Thursday, June 7, 2012

800 Contrarian Words about Ray Bradbury

Instantly we’re aboard a frozen ship, thousands of degrees below absolute zero, built with refrigerating capacity that can withstand the most excoriating rays of the sun itself. The ship edges ever closer to the sun, seven-thousand degrees, ten-thousand degrees, ever higher, until the icicles of the ship itself melt, leaving the vessel within a hare’s breath of meltdown, incineration, decompression, or god knows what else. And just when the ship seems on the verge of collapse, the Captain sticks his hand inside a metal glove, and out from the ship’s hull comes a giant replica of this glove that’s kinetically connected to the Captain’s hand. The captain literally scoops up part of the sun with his hand as we would a piece of earth, and puts his piece of sun into a sealed container as we might put sod into a plant pot. Here’s Bradbury:

“The Cup dipped into the sun. It scooped up a bit of the flesh of God, the blood of the universe, the blazing thought, the blinding philosophy that set out and mothered a galaxy, that idled and swept planets in their fields and summoned or laid to rest lives and livelihoods.”

There are a few lines afteward, but The Golden Apples of the Sun fundamentally ends with one of the most indelible images in any work of fiction I’ve ever read – as unforgettable as any myth or Bible story. Yet after the captain scoops up the sun, the story is practically over. There is no musing about whether or not this is a good or bad development, no personalities involved, nothing except for a terrifyingly beautiful image. To have that image, and then not see what comes afterward is like a literary blue ball. Is there any point to the story?  

…and then it occurs to you to go back to the sentences written just before the unforgettable image:

“My God, we'll say, we did it! And here is our cup of energy, fire, vibration, call it what you will, that may well power our cities and sail our ships and light our libraries and tan our children and bake our daily breads and simmer the knowledge of our universe for us for a thousand years until it is well done. Here, from this cup, all good men of science and religion: Drink! Warm yourselves against the night of ignorance, the long snows of superstition, the cold winds of disbelief, and from the great fear of darkness in each man.”

And herein lies a much bigger problem than lack of memorable characters or fully-fleshed ideas. If Ray Bradbury were simply a great purveyor of images, it would be worth the time to read so much more of his output than I actually have. But in the stuff I’ve (attempted to) read, which I can’t imagine is so much less than many of those people who celebrate his work, Bradbury seemed to take it for granted that learning and technology was always on the side of goodness and light, and with enough proper application could tame the baseness of human nature itself. It purported to be a genuinely humanistic outlook, but it was just another form of transhumanism which states that technology will never let us down.  

In this way, he occupied almost precisely the opposite point of view from Kurt Vonnegut, the other pop-culture ‘hero-author’ of their day. Both writers acquired millions of fans who read their books not simply for entertainment but as a kind of secular scripture. Their most devoted readers would not merely see Bradbury and Vonnegut as enlightening authors, but as a kind of enlightment itself. Both writers provided their fans with an entire worldview– which is all the more confusing when one realizes that their opposite points of view were fundamentally taken as gospel by the same readers. But when one lives in 2012 America, Vonnegut and Bradbury don’t seem as far apart as all that. It’s very easy to see that either point of view is absolutely preferable to the combination of religious darkness and blind faith in American power that many rightly fear may engulf our country much more than it already has. But had we lived in the Soviet Union, I can’t imagine we wouldn’t see a certain similarity in Bradbury’s view of technological progress or Vonnegut’s view of human nature’s current state to the Communist Party’s official view. Context is all.

Not that it necessarily matters, but as it happens, Bradbury was fundamentally a conservative. He certainly would not be much of a conservative by present day standards, but he was a dyed-in-the-wool libertarian and one of his favorite movie was Ayn Rand’s screen treatment of her book, The Fountainhead. Unlike the socialist Vonnegut, he believed very deeply in the importance of self-reliance and optimism, and it’s difficult to imagine that his rosy view of mankind didn’t color his books as much as Vonnegut’s  view.

I’m clearly the wrong person for science fiction and fantasy. I listen to my brother Ethan and dozens of friends enthuse for hours upon end about their favorite books of conceptual fiction. They patiently indulge my crippling blind spot and tell me that the right book simply hasn’t come along – some of them are even nice enough to loan me books of their own, and I wish I could repay their debt by telling them that I ever find the books they’ve loaned me worth the trouble they’ve taken to convince me. But for whatever reason, there are so few books of conceptual fiction that do anything for me. Whenever I work up the willpower to read the spectacular scenes of sci-fi and fantasy, I first wonder to myself – what is there on this page that wouldn’t be 100 times more effective in a good movie or TV show? Perhaps my visual imagination is limited, but I could give hundreds of examples of this problem: I barely made it to page 100 of Game of Thrones, yet I watch the TV show with ever growing fascination. At times I still despair that I ever gave 12-or-so hours of my life to J.R.R. Tolkein, yet I have real affection for the Lord of the Rings movies. Hell, I could even just compare Ray Bradbury, whose work leaves me cold, to Star Trek, the existence of which would be impossible without Bradbury’s entire ethos and whose every episode I gobble up hungrily.

I then wonder, does reading really mean so little to us anymore that we have to create cinematic scenes in our books in order to make them worth reading? Even the most well-read among us – and surely there are some who are still much better read than me – read very little fiction in comparison to what people gobbled up 70 years ago (let alone 170). We’ve long since transferred our loyalty to the movies, to television, to internet content – and it’s to these mediums which we turn for truly enlightening entertainment. But there are certain things which only books can do – and one of them is to explain ideas, something which Ray Bradbury did admirably. But another is to get inside the heads of other people, to literally read their thoughts. It’s probably easier to grasp ideas from a single well-written piece of non-fiction than any amount of speculative fiction on the same issue. But to this day, nothing beats fiction at explaining people to each other – their thoughts, their personalities, their souls.

Currently I’m reading books of fiction by two Italian writers from the beginning of the 20th century, Giovanni Verga and Italo Svevo. Svevo is a brilliant elucidator of ideas, and Giovanni Verga is a creator of spectacular scenes. But both keep these more sensational gifts as a great condiment to the main course, which is to understand the people who populate their stories. Writers like them, like Chekhov, like Bellow, like Tolstoy, are primarily interested explaining the human-ness of their characters. Does this automatically make them better writers? Certainly not, but it does give them a kind of ‘home field advantage’ in that they do what fiction has time and again been proven to do better than anything else.

It takes a very different kind of writer to be particularly attracted to the idea and spectacle drivenness of sci-fi/fantasy than to create stories that realizes the full implications of the characters who populate them.  I have to wonder if the popularity of so much fiction with a lack of memorable characters means that we’re less curious about one another in our era than we were in some previous ones. Surely that isn’t out of the question in this era when facebook and twitter can let us know virtually anything we want about each other. When we can learn anything we want about another person at the click of a button, what reason is there to go out of our way to find it?

Ultimately, the problem of most science fiction and fantasy is the problem of most realist authors too. Life is too complicated, too rich, too dynamic to be contained in a single genre. Sci-fi and fantasy limits existence as much and as little as any other genre, no more, no less. The problem is not this genre, the problem is genre itself.

This narrowness isn’t the only reason for which many major critics condescended to Bradbury, but it is one of them. Critics have ripped Bradbury apart for years for all sorts of reasons – some deserved, some entirely not. On the one hand, they said he wrote bad prose, and that was nonsense – Bradbury wrote gorgeously in a prose style that any number of writers would kill to recapture. They talked down to Bradbury for writing a fiction of ideas yet refused to talk down similarly to realists who wrote a fiction that was similarly one-dimensional. On the other hand, Bradbury’s work is limiting; it’s almost polemic disguised as fiction. It’s one thing to write about ideas, but if your books traffic in ideas, you should explore the implication of every idea to its fullest potential. Ray Bradbury had fantastic ideas, but he usually stopped following his thoughts before the ideas became a reality. 

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