Bradbury Revisited

By Dr. Willis E. McNelly

The Apollo Astronauts had just landed ten hours earlier. A graying. long-haired middle-aged man was addressing a packed lecture hall. He spoke boldly.

"Why do I write science fiction? My God, in this age that sees us on the moon will see us reach the stars, what else is there to write.

Ray Bradbury grinned and peered through his thick-lensed glasses. "To tell the truth," he added, "I don't think anything else is worth writing, and I'm sure that the literature of the future," he paused at the ambiguity, delightedly, "the literature of the future will be science fiction."

The college was located in a suburb near Los Angeles, Bradbury's home, but it could have been one of many colleges or universities throughout the country. Bradbury is a popular lecturer, a good one, and, with the exception of Kurt Vonnegut, the only writer of science fiction respected by the academy. His audiences are appreciative, not only of the intrinsic interest in his subject matter, but of his style and personality. He is witty, unselfconscious, and incredibly charming. "Isn't it great to hear a good lecture, for a change," one irreverent student was overheard to say.

The lecture itself was a variation on Bradbury's most fundamental theme: contemporary literature, to reflect its age, must depict man existing in an increasingly technological era. Man must be the master of the machine, not its slave or robot. Bradbury's writing, like that of W. B. Yeats, whom he greatly admires, is an art that firmly recognizes its dependence upon life. Bradbury would agree with Yeats in "The Circus Animals' Desertion,"

I must lie down where all
the ladders start,
In the foul rag-and-bone
shop of the heart.

Paradoxically-and to some of his friends it seems almost a perverse paradox-Bradbury does not drive a car even though he lives in the freeway capital of the world. He stoutly maintains that his refusal to learn to drive is not a simplistic anti-machine phobia, but the result of a subliminal healthy appreciation of the automobile. His aversion springs from the hegira his family made from the Mid- west to Los Angeles in the depths of the depression. The roads were strewn with hulks of broken cars, he recalls.

"But I don't mind not driving. I walk. Everywhere. I take busses and read while I'm waiting for them and while I'm on them. And I use the time to observe, to make notes, to let my unconscious mull over my experiences until a story emerges.

"Driving takes too much of your mind, I think," he said before the lecture. "When I walk or ride trains or busses, I don't have to concentrate on what I'm doing and the ideas can churn around inside."

He has been described as a fantast in the tradition of Poe, Dunsany, or even of Kafka, an optimistic Kafka, to be sure, but like the Austrian, nonetheless. And a critic of the stature of Gilbert Highet has called him one of the most original American authors. Others, less friendly, maintain that Bradbury's style is over-enthusiastic, his characters shallow, and his situ- ations redolent of a nostalgia for a time that never was. Science fiction fans, on the other hand, always anxious to achieve some respectability for their overly-maligned enthusiasm, claim that Bradbury is the harbinger of great writers someday to emerge from their field.

There is a degree of accuracy to each of these assessments, of course. In one sense he is a visionary who writes not of the impediments of science, but of its effects upon man. Fahrenheit 451, in the final analysis, is not a novel about the tech- nology of the future, and it is only secondarily about censorship or book-burning. In actuality it is the story of Bradbury, disguised as Montag, and his lifelong love affair with books. If the love of a man and a woman is worth notarizing, so also is the love of a man and an idea. A man may have a wife or a mistress or two in his lifetime and the situation may become the valuable seedstuff of literature, but that same man may in the same lifetime have an endless series of affairs with books, and the offspring can become great literature. For that reason, Bradbury feels that Truffaut was quite successful in translating the spirit of the novel, and the viewer who expects futuristic hardware or science fiction gimmickry will be disappointed in the motion picture. "Look at it through the eyes of the French im- pressionists," Bradbury suggests. "See the poetic romantic vision of Pissaro. 'Monet. Renoir, Seurat, or 'Manet that Truffaut evokes in the film, and then remember that this method was his metaphor to capture the metaphor in my novel."

"Metaphor" is an important word to Bradbury. He uses it generically to describe a method of comprehending one reality and then expressing that same reality so that the reader will see it with the intensity of the writer. His metaphor in Fahrenheit 451 is the burning of books; in "The Illustrated Man," a moving tattoo; and pervading all of his work, a generalized nostalgia that can best be described as a nostalgia for the future. Another overwhelming metaphor in his writing is one derived from Jules Verne and Herman Melville-the cylindrical shape of the submarine, the whale, or the space ship. It becomes a mandala, a graphic symbol of Bradbury's view of the universe. Bradbury achieved his first "mainstream" fame with his adaptation of Melville's novel for the screen, after Verne had aroused his interest in science fiction. Perhaps Moby-Dick will forever remain uncapturable in another medium, but Bradbury's screenplay was generally accepted as being the best thing about an otherwise ordinary motion picture. John Huston's vision was perhaps more confining than Ray Bradbury's.

Essentially a romantic, Bradbury belongs to the great frontier tradition. He is an exemplar of the Turner thesis, and the blunt opposition between a tradition-bound Eastern establishment and Western vitality finds itself mirrored in his writing. The metaphors may change, but the conflict in Bradbury is ultimately between human vitality and the machine, between the expanding individual and the confining group, between the capacity for wonder and the stultification of conformity. These tensions are a continual source for him, whether the collection is named The Golden Apples of the Sun, Dandelion Wine.. or The Martian Chronicles. Thus, to use his own terminology, nostalgia for either the past or future is a basic metaphor utilized to express this tension. Science fiction is the vehicle.

Ironic detachment combined with emotional involvement-these are the recurring tones in Bradbury's work, and they find their expression in the metaphor of "wilderness." To Bradbury, America is a wilderness country and hers a wilder- ness people. There was first the wilderness of the sea, he tells his college audiences. Man conquered that when he discovered this country, and is still conquering it today. Then came the wilderness of the land. He quoted, with obvious approval. Fitzgerald's evocation at the end of The Great Gatsby: the fresh, green breast of the new world . . . for a transitory enchanted moment man must have held his breath in the presence of this continent . . . face to face for the last time in history with something commensurate to his capacity for wonder."

For Bradbury the final, inexhaustible wilderness is the wilderness of space. In that wilderness, man will find himself, renew himself, and there, as atoms of God, he will live forever. Ultimately, then, the conquest of space becomes a religious quest. The religious theme is sounded only on occasion, in such stories as "The Fire Balloons," where two priests try to decide if some blue fire-balls on Mars have souls, or "The Man," where Christ leaves a far planet the day before an earth rocket lands. Ultimately the religious theme is the end product of Bradbury's vision of man, implicit in man's nature.

Bradbury's own view of his writing shows a critical self-awareness. He describes himself essentially as a short story writer, not a novelist, whose stories seize him, shake him, and emerge after a two or three hour tussle. It is an emotional experience, not an intellectual one; the intellectualization comes later when he edits. To be sure, Bradbury does not lack the artistic vision for large conception or creation. The novel form is simply "not his bag." Rather he aims to objectify or universalize the particular. He takes an individual, a specific object, or particular act, and then shows it from a different perspective or a new viewpoint. The result can become striking insight into the ordinary, sometimes an ironic comment on our limited vision.

An early short story, "The Highway," illustrates this awareness of irony. A Mexican peasant wonders at the frantic, hurtling stream of traffic flowing north. He is told by an American who stops for water that the end of the world has come with the outbreak of the atom war. Essentially untouched in his demi-Eden, Hernando calls out to his burro as he plows the rain-fresh land below the green jungle, above the deep river. "What do they mean 'the world?"' he asks himself, and continues plowing.

Ray Bradbury is perhaps the most popular writer in America today. His stories have been anthologized in over 300 different collections, and he could probably retire on his royalties without writing another word. After some ten million words-his own estimate-he feels almost physically ill unless he can spend four hours a day at the typewriter. His aim is to work successfully in virtually every written medium before he changes his last typewriter ribbon. His plays have been successfully produced both in Los Angeles and off Broadway. He is currently researching the history of Halloween for a TV special slated for fall 1969, and he still collects his share of rejection slips for short stories, novellas, or movie scripts. with a larger share of acceptances.

Thus far Bradbury has refused to publish his poetry. He has too much respect for the form to do it badly, but he believes that after thirty years of trying to get the better of words, he may be able to write serious poetry someday. He is currently engaged in writing, with composer Jerry Goldsmith, a cantata entitled "Christ. A Flesh of Stars." When it opens next year, the public may get some notion of his abilities as a poet. He reads poetry incessantly, an hour or two a day, and returrs to Yeats, Donne, Kipling, Poe, Frost, Milton, and Shakespeare. He is already, an accomplished parodist in light verse, and his version of "Ahab at the Helm," to the meter of "Casey at the Bat," convulses college audiences who are not accustomed to seeing any elements of humor in Melville.1

Beyond poetry or light verse, the shorstory, the novel or the drama, the motion picture script is the one form that Bradbury feels may be the greatest of all. There is no doubt in his mind that the cinema is the greatest art form, with an ability to move men more profoundly, and perhaps more ethically than any yet devised by man. The cinema script then, deceptively easy to write on first glance, is the most demanding literary form. Screen writers, Bradbury maintains, are too prone to let the technical skills of cinematography carry the weight of the artistic impact. As a result, the ideal of art-to impose an artistic vision upon an order of reality--suffers, and the resultant vision is darkened.

As to science fiction itself, Bradbury and other practitioners of the form feel that its antecedents may be found in 2500 years of history. Too often classed as a mere offshoot of fantasy, imaginative literature, utopian fiction, or the Gothic novel, science fiction only recently has been recognized as a respectable literary genre in its own right. Thus it reveals its own standards, its form, and its discipline with an interior unity and distinctive rules. These characteristics, under the control of skilled literary craftsmen like Bradbury and Vonnegut, are beginning to mark science fiction as a viable literary form. What bothers Bradbury, in the end, is the unwillingness of critics to apply to his work and that of other skilled science fiction writers the proper standards of the form itself. When that is finally done. Ray Bradbury will remain its prophet.

California State College, Fullerton