Fare Thee Well, Rocket Man

I read a lot of sci-fi in my younger years, but mostly short stories. To me the short story was sci-fi's native form-- present an idea, initiate a conflict, resolve the conflict and see where the idea stands when the dust all settles.

The indelible link between short storytelling and sci-fi would bear fruit in the electronic media age, with The Twilight Zone, The Outer Limits, Star Trek and so on and so forth. The best sci-fi TV shows worked on the principle already established back in the pulp days.

Echoes of this formula can still be found in The X-Files and the better Fringe standalones. It's almost as brevity bolsters believability-- the longer you draw out the story, the more spaceships and tentacles that enter the picture, the more vulnerable that suspension of disbelief becomes.

And then there's Ray Bradbury. A lot of hard sci-fi fans bristle when he's named as a "sci-fi great," but that just goes to show how shallow, out of touch and self-marginalizing that microculture can be. Bradbury was the Poet Laureate of sci-fi, a master of the Space Age tone poem.

His stories were often sentimental, moralistic, scientifically illiterate and indelibly American, but they always had the feeling of a late night campfire or a tale told on a balmy evening on the veranda, watching the fireflies rise from the purple sunset and dance among the stars.

My first memory of Bradbury's work was The Illustrated Man, one of the last of a wave of 60s anthology format film. Apparently a box office bust, the film blew the top of my young head off. I can see its shortcomings now, but I can still feel the old wallop. With all of that stuff-- I still have a burning nostalgia for science fiction written by adults, not superannuated teenagers.

I have a burning nostalgia for the circuit that sustained writers like Bradbury- so many of his anthologies--Illustrated Man, Golden Apples of the Sun, Machineries of Joy, I Sing the Body Electric, and of course The Martian Chronicles-- that kept me company on long, boring commutes were collected stories Bradbury published in magazines. Not only sci-fi magazines but also mainstream ones, since he had such a tremendous appeal outside the bug-eyed monster ghetto.


A book-loving heretic to the end, Bradbury expressed his contempt for modern technology when his prophetic Fahrenheit 451 was adapted for an eBook:

As late as last year, Mr Bradbury remained firmly opposed to the idea of his book appearing as a digital title.

"I was approached three times during the last year by internet companies wanting to put my books on an electronic reading device," he told the Los Angeles Times in 2010.

"I said to Yahoo: 'Prick up your ears and go to hell.'"

He also complained about the spread of modern technology.

"We have too many cellphones. We've got too many internets. We have got to get rid of those machines. We have too many machines now," he said.

We have too much of a lot of things. And not enough of the quiet, reflective, dreaming hours that gave us giants like Ray Bradbury. With an empty, mindless, overheated media that makes stars of all of the narcissistic hustlers out there, selling themselves as product and recycling--or pirating-- all of their "ideas" from someone else, it may be some time before we see another.

But people like Ray Bradbury will still be read and treasured long after the hustlers and the pirates are dead and buried.

11 comments:

  1. I remember reading Fahrenheit 451 when I was in the 9th grade. It was the book the broke the walls between my life and the world of science fiction. This was a year after 9/11, and I could see so many parallels between what kind of things the book was protesting against, and what I was personally protesting against as the school system and the media turned into a jingoistic right-wing propaganda funnel. I could see in the book that I wasn't alone in my thoughts, and that it was inherently wrong to forbid certain kinds of information from reaching people.

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  2. "His stories were often sentimental, moralistic, scientifically illiterate and indelibly American, but they always had the feeling of a late night campfire or a tale told on a balmy evening on the veranda, watching the fireflies rise from the purple sunset and dance among the stars."

    This is a wonderful statement about an amazing writer. Thanks for this post... it is so much better than Neil Gaiman's samey samey, whimsical claptrap in The Guardian -and he met the man a bunch of times!

    Great post, Chris.

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  3. There used to be a bookstore in Laguna Beach, CA, called Fahrenheit 451. The one time I got to visit they had a news story pinned up at the register about a high school teacher who had students cross out words she didn't like from every school edition of Fahrenheit 451. At first I thought it was some sort of statement designed to really get the kids to understand censorship, but no. She was serious and didn't understand the irony at all.

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  4. Hey Chris,

    I remember Ray Bradbury from highschool. We used to read his stories for assignments and also watch his short movies.

    I remember the one in some distant world where a group of elderly folks (really old) one of them give birth to a baby. And the baby growing fast and is immediately given a task to go on a journey to deliver a message etc. And when he travel he ages fast and he reaches the destination when he becomes old. I don't know the name of this story but it struck a chord with me.

    Regards
    Kugan

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  5. Back when I read a lot I frequented used books stores. I miss the smell of used books - seemed it was a significant part of the book reading pleasure - especially paperbacks.

    I will have to pick up a copy of The Machineries of Joy. The cover intrigues me. I always thought Kubrick's 2001 hinted at the importance of the shamanistic experience - seeing the mushroom and rocket together on the cover reminds me of that.

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  6. Well written and well deserved. I devoured the Martian Chronicles as a teen, and F451 resonates with me still. I like the analogy to campfire tales...Ray's imagination was his marvelous gift, and our grievous loss. I hope his works last forever. Thank you for this...it really spun me down the long ages and pulled back the curtain of my lie.

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  7. I read "Fahrenheit 451" just after I read "Catcher",only days after Salinger's death.
    The funny thing was that they both died at the ripe old age of 91.

    And for all you sync heads and music lovers out there,just a reminder that "It's Not Night: It's Space" need just over $1000 in 6 days to get their first album recorded. So go here to throw your spare change at them -

    http://www.kickstarter.com/projects/innis/its-not-night-its-space-and-their-first-lp

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  8. Thanks for your caring and thoughtful farewell to Mr. Bradbury. This is also another one of those times where you smash the nail on top of its head. As you wrote about the media ' With an empty, mindless, overheated media that makes stars of all of the narcissistic hustlers out there, selling themselves as product and recycling--or pirating-- all of their "ideas" from someone else, it may be some time before we see another.'
    Gosh - that's so true. Let's hope Ray will one day get his wish - that we'll have fewer electronic 'things' one day, and writers, teachers and media folk who actually have something useful to say and report.
    Regards,
    Thrace

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  9. This man, and his writings, were (and still are, and always will be) magic.

    Rest in peace, o great imagineer.

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  10. Great remembrance, and great at evoking the experience of finding and reading a book, as a way of opening yourself up to the quiet roar of imagination.

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  11. Bradbury was definitely not a 'hard' Sci-Fi writer, but so what?

    Clarke was a genius in devising ways by which his imaginary universes could actually work; but on the process he lost sight of his characters, who almost always ended up bidimensional and unrelatable; that's why his most memorable character was, ironically, a neurotic computer.

    Bradbury on the other hand, never lost sight of the fact that humans needed to be the central core of his stories, because narrative is nothing but exploring the mystery of what it means to be human. And to him Science was the means by which man could raise himself and touch the hem of God --an idea that would appear pretty abhorrent to the atheist technocratic geeks of our era.

    See you later. I'm gonna Amazon me a nice bunch of Bradbury books now :)

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