Wednesday, 13 June 2012

Ray Bradbury: my favourite Martian

Ray Bradbury, one of science fiction’s few genuine stylists and maybe sole luddite, died last week aged 91. It’s hard to think of another author so closely (though somewhat erroneously) associated with the sci fi genre whose death would have garnered quite as much attention or quite as many love-filled tributes (Margaret Atwood’s, perhaps, the best of these). To what can we attribute this?

I think, more than anything, Bradbury’s special place in the hack-filled annals of genre writing – as an author who worked with many common enough sci fi tropes but seemingly easily transcended them all – can be traced to a unique, and decidedly un-sci fi, marriage of warmth, humanity, nostalgia, horror, romance and, yes, robots and rockets. Bradbury’s many short stories and novels are peppered with these latter two but they serve, rather than generate the fictions. There is nothing even remotely fetishistic about the way in which he wrote of future or alien worlds streaked with the vapour trails of interstellar spaceships and soundtracked by the thud of moonboots. More often than not, in Bradbury’s work, such things are metaphors, symbols of loss – of humanity, of empires, of love.

Bradbury’s best novels and short stories are all, in a sense, love letters – to his favourite authors (Melville, Hemingway, Poe), places (Ireland, small town America, 1950s Hollywood) and the forgotten, or threatened (literature, pedestrians, circuses and freak shows) – which look to the past rather than the future. Even his most superficially sci fi work, The Martian Chronicles, is about a civilisation which has passed away, a ghost-haunted frontier town in space. Bradbury’s greatest skill was his ability to make such places, however remote, seem palpable and somehow, always and never trivially, about us.

            Fahrenheit 451 remains Bradbury’s surpassing achievement, a novel which has earned comparisons with the other two great anti-utopian fictions of the 20th century, George Orwell’s 1984 and Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World (Kingsley Amis thought it ‘the most skilfully drawn of all science fiction’s conformist hells’). Although Bradbury was clear about the debt he owed to 1984, Fahrenheit 451 has far more in common with Huxley’s dystopia. In 1984, it is the state which oppresses the masses. In both Fahrenheit 451 and Brave New World the masses are, in effect, enslaved by themselves (or at least, as Margaret Atwood put it, a sort of ‘soft’ totalitarianism) by chillingly prescient addictions to mind-numbing drugs, enforced sex and consumerism, and rubbish television. Rather than fascism, they prompt us to fear the destruction of culture and the imposition of conformities of thought, imagination and desire.

Bradbury was smart enough to know that in real life – in our reality – you do not need to burn books to create an illiterate society; you just have to get people to stop reading them. It’s not very hard to see this process happening all around us in the first years of the 21st century; Bradbury’s ‘ear thimbles’, with their constant stream of noise and data, are our iPods, many times more numerous I’d wager than books now on our busses and trains; the giant screens through which god-awful (and interactive) soap operas are endlessly beamed into the homes of Bradbury’s hoi polloi are our fifty inch plasma TVs; I know of second and third year university students who have never been to their campus library, and many more people who profess to never reading; more and more I find myself not picking up a book for half an hour before I go to bed as I used to, but checking my emails and Facebook page on my smart phone instead.

            Bradbury was enormously ambivalent about the internet, and stridently resisted a publishing deal for Fahrenheit 451 which included e-book rights (though he relented, under great pressure from his people, in the end). Perhaps there is no irony in this, or at least no greater irony than in the fact that Fahrenheit 451 was made into a movie, but there is something discomforting in the idea that one of literature’s most affecting paeans to learning through books – paper and binding and dust jackets and ink – can now be read electronically. What, I wonder, is the temperature at which a Kindle catches fire and burns?

One early critic of Bradbury’s work, Edward Wood, wryly concluded his ‘Case Against Ray Bradbury’ with this: ‘Some day he may even write some science fiction.’ The ire of sci fi purists like Wood, and authors Damon Knight and James Blish who also attacked Bradbury’s ‘anti-science fiction’ in the author’s early years, seems rather quaint now. I don’t think either critics or readers demand purity of genre in quite the same way anymore and this has perhaps over time allowed Bradbury to be fully accepted by the sci fi community, and at least mostly (if sometimes reluctantly) accepted as a ‘proper’ writer by the literary establishment. No other American author I can think of has achieved this twin feat.        

            It’s a measure of Bradbury’s extraordinary reach as a writer that he was able to attract admirers as seemingly unlikely as the British anti-fascist singer/songwriter Billy Bragg. Bragg, in a post to his Facebook page following the news of Bradbury’s death, name-checked Something Wicked This Way Comes and the short story Dark They Were and Golden-eyed as two of his favourite pieces of fiction. I haven’t spoken much here about Bradbury’s short fiction – there are simply far too many superlative examples to mention – but in my opinion there probably isn’t a better practitioner of the art this side of Guy de Maupassant and O. Henry.

            It’s impossible, certainly in this small space, to take the full measure of Bradbury’s vast body of work which spans many decades and saw the publication of hundreds of short stories, novels, plays, poems, screenplays and essays. His finest novels – Fahrenheit 451, The Martian Chronicles, Dandelion Wine, Something Wicked This Way Comes, Death Is A Lonely Business – straddle multiple genera including, in addition to sci fi, detective fiction, magic realism, semi-autobiography, gothicism and pulp fantasy. Remarkably, Bradbury was still writing at the time of his death but the story collections he produced in the 1990s and beyond contained barely any sci fi at all. These stories – many of them very good indeed – are more obviously about us, about our foibles and passions and shortcomings, but then Bradbury’s work always was. In this respect, his writing never strayed and never threw off its author’s ultimate preoccupations: the human heart, and the joy of being alive.

            As a boy, Bradbury encountered a zany magician at a travelling circus who implored him to live forever. Whatever we may make of the notion of the immortality of the artist – and I for one, following Woody Allen’s lead, am about as sceptical as it’s possible to be about so vain a proposition – it is nevertheless tempting to say that Bradbury’s work will, indeed, endure for as long as humanity does (hopefully on paper). At any rate, it is this spirit – of elation and transcendence – which infuses his wonderful and mysterious body of work. If the firemen ever do come for my books, it will be Bradbury’s that I commit to memory first.       

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