Having spent most of this workday reading Ray Bradbury (way to go, Evan) in a pathetic effort to cover my tracks and make sure I understood his writing correctly, it occurs to me that Bradbury’s strengths and weaknesses are still more complex than I gave him credit for being. As I’d thought before, Bradbury’s stories are a spectacular torrent of ideas and spectacle, packing more memorable incidents into a single page than many ‘literary’ writers find in an entire career. In reading a large chunk of The Martian Chronicles, I realize that he can also be funny and humanly moving – or at least he was in the book’s first few stories before a germ conveniently wiped all out all the martians – at which point the book reverts to Bradbury’s cool-headed moral parables.
‘Cool-headed’ is an adjective I didn’t touch enough upon in the last post. If you can measure writers by their emotional temperature, everybody would fit on a spectrum – if perhaps Dostoevsky could be considered white hot and Montaigne considered room temperature, then we could consider Ray Bradbury as close to absolute zero as any famous writer. Bradbury is not interested in humans and their predicaments; he’s interested in what humans do. In that sense, I was absolutely wrong yesterday when I wrote that he venerated technology as an absolute good, as anyone could tell you with stories like ‘The Veldt,’ and ‘A Sound of Thunder’ fresh in their heads. Bradbury’s problem is not that he’s overly optimistic about humans, it’s that he’s overly optimistic about knowledge itself and the idea that knowledge can overcome all problems. On the whole, he may be right, but the refusal to acknowledge all the exceptions to that rule is a very serious misstep – is anything truly gained by realizing that your family is actually a simulation created by Martians who will murder you whether or not you try to stop them?
And this leads us one of the oddest problems of sci-fi/fantasy, and of American fiction in general in our day. Millions of people flock to sci/fi fantasy because they crave its largeness of vision, and they (sometimes rightly) equate realist fiction with trivial subject matter about which nobody much cares except for a very small group of literati. But in its own way, the pure strands of science fiction/fantasy can be as limiting to fiction as any realist fiction, and the result in both cases feels uncomfortably claustrophobic, as though the focus is so single-minded on this one issue that we can never feel really liberated by it. Realist fiction’s strength is that its methods are battle-tested, a well built boat which can keep its writers and readers afloat; conceptual fiction’s strength is that it provides a new way of thinking – rather than examining our world, it examines how our world could be different. In the process, conceptual fiction by and large dismisses human concerns; realist fiction by and large dismisses all the others. It’s very difficult in either way of writing to create a vision large enough to make either into great fiction, but then again, that’s why artistic greatness is rare. The very best authors have a largeness of vision that can combine the best of ideas, of spectacle, and yes, of human character in a way that couldn’t possibly bore anyone willing to read them – this is what Shakespeare and Cervantes did four-hundred years ago, it’s what Amos Oz and Ian McEwan (among a number of others I could name) do in our day, and this kind of total vision is ultimately what I think people long for in what they read.