335-5). Like BRADBURY STORIES, it was a collection of 100 stories. I don't believe there was any duplication of the contents of the two books.


At Sunday, February 10, 2008 5:49:00 AM, Anonymous Graham said...

Thanks, Keith. I'm aware of the 1980 volume but don't have a copy. If anything, I assume that it'd be a better introduction than Bradbury Stories because of not being skewed towards the more recent, and in my view weaker, work.

At Sunday, February 10, 2008 2:24:00 PM, OpenID ecbatan said...

Hi Graham,

I enjoyed your article as I always do. Bradbury, for me, has never been as central -- curiously, perhaps, because he is closer to home. That is, I grew up in Northern Illinois, just as Bradbury did ... and one result of that is that I recall refusing to read Dandelion Wine when it was assigned to us in 8th grade in great part because our teacher insisted we would just love it becuase it evoked a N. Illinois childhood just like our. Not, I'm thinking. (And in fact Bradbury was assigned quite often in our schools -- Fahrenheit 451, The Martian Chronicles, and The Illustrated Man all showed up in HS, which seems quite odd.)

But I recently reread The Martian Chronicles and The Illustrated Man and thought them both excellent -- better than I had expected. And I was struck by your comment comparing The Martian Chronicles to The Fifth Head of Cerberus, a parallel which seemed exactly right, in particular in the case of the story "The Martian" (which stands with "Ylla", "The Third Expedition", and "The Million Year Picnic" as one of the best pieces in the book).

Rich Horton

At Sunday, February 10, 2008 2:42:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...


You're right about the earlier volume being the better introduction to Bradbury's work. Most of his better known work is in that book.


At Wednesday, February 13, 2008 1:36:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Without question, the earlier volume, "The Stories of Ray Bradbury" (Knopf, 1980) is a much better book than the more recent "Bradbury Stories," which includes some of his most embarrassing recent work.

I was weaned on Bradbury. He was my introduction to SF/fantasy (followed shortly thereafter by Tolkien, then Clarke). I know I always have only "depressing" things to say in response to Graham's pieces, but much to my distress, Bradbury in recent years has lost much of his magic.

Yes, I still read parts of "Dandelion Wine" each summer, and "Martian Chronicles" and selected stories. I like them, but I am not floored by them or drunk on the language, as I once was.

That said, I do think some of the more recent work, including "From the Dust Returned" and "Farewell Summer" has some surprisingly effective bits.

I should just face it: My SF "golden age" lasted right up until about my 40th year, but now, it seems to be over. Le Guin still turns my crank, Tolkien, "Dune," and the occasional odd new thing, but mostly, I'm done.....


Clay Evans

At Wednesday, February 13, 2008 10:50:00 PM, Blogger Graham said...

Thanks, all; I'm sure you're right about the 1980 volume, though I don't have a copy. Just as a general point, my self-imposed rule with these columns is that I'll only write them about books that are currently in print in the UK or the US - in other words, that the majority of Locus readers can get hold of without much difficulty. (Admittedly, I bend the rule sometimes, but don't break it...) So, for instance, I'd love to do a column about Algis Budrys or C L Moore but - to me rather shockingly - their canonical sf seems to be out of print.

(Question: are there any authors people would like me to cover that I haven't yet?)

At Friday, February 15, 2008 5:05:00 AM, Anonymous Rich Horton said...

Algis Budrys? (evil grin, though I really would like to see you cover him)

(And actually I chose Hard Landing as one of a list of ten unfortunately out of print books in a piece for Argentus. I suppose I could have chose Rogue Moon but you can at least get the novella version of that, I think, in the Hall of Fame collections, unless those are OP again.)


At Sunday, February 17, 2008 9:01:00 AM, Blogger Graham said...

Rich, why an evil grin...?

At Sunday, February 17, 2008 1:13:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hi, Graham. Despite my persistent gloom, I do enjoy your essays on these classic writers.

I feel like I've seen them all, but....

Have you done Le Guin? How about Delany? He's a puzzler for me. John Brunner, Peter S. Beagle (do you do fantasy? Perhaps not...)

And have you done Harlan Ellison? That would be intriguing to me, too.

Clay Evans

At Tuesday, February 19, 2008 4:10:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

This is a great peice on Ray Bradbury. He is one of my favorite writers. The first book of his that I read was The October Country. When I read Owen Crawford's book The Death of Sara I was reminded of Something Wicked This Way Comes, which is one of the best horror novels ever written.

In response to the question about other authors to be covered, I would reccomend Owen Crawford. He has only been publishing a few years, but once you've read his work you are hooked.

At Sunday, March 02, 2008 12:20:00 PM, OpenID ecbatan said...

Graham -- the "evil grin" (which probably should just have been a "rueful grin"!) refers to the fact that you had just mentioned that you probably couldn't do Budrys because his work is out of print.

Rich Horton


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