Saturday, March 31, 2012


In the US, the NEA's "Big Read" programme continues, and Bradbury's Fahrenheit 451 is again a popular book for communities of readers to gather around. LA-based Bradbury would probably be pleased to hear that nearby West Hollywood will play host to a number of events linked to F451. Details are here.

Illustrator Gary Gianni - whose artwork has accompanied the words of Melville, Edgar Rice Burroughs, Robert Louis Stevenson and many others - has created illustrations for a new chapbook, The Nefertiti-Tut Express: a Story in Screenplay. The text is taken from a previously unpublished Bradbury screen treatment dating originally from the mid 1970s. Originally due to appear in 2011, I hear that the book will be out during 2012. More details on the curious history of Bradbury's text can be found on Gianni's website.

Last year, Michael O'Kelly staged Live Forever, a play about Ray Bradbury's life. Now, he has a short film which is being entered into a film festival, and which is intended to be part of a much longer DVD study of the author. More details in this story from the Ventura County Star.

If you happen to be in Denver, Colorado, in April you can see a production of Bradbury's stage play version of Fahrenheit 451. Details are here.

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Kingsley Amis on Something Wicked

From the 1960s onwards, one of the most influential British literary commentators on science fiction was the novelist and critic Kingsley Amis. Best known for his novel Lucky Jim, Amis was particularly fond of the social satire strand of SF as exemplified by Pohl and Kornbluth. Amis delivered a series of lectures on science fiction while working in the US, and these were published in 1960 as New Maps of Hell, a book which did much to help contemporary science fiction regain a level of respectability which it had largely lost thanks to the garish pulp magazines and monstrous giant ant movies of the '50s.

In 1963, Amis was tasked with reviewing Bradbury's Something Wicked This Way Comes, recently released in a first edition from Ruper Hart-Davis (pictured, left), for the Observer newspaper. The review appeared on 24 February 1963.

Unfortunately, Something Wicked did not strike the right note with Amis. After outlining what he saw as the difference between science fiction and fantasy - the one built on logic and extrapolation, the other built on "whimsy" - he turned to an assessment of Bradbury. "Except at his very best (in Fahrenheit 451, for instance), he has always tended to overwrite, to load every rift not with ore but with pyrites", he writes, implying that Bradbury is already past his best. This assessment seems to have become accepted wisdom in the UK from around this time.

Amis then summarises the plot of the novel. He finds most of Bradbury's plot choices to be largely arbitrary or unmotivated:
A carnival turns up from somewhere under the management of Mr Dark, who is death or the devil or somebody. He operates a carousel which adds to or subtracts from your age somehow, so that a small boy becomes 200 years old and his aunt regresses to childhood. A freak show includes a Fat Man who grew fat through lusting too much or something, and an ex-lightning-rod salesman squashed into dwarfism because he was really a small man in some way. There is a witch, halfheartedly modernised, who travels by balloon instead of broomstick.
 The review is amusing, but doesn't admit of any possibility of symbolism or magic as organising principles in a fantasy story, and suggest a reviewer who is hostile to the genre as much as he is hostile to the work under review.

As for the science fiction genre, in 1981 SF writer J.G.Ballard reviewed an anthology Amis had newly compiled, entitled The Golden Age of Science Fiction. In the twenty-odd years since New Maps of Hell, according to Ballard, Amis had shifted from a position of championing the genre of SF to being quite hostile to much of it. You can read Ballard's pithy and perceptive comments here.

Saturday, March 17, 2012

Death, Maidens

Ray Bradbury has on more than occasion written about old ladies and their encounters with death. Sometimes he does it with humour, and sometimes with a serious tone. But always it is with a strong old lady, who is able to confront death and sometimes tell it who's boss.

A serious but quirky treatment is given in "Good-by Grandma", a short story first published in the Saturday Evening Post on 25 May 1957, and shortly afterwards incorporated into the novel Dandelion Wine. The Post version of the story was accompanied by Peter Stevens' paintings of the magnificently active grandmother (left).

This old lady passes away when she wants to. Bradbury treats her death not so much as an end as a return, a picking up of a thread:

A long time back, she thought, I dreamed a dream, and was enjoying it so much, when someone wakened me, and that was the day when I was born. And now? Now, let me see. She cast her mind back. Where was I? she thought.
In the earlier short story "There Was An Old Woman", first published in Weird Tales in July 1944, Bradbury gives us an old lady who resists death with all her might. It's not so much that she is scared of it; more a case of not having time for such nonsense:

"Why, it's just silly that people live a couple years and then are dropped like a wet seed in a hole and nothing sprouts but a smell. What good do they do that way? They lay there a million years, doing no good for nobody. Most of 'em fine, nice and neat people, or at least trying."

This story was illustrated by Boris Dolgov, who shows death as a cowed skeleton, chased off by Aunt Tildy. The story was collected in Bradbury's books Dark Carnival, The October Country and The Stories of Ray Bradbury. Bradbury also adapted it for The Ray Bradbury Theater.

A third classic Bradbury meeting between death and an old lady is "Death and the Maiden", which first appeared in Fantasy and Science Fiction in March 1960, and later collected in The Machineries of Joy and Bradbury Stories.

This old lady, the 91-year-old Mam, is a bit like Aunt Tildy in her opposition to death:
“I see you. Death.” would cry Old Mam. “In the shape of a scissors-grinder! But the door is triple-locked and double-barred. I got flypaper on the cracks, tape on the keyholes, dust mops up the chimney, cobwebs in the shutters, and the electricity cut off so you can’t slide in with the juice! No telephones so you can call me to my doom at three in the dark morning. And I got my ears stuffed with cotton so I can’t hear your reply to what I say now. So, Death, get away!”
 But this time death is more subtle. It comes not as a skeleton but as a handsome young man, who brings Mam the promise of re-experiencing the freedom she hasn't allowed herself since the age of eighteen. She finally comes to believe in the man, and accepts the trade he offers. After years of living alone, locked away from the world and the risk of death, Old Mam steps out:
And they ran down the path out of sight, leaving dust on the air and leaving the front door of the house wide and the shutters open and the windows up so the light of the sun could flash in with the birds come to build nests, raise families, and so petals of lovely summer flowers could blow like bridal showers through the long halls in a carpet and into the rooms and over the empty-but-waiting bed. And summer, with the breeze, changed the air in all the great spaces of the house so it smelled like the Beginning or the first hour after the Beginning, when the world was new and nothing would ever change and no one would ever grow old.
Bradbury took the title of this story from an old legend, one which has inspired generations of artists. Read about the history of "death and the maiden" here.

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Jerry Oltion

I confess that I haven't read any of the fiction by Jerry Oltion, but I am aware of his name. He is a Nebula Award-winning short story writer and novelist, and holds a remarkable record: he has had more fiction published in Analog (the legendary hard SF magazine that began life as Astounding way back in the pulp days) than any other author. Only Poul Anderson comes close.

Why am I writing about an author I've never read?

Because I just saw an interesting account of a talk he gave as part of a "Big Read" programme in Oregon, which (as so often) sees Bradbury's Fahrenheit 451 being adopted for community-wide reading. Oltion talks about definitions of science fiction, and his approach to writing. He also mentions that writing is the hardest work he has ever done... and he compares it to his earlier work as a stonemason and garbage man. Like many writers, he has a bleak view of the future of the publishing industry, and firmly believes that the future is in the e-book or online publishing.

Of all of Oltion's comments, the one I found most interesting was his discussion of how he views plotting a story. He says:
Plot, for me, is the simplest thing to write. You stick up a bunch of dominoes and you push the first one and the rest of them go. Those make the most beautiful stories. And Fahrenheit 451 is definitely one of those. 
The full account of Oltion's presentation is here, and you can visit his website here.

Sunday, March 11, 2012

The World the Children Made

"The World the Children Made" was the title given to Bradbury's story "The Veldt" when it made its first appearance, in Saturday Evening Post on 23 September 1950.

In that first appearance, the story was accompanied by a magnificent painting (left) by Al Parker. Rather than showing a room which contains a virtual-reality African veldt, Parker paints a veldt which is somehow disrupted by the opening of a door. The painting puts the children firmly in control of this room, by keeping the adult outside, and by giving the boy a stance that says "What do YOU want?"

The story has since become one of Bradbury's classics, anthologised countless times. It has been collected in three of Bradbury's own books: The Illustrated Man, The Vintage Bradbury and The Stories of Ray Bradbury. And it has been adapted for radio, film, television and stage.

The story is an odd morality tale. As so often in Bradbury stories, the people who have a lesson to learn are not the children but the adults. In this story, the children are at best amoral. The adults suffer, but ultimately it's their bad parenting that brings them to a terrible end. (Note how I am trying to avoid discussing the detail of the plot. If you haven't read this story, you really should read it. Now!)

What did the first readers of this story make of it, back in 1950? The letters column of the Saturday Evening Post gives us an answer. Here are some of the readers' comments:

...Let me tell you that Ray Bradbury's story in the September 23rd Post, THE WORLD THE CHILDREN MADE, is a gem. A horribly good story...

...Brother, all I can say is that I'm glad my kiddies are still in the one- and two-syllable reading stages, because if they could soak up that story, I wouldn't dare sleep nights, childhood being what it is...

...I thought it had no interest at all, particularly the ending. Who ever heard of imaginary lions eating real people?...

For those who can't even conceive of what the last reader was describing, the Post provides a little cartoon:

Thursday, March 08, 2012

The Smile

The summer of 1952 saw the first issue of a fiction magazine called Fantastic, which boasted a star-studded line-up: not only Ray Bradbury, but Raymond Chandler, Walter M. Miller Jr, Kris Neville, Isaac Asimov and Horace L. Gold.

The magazine was a sister publication to Amazing Stories: Amazing concentrated on the science fiction end of the market, while Fantastic concentrated on fantasy. It would prove to be a successful and durable publication, as it containued to appear right up until 1980.

Bradbury's contribution to this first issue was his short story "The Smile", which made its first appearance here. The story is one of his most collected: you can find it in the following Bradbury books: A Medicine for Melancholy, Bradbury Stories: 100 of His Most Celebrated Tales, S is for Space, The Day it Rained Forever, Twice 22, and Match to Flame.

"The Smile" is one of Bradbury's after-the-apocalypse tales, set in a non-specific future and a non-specific location.The people in the story gather to ritually abuse all the remnants of the civilisation they have lost. One character stands apart, however, a young boy who manages to rescue a piece of the spat-upon Mona Lisa, which he hurries away with. Ostensibly a bleak story, in that it shows a collapsed world full of disgust for the causes of collapse, it becomes one of Bradbury's feel-good stories because of the element of hope represented by the smile that the boy manages to rescue. It's an example of what I like to think of as a muted renaissance. Not a true re-birth, but the first glimmer of hope that there might be a re-birth. The Bradbury of the 1950s excelled at this kind of thing. Fahrenheit 451 does something similar, but on a grander scale.

Writing at the time, the editors of Fantastic had this to say about Bradbury:

Few readers are neutral where Ray Bradbury is concerned: he's been called everything from a "chromium-age Thoreau" to a "hyperbole-happy hater of humanity". Both quotes seem more precious than pertinent - but the fact remains that almost as much has been written about Bradbury as by him. His work has appeared in smooth-paper magazines, in the pulps, on radio and television, as well as in numerous anthologies and pocket editions.
We offer "The Smile" as typical Bradbury: a sensitive and significant theme against a background filled with the gritty desolation of a lost world too many of us may help to make.

Illustration by L.Sterne Stevens, Fantastic, Summer 1952

Sunday, March 04, 2012

Author Bio

In the June-July 1953 issue, Fantastic Universe carried a brand new Bradbury short story called "Time In Thy Flight", which received top billing on the cover. The strap line for the story was "The circus, Hallowe'en, the Glorious Fourth may go - yet eternal is their pull on a child's heart."

(Or, we may add, on Bradbury's heart!)

The story also has a cute little biography of Bradbury:

Most Ray Bradbury readers seem to think of him as a sort of Charles Addams character sprung to life. Actually he is a handsome, cheerful and enthusiastic trnasplanted Californian with wife (1) and children (2), who looks far more at home over a broiled steak than a dish of pickled owl's eyes. Yet few living authors have vast sweep of fantasy or chill brush of horror. We're proud to offer his newest story.

Thursday, March 01, 2012

To Fairyland By Rocket

Eric Rabkin once wrote an essay on Bradbury called "To Fairyland By Rocket". In that title alone, Rabkin encapsulates something fundamental about Bradbury's writing: the collision or co-existence of fantasy and science fiction.

Bradbury is quite clear on what he considers to be science fiction. Fahrenheit 451, he tells us, is SF precisely because it is possible. It is a warning about the future, extrapolating from the technologies and the culture prevalent at the time of writing the novel.

The Martian Chronicles, on the other hand, is in Bradbury's view pure fantasy. The reason? It is impossible. No way it could ever happen. Yes, it has allegorical properties, and in its re-casting of the American experience of the frontier it unveils some profound truths. But it isn't an extrapolation of a possible future, merely a fanciful presentation of a world that never was.

It is The Martian Chronicles above all which gives Rabkin the fuel for his discussion of how Bradbury uses off-the-shelf imagery from SF and places it in a world - all crystal pillars, masks and flame birds - which is straight out of a fairy story.

Another story which I have always considered to be part of this approach is "Here There Be Tygers", about an expedition to a planet which turns out to be a paradise that seems to grant any wish. Bradbury doesn't refer to wishes, instead presenting the story in terms of a planet that can somehow read thought, but a wish-fulfilment fantasy is what is at the heart of the story.

The "fairyland by rocket" aspect of the story is captured neatly in the artwork accompanying the story when it was reprinted in Amazing Stories in April-May 1953. The illustration by Tom O'Sullivan (below - click on image to enlarge) captures a facnciful moment of flight - probably the most memorable sequence of the story - while in the background is the standard 1950s SF rocket.

(The amusing blurb in the magazine more or less apologises for re-printing a story, which was due to the expected new Bradbury story not arriving in time.)

"Here There Be Tygers" was first published in an anthology called New Tales of Space and Time in 1951. It was later collected in two Bradbury volumes: R is for Rocket and the UK Day it Rained Forever.