Sunday, June 10, 2012

The Million-Year Picnic

“Aw-w-w-w-w,” said the woman behind the counter at Shakespeare & Co when I bought The Martian Chronicles and The Illustrated Man last Friday.  I smiled sheepishly, as if to say, "Yeah, I feel like an idiot having to buy them again, but damned if I know where my original copies of these are.”

“We must be all out now,” she said.

I shook my head.  “One left of each.  Which is more than any Barnes & Noble in the city.”

“You’re joking.”

“Nope.  Looked it up online.  Out of stock everywhere.”

“Well that’s a crime.”

“If it is, it’s the kind of crime independent bookstores were created to solve.”  Then I went “Heh,” and smiled, and said, “That sounds like the kind of story Bradbury would write, doesn’t it?"

The first Bradbury I ever read was in seventh-grade English class in 1964.  It was an excerpt from Dandelion Wine--I forget what it was called as a short story, but in the book, it's the chapter about the serial killer called The Lonely One, and how a couple of women find the dead body of one of his victims in the ravine as they’re on their way to the movies, and how one of the women, the coolest and the calmest of them, gets more and more frightened as she walks home alone, until she finally gets into the safety of her home, all of which is a set up for the final ten-word sentence, which took my breath away when I first read it.  And still did, when I re-read it on Friday. I didn’t know it was from Dandelion Wine until later, and if you ask me to label that story even now, I wouldn’t say it was science fiction.   And Dandelion Wine itself, with its picture-precise boy’s-eye-view of the world, and its various takes on time machines? Call it the birth of magic realism.  In the country of imagination, Green Town Illinois in 1928 is just across the river from Macondo.

Of the original fantastic four--Asimov, Bradbury, Clarke, Heinlein--Bradbury outlived them all.  I want to add “in life, as he will, from now on, in the literary afterlife,” but that’s as up in the air as a rocket ship.  More people read Emily Dickinson last week than they ever did while she was alive; who could have predicted that?  Not Emily, certainly.  And when it comes to science fiction, it’s even harder to predict.  (Which is a kind of a pun, yeah.)    

Why do I think Bradbury will outlive them all? Well, the Big Four had very different views of science.  The easiest way to think of it is, if there’s a rocket ship, then Clarke tells you how the engine works, Heinlein gives you the politics behind the rocket's construction, Asimov shows you the effect of rocket ships on society, and Bradbury tells you a story about the crew.  In his science-fiction stories, people trump technology.  Which makes the best of those stories timeless, because (so far at least) the big difference between human nature and technology is that only technology ever changes.

The fact that science fiction is a large enough province to claim both Clarke and Bradbury as model citizens ought to remind us not only of how false genre labels can be, but how certain attitudes and expectations can carry implicit value judgments.  Like, for instance, “Bradbury didn’t have enough science to be a true science fiction writer.”  Meaning like Clarke, or Larry Niven, or Ben Bova.  To which you could say “Neither did Philip K Dick, and he couldn’t write an elegant sentence if he transcribed The Importance Of Being Earnest.”  A reply which, I think, points to what makes Bradbury Bradbury.  The writing.  He’s more like a well-adjusted Poe than a Clarke or an Asimov.  In a lot of ways, their inclusion of social and technological speculation dates them ("Oh wow--this is how the 90's looked to somebody in the 40's!").  With Bradbury, it's more like: "Oh wow--what a cool fable about (Mars/time travel/censorship/a homicidal newborn/everybody waking up one day and knowing it’s the end of the world)."

For example: I re-read The Martian Chronicles this weekend, and in the chapter entitled "The Third Mission," which was originally published as “Mars Is Heaven” in 1948, there’s a line that jars like a pothole.  Instead of Martians, the crew of the ship encounters the inhabitants of a middle-America town who all think it’s 1926.  Trying to get his head around this, Captain John Black  says:

“I didn’t ask for a thing like this.  It scares the hell out of me.  How can a thing like this happen?  I wish we’d brought Einstein with us.”

Feel that bump?  That’s the kind of thing you feel when you re-read Clarke, and Asimov, and even Heinlein, and you’re brought up short by a detail that dates the story as surely as seeing a rotary phone in a 50’s movie about space travel.  When you realize that the Mars landing in the original 1948 story was supposedly taking place in 1960, it makes a little more sense.  But it’s still the kind of chronism (as opposed to anachronism) that you don’t normally find in Bradbury.

Bradbury may be at the same table with Asimov, Clarke and Heinlein, but to me, he’s sitting with Poe on one side and Stephen King on the other--King, the other child who never grew up, who can tell a story that grabs you by the shoulders and throws you in the death seat of a Plymouth Fury and drives you to the gates of What The Hell and back.  Bradbury does the same thing, except more politely.  And, because his natural medium is the short story, more quickly. And double and, because King and Bradbury both enjoy the dismissive condescension of so-called Real Writers, their popularity becomes not only a badge of honor, but an implicit critique of those who think that reading should be work and not pleasure.

And pleasure, in the end, is what I think will make Bradury the Poe of our grandchildren, as opposed to the Dunsany of our grandparents.  (“Who?” you’re saying.  “Exactly,” I reply.)

In the story “--and the Moon Be Still as Bright,” which is a line from one of my favorite poems, Spender the archaeologist is trying to explain to Captain Wilder what made the Martians different:

“They quit trying too hard to destroy everything, to humble everything.  They blended religion and art and science because, at base, science is no more than an investigation of a miracle we can never explain, and art is an interpretation of that miracle.”

Science is no more than an investigation of a miracle we can never explain, and art is an interpretation of that miracle.

Can you see Asimov, Clarke or Heinlein writing that sentence?

I can’t.  And if they could, it wouldn’t sing the same way, or even sing at all. That’s what makes Bradbury stand out.  Like the best science fiction, what he wrote wasn’t just science fiction.  In his case, it was poetry.

The story above was originally printed in Weird Science #18; it was adapted by Al Feldstein and drawn by (the great) Wally Wood.  You can download it here.


DidimiChierico said...

Good to see you back blogging & with flying colors!

I think I still have the paperback of DANDELION WINE from BC High. I'll have to look for it. I definitely have one bottle of the wine we made on the bookcase next to my desk. God (or Bradbury) knows what it has morphed into after 40+ years in a recycled Mountain Dew bottle sealed with candle wax.....

QV said...

The Martian Chronicles informed my SF-sucking adolescent brain like few other. Your comparison of the "Big Four" is most apt; there are few new writers that can fill any of those shoes. Great piece, Matt.

Molly said...

My mind wanders and waters for non-work-related reading. Can we all go home and read some Bradbury and King and Poe and poetry...?