Ray Bradbury died a few days ago and I’ve been feeling rather reflective about his work and what it means to me. I’ve read many of the “classic” science fiction authors: H.G. Wells, Jules Verne, Asimov and Bradbury. What strikes me as most special about Bradbury was that his voice was perhaps the most human of them all. Like Kurt Vonnegut Jr.’s, his voice never stopped being human. Vonnegut said he always found it odd that his work was classified as “science fiction,” a genre associated with pornography and kooks when his messages were fundamentally human ones. But the best science fiction is never about the “them,” it’s always about the “us.” And few other authors in the genre truly, lovingly, sadly, and unflinchingly understood “us” like Bradbury.
Curiously, I came to his work via Stephen King who quotes, at the beginning of his novel Firestarter, Guy Montag, the “Fireman” of Bradbuy’s Farenheit 451, saying: “It was a pleasure to burn.” It was that quote that set me off on reading the dystopian anti-censorship missive itself. I happened to be at that right age of junior high school where the anti-totalitarian and anti-censorship messages of Orwell, Bradbury, and Huxley really hit home.
It so happened that the year I picked up Farenheit, the Texas school board also presented us All Summer in a Day and The Pedestrian. We even got to watch the WonderWorks video presentation of “All Summer in a Day.”1 Additional stories appeared from time-to-time in the curriculum e.g. “The Veldt.”
It was some years later that I picked up The Martian Chronicles at Austin’s Half Price books location on Guadalupe. It is a science fiction collection like few others in its tone. In the same way everyone knows a Mondriaan or a van Gogh without doubt, reading a short story by Bradbury never leaves any doubt as to its author.
There’s no derring-do and space opera. There’s no robot or minxy space-kitten. There’s only a very human intimacy and a sadness that I can say I only learnt the word for recently: elegiac.2 That is mournful, relating to funerary proceedings.
Bradbury’s work has a supremely elegiac quality. It is reflective, quiet, and human-scale. I think that this quote from The Martian Chronicles shows the tonal voice common to it and the two short stories mentioned above:
We Earth Men have a talent for ruining big, beautiful things
Everywhere in Bradbury’s work we can find cruelty, short-temperedness, ignorance, pridefulness, the latter-day thumbprints of White Man’s Burden or a religion’s prosetylizing obligation (see: “The Fire Balloons”). Bradbury doesn’t excoriate, he doesn’t weep or gnash, he simply shows us our beastly nature nature for what it is and lets the emotional and physical desolation that we love to wreak reflect back onto us.
If you’ve never read the Martian Chronicles let me assure you that while the story is set on mars, it is a beautiful work of heart-aching truth. Those old-style science fiction authors mastered the short form and their elegies are like Zen bells’ chimes that move through you, change you, and leave you wondering about the change.
The pop musician known as Gotye has a song that captures the essence of Bradbury’s elegiac style:
But it was like to stop consuming's to stop being human And why'd I make a change if you won't? We're all in the same boat Staying afloat for the moment We walk the plank with our eyes wide open...
I don’t recall if it was the campy acting or our childish discomfort with the monstrosity we recognized in the childrens’ nature and thus or own that lead to a giggle fit at the climax of the story. Said fit earned the sharp repreimand of: “I didn’t know this was a comedy” from our teacher.
Thanks, Latin! Come to think of it, I think that the teacher in the film actually participated, tacitly, in the childrens’ cruelty to the protagonist. Perhaps worse than the action that centers the story is that the teacher was complicit.