Saturday, November 30, 2013

Exclusive! Collected Stories of Ray Bradbury Volume 2

Yes, it's a world exclusive: I can now reveal the contents of the second volume of The Collected Stories of Ray Bradbury: a Critical Edition, Volume 2: 1943-1944. The book is due for release from Kent State University Press in September 2014, and seems to already be available for pre-order from the publisher, here.

Attentive readers may have noticed that this second volume covers a much smaller time period than Volume 1, which spanned the period 1938-1943. This effectively reflects the accelerating pace of Bradbury's career as a professional writer, not necessarily writing more than previously, but getting more work published.

Without any further ado, here's the list of stories for Volume 2, courtesy of the book's editor, Jon Eller from the Center for Ray Bradbury Studies:
  1. The Sea Shell
  2. Everything Instead of Something (Doodad)*
  3. The Ducker*
  4. The Shape of Things (Tomorrow's Child)
  5. The Night
  6. Perchance to Dream (Asleep in Armageddon)
  7. Referent
  8. The Calculator (Jonah of the Jove Run)**
  9. The Emissary
  10. And Watch the Fountains**
  11. The Million Year Picnic
  12. The Man Upstairs
  13. Reunion
  14. Autopsy (Killer, Come Back to Me!)**
  15. The Long Night
  16. Lazarus Come Forth**
  17. There Was an Old Woman
  18. The Trunk Lady
  19. Jack-in-the-Box
  20. Where Everything Ends***
  21. Bang! You're Dead!
  22. Enter-the Douser (Half-Pint Homicide)
  23. Rocket Skin**
  24. Forgotten Man (It Burns Me Up!)
  25. The Jar
* These stories have not previously been collected in a Bradbury book, although they have been reprinted in anthologies in addition to their original magazine publication.

** These stories have never been published in a book; their only previous appearances were in their first magazine publication.

*** Only previously available within a limited edition volume from Subterranean Press.

The Collected Stories series was initiated by Bill Touponce and Jon Eller, with Bill as General Editor and Jon as Textual Editor. Now that Bill has retired (but still working on independent projects such as his recent book on Lovecraft, Dunsany and Bradbury), Jon has taken on all the editorial duties himself, supported by a small team of editorial associates at Indiana University's Institute for American Thought, and a couple of consulting editors: Donn Albright and a certain Phil Nichols.

Since the aim of the Collected Stories series is to establish Bradbury's versions of the texts - rather than versions modified by a magazine editor - Bradbury's own preferred titles are being used here wherever there is primary or secondary evidence to support it. So, for example, "Doodad" has it's original title "Everything Instead of Something" restored.

It's not just the titles: Collected Stories aims to identify Bradbury's intentions for each text, and this means going back to the author's own manuscripts where possible. In this instance,  Jon is using original Bradbury typescripts for three stories ("The Shape of Things", "The Man Upstairs", and "Where Everything Ends"), and original opening pages for nine others. Of these, Jon reports "We have first-page carbons that Ray appears to have saved as proof of date and authorship while stories circulated during the war years." Through this documentary research, the editorial team is able to not only retrieve otherwise forgotten story titles, but in some cases to also retain Bradbury's preferred spellings and compounds and reject the house-styled changes imposed by various pulp magazine editors.

Another aim of the series is to establish the chronology of composition, which previously was somewhat shrouded in mystery. There are at least two reasons for this. First, Bradbury's stories might circulate for a number of years before being chosen for publication by a magazine editor, and so we have a situation where a story might be written in 1943, but not be published until 1947. And second, most of us are familiar with the stories from their appearance in Bradbury's books, giving us the mistaken impression that stories published side-by-side are of a similar vintage - leading many a critic to draw invalid conclusions about Bradbury's authorship. The stories collected in Volume 2 span a compositional period from April 1943 to March 1944, one year of professional output.

For scholars, this volume will once again offer a new insight into Bradbury's developing professional authorship, and make plain his evolving ideas by showing those ideas in chronological order. For the general Bradbury reader, it will offer a chance to enjoy a number of previously rare and obscure tales. September 2014 is a long way off, but the wait will be worth it!

Tuesday, November 05, 2013

Destination: Planet Negro!

Destination: Planet Negro! is a low-budget American independent film from writer-director-actor Kevin Willmott. Out of the mainstream of commercial distribution, this satirical comedy is picking up some good reviews and festival commendations. It's politically incorrect in many places, but its social and political heart is in the right place: it uses an affectionate parody of early science fiction films to rapidly get to a smart but uncomfortable analysis of American politics of race.

The reason for this review on Bradburymedia? The premise of the film (but only the premise) coincides almost exactly with Ray Bradbury's assessment of "the Negro problem" (as it was then sometimes called) in his 1950 story "Way in the Middle of the Air", first published as a chapter of The Martian Chronicles.

In Bradbury's story, African-Americans have had enough, and spontaneously decide en masse that they are going to leave the Earth, and start again on Mars. Even at the time of publication, the story presented an unlikely scenario, but it allowed Bradbury to make some sharp points about the mistreatment of minorities, and some sections of the white population's inability to get over the idea of equality. Bradbury was aware of the difficult politics he was dealing with, and equally aware of the artificiality of the story. With the passage of time, and in particular the growth of the Civil Rights movement, "Way in the Middle of the Air" appeared dated, leading Bradbury to remove it from later reprintings of The Martian Chronicles. The story remained available as an isolated short story, but the author considered it no longer sustainable in a supposedly futuristic SF novel.

Destination: Mars. Turn left at the asteroid belt.

A similar logic motivates the black intelligentsia of the year 1939 at the start of Destination: Planet Negro! as they reluctantly agree that starting again elsewhere is the only solution to the "Negro problem". But where to go? Surely not to Africa, nor to the North or South Poles, nor to Europe. No, the solution is Mars. What convinces them is the expertise of Dr Warrington Avery (played by Willmott), backed up by a delightfully sprightly and potty-mouthed George Washington Carver. Carver's earlier liaison with Wernher von Braun and Robert Goddard has led to the development of a super-rocket, built on technology derived from peanuts and sweet potatoes ("What that man can't do with peanuts", says one observer).

Intrepid heroes: Tosin Morohunfola, Danielle Cooper, Kevin Willmott.

And so begins a film which looks for all the world like a fairly mindless comedy. Shot in black and white to resemble a contemporary science-fiction film, with a spaceship crew made up of Dr Avery, his beautiful and highly intelligent astronomer daughter, and barnstorming pilot Race ("Call me Ace"), it has some good sight gags and verbal wit. Oh, and a robot which George Washington Carver has programmed to sound like his master from slavery days. Like I said, political correctness is not a concern of this film!

Of course, trouble arises, and the ship is accidentally propelled not to Mars, but to some mysterious other world. At this point, the film goes to full colour, Wizard of Oz style. As our heroes explore this world, they discover it has some remarkable similarities to Earth. Humanoids. Speaking English (and Spanish). And indications of slavery. They get their first clue about the slavery when they are forced to ride with some Spanish-speaking migrant workers. "On our planet," observes Dr Avery, "they would be considered... Mexicans."

Dr Avery's theorising takes a slightly Bradburyan turn - echoes of Fahrenheit 451 in this case - when he observes that some of the natives have little wires running to their ears, which cause them to vibrate and gyrate. The wires are connected to "little typewriters." Clearly, a mechanism by which their overseers control them. Most disturbing of all: some of the slaves are obviously malnourished, and barely have the strength to hold up their pants.

Enslaved by the wires and the little typewriter.

Of course, they're on present-day Earth. Far from having travelled to a distant place, they have travelled through time. And here, while the humour continues, the film shows its true, Jonathan Swift-like technique: this is a pointed political satire, dressed up as comic fantasy. Our heroes learn about the Civil Rights movement, and how it brought about change - ultimately, a black president, black heroes of popular culture - but somehow still made little difference. Temporarily locked in jail, Dr Avery observes that all of his fellow prisoners are non-white. Segregation has ended?

Dr Avery explores modern day Kansas - another Oz reference, but Willmott also hails from Kansas. Accompanying Karen Wilborn, a professor of black studies, he is able to sum up with sadness what she teaches him about segregation and integration:

"So we integrated with them, but they... didn't integrate with us."

Twenty-first-century malnutrition: not even the strength to pull up their pants.

The film confronts head-on the apparent paradox of twenty-first-century American race politics: the biggest American heroes of movies, music, sport and politics may be black; but at the same time, the prison population is predominantly black. It also, by way of a subplot, head-on addresses homophobia and its apparent persistence in American black culture, and indeed has a gay character ultimately saving the world through safe sex and a time-paradox plot to kill Hitler. (It's hard to explain. You'll have to watch the film.)

As a low-budget film, it occasionally struggles with technical problems, such as the odd quirk in the soundtrack, but surprisingly the SF stuff - rocketships, meteors, black holes - is done well, in its "Buster Crabbe, Flash in the pan" way, to paraphrase one of the characters.

To be honest, as a white Englishman, I can't imagine that I am the intended audience for this film, and I'm sure its true audience will appreciate it even more than I do. But whether you enjoy it for the SF spoofiness, the politics, George Washington Carver saying "motherf***er", or a 1930s barnstormer learning to do a twenty-first-century urban walk, enjoy it you probably will.

Learning to walk the walk.

I don't know when, or even if, you will get a chance to see this film, but you can follow it on its Facebook page, and perhaps catch a screening at a film festival some time. Don't be put off by its illusion of Flash Gordon or Conquest of Space datedness, or its slightly slow and talky opening. It's a witty and well constructed story, played by some excellent actors, just done on a low budget. I want to see more from Kevin Wilmott, evidently a clever satirist.

As we remember him today? George Washington Carver. What that man can't do with peanuts.

This is one of two films to come out this year with a premise that sounds like a Bradbury story (the other one is Gravity, whose premise sounds like the short story "Kaleidoscope"). Beyond the premise, though, I can safely say that this is not Bradbury. But it does have a satiric edge and a plea for diversity which Ray might approve of.

Saturday, November 02, 2013

Searching for Ray Bradbury

Earlier this year Bl├╝roof Press released Searching for Ray Bradbury: Writings about the Writer and the Man by Steven Paul Leiva, a collection of essays written during Bradbury's final years and since his death in 2012. Novelist Leiva was central to several tributes to Bradbury in Los Angeles, and it is thanks to his efforts that the city officially celebrated Bradbury's ninetieth birthday with Ray Bradbury Week in 2010, named Ray Bradbury Square next to the Los Angeles Public Library, and recently dedicated the Palms-Rancho Branch Library in Bradbury's name.

Searching for Ray Bradbury reads as a personal journey, revealing something of what made Bradbury a significant figure in American literature and Los Angeles' civic affairs. It also, in a way, is a search for Steven Paul Leiva, addressing the question: who is this fellow who has helped bring Bradbury the recognition he deserves?

Let me first say that this isn't the kind of book to tell you a great deal about Bradbury - for that, you need a biography like Weller's The Bradbury Chronicles,  or a literary biography like Eller's Becoming Ray Bradbury. But Searching for Ray Bradbury does give a unique view of a moment of transition, where celebration of Bradbury's longevity necessarily gave way to memorialising. 

The slim volume (just under ninety pages) is best seen as a thick chapbook rather than an undersized paperback, and is modestly priced at $5.39 on Amazon, but is also available for Kindle at $1.99. I have read only the print version, but I understand that the Kindle version omits the photographs found in the print version.

The book's cover is a reproduction of Lou Romano's affectionate caricature of Ray Bradbury, originally created for the Writers' Guild magazine Written By (you can read Romano's own fascinating account of the creation of this piece on his own blog, here.) The foreword is written by SF writer and futurist David Brin, who gives his appreciation of Bradbury's ability to both explore the darkness of the human heart and promote a optimistic vision of humankind's future beyond the Earth, an idea which Leiva also picks up on in one of the essays. Brin describes Leiva's book as a "personal and deeply moving tribute" which shines a loving light upon some little known aspects of this intricate and deeply passionate man".

So what of the essays contained here? They were all originally published elsewhere - some of them on Leiva's own blog This 'n' That, others in places such as Written By, and The Huffington Post. While each one was written for a different, specific purpose, collecting them together here allows us to see a broader picture. Articles which were illuminating celebrations with Bradbury in life are now joined with items which to some extent eulogise the late author. It's great to see the pictures of Bradbury and Leiva triumphantly enjoying the dedication of Ray Bradbury Week, and quite poignant to then see the photos of the tributes a couple of years on, after Ray's passing.

The first essay, "Searching for Ray Bradbury," originally appeared in an L.A.Times blog,and attempts to give an account of what Ray Bradbury is, and where such an individual comes from. Leiva addresses what most people (think they) know about Bradbury: science fiction, and small-town America. He could have presented this essay as biography, but he chooses instead to take a Bradburyan turn and address it through metaphor:

Where did Bradbury come from? A magnificently powered nineteenth century submarine travelling 20,000 leagues; a time machine traversing centuries; a lost world where dinosaurs roam [...]
Bradbury defies easy categorisation, Leiva decides, concluding that a new word will be needed in dictionaries. "What is Bradbury?" he asks. His answer: "Bradbury is Bradbury."

The second essay, "Ray Bradbury Week in Los Angeles," explains how the previous essay led directly to Leiva's creation of Ray Bradbury Week, a week-long celebration of Bradbury's life and work, timed to coincide with Bradbury's ninetieth birthday on 22 August 2010. I was fortunate enough to get to L.A. around the time of these events, and attended Ray's public birthday party, held in Glendale's wonderful Mystery & Imagination bookshop. I had to leave before the official week began, but the party gave me an opportunity to briefly meet Steven Paul Leiva, and to see him MCing the open-mic tributes to Ray which ran throughout the afternoon. The essay on Ray Bradbury Week is surprisingly brief, and in the context of the book seems unduly modest for such a grand achievement. It's not every day that a major city dedicates itself unreservedly to the celebration of an author, and I can't help feeling that it was a lot more difficult to negotiate than Leiva allows us to believe in this chapter. Nevertheless, the photos in this section speak volumes, showing us Bradbury looking sometimes proud, sometimes awed, and occasionally overwhelmed by his adopted home's expression of affection. (It occurs to me that this chapter will lose some of its power in the Kindle edition, where the pictures have been removed.)

Ray's 90th Birthday Cake: a burning book

Essay three, "London to Los Angeles, Dickens to Bradbury: a Tale of Two Signs" sees Leiva on his first naive visit to London, literally stumbling in the dark as he tries to make sense of his new surroundings, and serendipitously spotting a sign linking a church to a Dickens novel. In parallel to this, he writes of driving around Venice, California, in search of the houses Bradbury had lived in when he first moved to the West Coast. Bradbury makes a brief appearance in this piece, a sad tale in which the old Bradbury house is demolished. Fortunately, a sign attached to the house, commemorating Bradbury's having written The Martian Chronicles there, turns up, and Leiva is the one to report this happy news to others who feared it had been lost along with the house itself. A somewhat rambling piece - how did we get from a flat in London to a demolished house in Venice, CA? - but an effortless one which begins to fulfill the book's title Searching for Ray Bradbury and in the process begins to reveal just a little of Leiva's background.

The third essay also introduces Jon Eller, the co-founder of the Center for Ray Bradbury Studies, as a somewhat intrepid biographer, and essay number four follows directly on from this, being a review of Eller's book Becoming Ray Bradbury. It's a fine assessment of a fine book, bookended with a couple of anecdotes of Leiva's friendship with Bradbury.

My personal favourite of the essays collected here is chapter five, "Masterheart of Mars". Here Leiva explains how it was that Bradbury, that most non-technical of SF writers (if he even really was an SF writer; Leiva says he wasn't, and I tend to agree) came to be such an enormous inspiration to space scientists, to the extent that the team in charge of the Curiosity Mars rover decided to name the planetary explorer's base "Bradbury Landing" in 2012. Leiva puts it down to Bradbury's almost instinctive address of three aspects of the human condition which led him to advocate moving our species out to the planets, starting at Mars: we have an urge to survive, we have an urge to seek knowledge, and we have a difficult-to-define urge to not be hemmed in. This last is something that Leiva is ambivalent about, saying it is either incredibly primitive, or incredibly advanced. The resolution to that particular conundrum is probably to be found in Leiva's smart characterisation of Bradbury as "a romantic with a nineteenth century imagination combined with twentieth century anxieties", an assessment which successfully accounts for the yearning-yet-jaded view of humankind in The Martian Chronicles.

Ray signs a poster at the Chronicling Mars conference in 2008

Essay six is a brief account of the creation of Ray Bradbury Square, a public space at Fifth and Flower in Los Angeles, right outside the public library that meant so much to Bradbury. Essay seven then continues the story with a detailed account of the dedication ceremony. As with the declaration of "Ray Bradbury Week" there is a sense of celebration, but this time with the tinge of sadness that Bradbury was not around to see the simple legend "Author - Angeleno" beneath his name.

Signage at Ray Bradbury Square, Los Angeles

Finally, essay eight tackles the title of the volume, and searches for the real Ray Bradbury. Here Leiva goes into the greatest detail about his own personal connection to Bradbury, which dates back to work they did together on a film adaptation of Winsor McCay's Little Nemo in Slumberland. Leiva points to a transition which had somehow occurred in Bradbury's career, where he slipped from being "just" an author with the near anonymity that so often accompanies authorship, to being a sought-after interviewee, public speaker and raconteur. Leiva almost suggests embarrassment at having, for a time, fallen into just seeing Ray as the the public persona. The essay shows how he re-connected with Bradbury the author through directing a staged reading of "The Better Part of Wisdom" in 2010.

Bradbury as public speaker

Searching for Ray Bradbury is a brisk read, partly because it is a slim volume, but also because of Leiva's essay-writing skill. Because of his initiation of so many Bradbury tributes, there is a danger that this collection could place Leiva at the centre of events, and inadvertently become self-aggrandising. But what lifts the book above this is precisely the way he finds the object of his search: hidden in plain sight, right there in Bradbury the public persona, is Bradbury the humanitarian, Bradbury the author. Leiva finds the true Bradbury by connecting anew with Bradbury's text.

Steven Paul Leiva at Mystery & Imagination bookshop in 2010