|Ray Bradbury by Mayerik|
A brief survey of the short story part 19
A prodigiously inventive writer, the sprawling breadth of his output is a true marvel
Wednesday 15 July 2009 08.00 BST
The publication earlier this year of Ray Bradbury's latest short story collection, We'll Always Have Paris, marked a remarkable 71 years of production by one of the more inventive literary imaginations of the past century.
Since studying The Illustrated Man (1951) at school, I've always considered Bradbury a science fiction writer. As ever, some of his fans qualify this definition, seeing it as a sort of slur – and his detractors may misguidedly intend it as such.
Bradbury has made one of the simplest and most attractive responses I know to this sort of generic hand-wringing. In the introduction to his mammoth 1980 collection, The Stories of Ray Bradbury, he recounts his misery when playground teasing made him stop collecting Buck Rogers comics. Unhappy for a month, he eventually realised why:
"I went back to collecting Buck Rogers. My life has been happy ever since. For that was the beginning of my writing science fiction. Since then, I have never listened to anyone who criticised my taste in space-travel, sideshows or gorillas. When such occurs, I pack up my dinosaurs and leave the room."
True enough, when you plough through the 1.800 pages of his two-volume Collected Stories you discover various styles: fable, autobiography, horror, social comedy, murder mystery, romance. But most often and memorably his work falls into that territory best summed up as speculative fiction, with a particular emphasis on dystopian futures and the existential ramifications of space exploration.
Two powerful examples of this latter tendency are to be found in The Illustrated Man. No Particular Night or Morning centres on a conversation between two astronauts, with the exaggeratedly empiricist standpoint of one (what isn't in front of you might as well not exist) proving a treacherous position to adopt in deep space. Kaleidoscope, meanwhile, describes a starship's crew drifting in space after the destruction of their craft. As they begin to lose radio contact with each another they confront the collapse of sanity, attempts to face death with bravery, and the possibility that life is, after all, meaningless.
For a writer who can justly be accused of sentimentality (more on that later), Bradbury is very good at imagining nasty situations and playing them through to a bitter end. One of his masterpieces, The Long Rain, does just this; its Venus-stranded astronauts driven mad or to suicide by the pummelling downpour. His narration is strikingly pitiless.
One of the most attractive aspects of Bradbury's sprawling body of work is his habit of returning to certain themes and thinking his way laterally along them. If we reached Mars, what would it be like not only for the first astronauts to arrive, but for subsequent travellers, too? Colonists hoping for mercantile success, for example (The Off Season), or the first missionaries to the planet, who conclude Martians are perhaps more worthy of worship than their own god (The Fire Balloons)?
By approaching given situations from numerous different angles over the course of several stories a satisfying roundedness is attained – one with a short story's form but possessing some of the satisfactions of scope belonging to the novel. The Martian Chronicles (1950), which Bradbury has described as "half-cousin to a novel," achieves just this effect. Its stories run chronologically from 1999 to 2026 (a 1997 edition re-dates them 2030 to 2057) and chart humanity's relationship with Mars from exploration to colonisation, abandonment and, finally, as a refuge for the last humans.
As much as any of Bradbury's works, this collection illustrates his moral concerns. Global apocalypse is a recurrent theme, particularly in stories written in the first two decades after the second world war. A totalitarian future is often imagined (The Pedestrian; The Fox and the Forest). Another significant strand concerns racism and colonialism. In And the Moon Be Still as Bright, the archaeologist Spender compares man's arrival on Mars to his parents' attitude during a holiday to Mexico. In one of his finest stories, 1953's And the Rock Cried Out, a couple find themselves in Uruguay when the US is wiped out in a nuclear exchange. With American economic and military might eradicated, husband and wife become the unfortunate focus for years of subjugation and resentment.
The pastoral, small-town world of Bradbury's childhood is also held up as an idyll that has been trammelled, Mellin Town acting as the fictional stand-in for his own birthplace of Waukegan, Illinois. This aspect of his work can be sentimental and possessed of an overly cosy – arguably blinkered – nostalgia. Bradbury's oeuvre is so vast, however, that to dislike one part of it is not to dislike the whole. Like the abandoned film set of The Meadow (1953), his work is a fertile area to run wild in, the sheer profusion of its ideas richly stimulating.
039 William Trevor
040 JD Salinger
040 JD Salinger