Saturday, December 24, 2005

Happy holiday SF memories

Season’s Greetings everyone!

In the spirit of the season, I thought I’d indulge in that favourite of yuletide traditions: reminiscing.
Okay, fine, in actual fact my favourite holiday tradition is to belly up to the dining room table with family and friends (especially since in recent years we’ve gathered other merry-makers for an orphan’s Christmas when many of us haven’t been able to make it home to our families for the holidays) for some laughs while we attack a turkey with all the trimmings (save some extra skin for me!).
But since this blog is about SF rather than food (although, admittedly, the subject of food does come up a lot in one way or another – I make no apologies for nods toward one of my other passions), I thought it would be fun to look back to some of, in my opinion, the best SF contributions to the holidays.
For me, no Christmas Eve has been complete since I became an adult without re-reading “The Star” by Arthur C. Clarke. There’s a poigniency in any tale about a man grappling with his faith, but in this case it’s all the more interesting because of his shocking discovery in the depths of space, and during the Christmas season no less. Sure, some of the science (notions of supernovaed suns having lasted long enough to spawn planets with intelligent life) is out-dated, but that doesn’t distract from the pathos of the story.
And you can’t have Christmas without Charles Dickons’ “A Christmas Carol”. In an age where there are probably at least a dozen versions of this story on film and tv, it’s always worth it to pick up the book every couple of years and feel and smell the paper as the ghosts drag the Victorian curmudgeon through time and space to bring him around.
Other literary recommendations: “Christmas Stories” from Random House’s “The Charles Dickons Library” to get a look at some of Dickons other, less well-known holiday tales; “Christmas Ghosts”, edited by Mike Resnick and Martin H. Greenberg; “Christmas Stars”, edited by David G. Hartwell; and J. R. R. Tolkien’s “Letters from Father Christmas”.
On to the small screen. Let me say right off the bat I have no fond memories of that great fiasco of the ‘70’s: “Star Wars: Christmas Among the Stars”. This is for the simple reason that I haven’t actually seen the aforementioned train wreck. Granted, I was around when it aired, but I didn’t catch it at the time and Lucas has done a good job in eliminating all traces of it in the years since. I haven’t bothered with trying to track it down on the net yet, but one of this years we’ll probably cross paths (came close a few years back when visiting my folks in Ottawa for the holidays when the club Zaphod Beeblebrox down in the Byward Market screened it one night as part of a theme party, but I had other, family-related duties at the time).
No, my first TV Christmas special loyalty is to a program that’s nearly equally as rare: “John Denver and the Muppets Christmas”. While the more recent “Muppets Christmas Carol” gets aired nearly every year, the older Henson production is pretty much unknown these days. In fact, I was pleasantly shocked out of my boots back in the mid ‘90’s when the record companies finally transferred all the old songs from that special onto CD. For years we’d been listening to a somewhat scratchy recording of the show on an original vinyl LP my mom had bought for us that had been releasaed back in the ‘70’s when the show first aired. No Christmas is complete without hearing the Muppets’ wacky renditions of the classics. For years when I was a kid, the Muppet version of “The 12 Days of Christmas” was the only version I knew, and I was surprised as tyke to learn that you weren’t actually supposed to yell “ba-dump-bump-bump!” like Miss Piggy after the 5 gold rings verse halfway through the song.
While many people will profess their loyalties to the original animated “Frosty the Snowman” or “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” and other examples of puppetronic ilk, as much as I enjoyed them as a kid, they don’t hold the same interest for me as an adult. No, give me that rollicking late ‘80’s cartoon “The Tick”. Most especially, the episode entitled “The Tick Loves Christmas”. I nearly killed myself laughing during that one, especially when the security elves lock-down Arthur’s apartment and Santa arrives to convince the Tick he has to see the difference between himself (jolly old St. Nick, that is) and the evil Santa clones plaguing the city. “Now, Tick, I’m grateful that you’ve believed in me longer than any sane adult would, but it’s time to put that aside so you can fight the bad Santas.”
Rounding out the Top Three holiday tv specials, a nice little tongue-in-cheek animated production out of the UK entitled “Father Christmas” (or as I tend to remember it: “Another Bloomin’ Christmas”), which shows the off-season adventures of a somewhat foul-mouthed Father Christmas as he takes a much-needed vacation. Hats off to the Brits for loving Santa enough to be able to show him getting the turkey-trots after eating some bad food in Mexico. I think this one was cooked up by the same studio which did an earlier, quiet little feature called “The Snowman” (my wife’s favourite of the season).
In film, I’ve gotta give an honourable mention to a favourite of my mother’s side of the family: the old black and white version of “A Christmas Carol” starring Alistair Sim. A must watch.
But, that being said, my heart truly lies with the funnier, updated ode to the reform of a die-hard capitalist that came to us in the late ‘80’s: “Scrooged” starring Bill Murray. I can’t count the number of times I’ve seen it over the Christmases since it first came out, but I laugh every time. That’s the true test of a comedy.
Also, another honourable mention. This one in a bit of a strange direction… one of my all-time cinematic guilty pleasures: “Walt Disney’s The Black Hole”. Don’t think this is a Christmas movie? In the beginning when the crew of the Palomino comes across the seemingly derilect U.S.S. Cygnus, and the larger cruiser suddenly hits the lights, co-pilot Charlie Pizer remarks “Just like a tree on Christmas morning”. And that’s not just a convenient simile either – the novelization by Alan Dean Foster sets the story on Christmas Day, with the aforementioned Mr. Pizer just sitting down to a reconstituted turkey dinner when he gets the call from the robot Vincent to come to the bridge.
Why would I give “The Black Hole” the time of day when so many, like my brother, hate it with a passion? That’s a discussion for another entry. For now, my wife’s calling me down to Christmas Eve dinner, and of course, food and family are the most important parts of the holiday.
So, whatever you celebrate, be it Christmas, Chanukah, Kwanzaa, Winter Solstice, Festivus-for-the-rest-of-us, some other religious festival, or even just a couple of well-earned days off from work, may you have a happy holiday season with good folks around you, plenty to eat and peace in your heart.

Wednesday, December 14, 2005

A Feast of Dreams

First of all, folks, sorry for the lack of a posting last week, I was busy with a few things. From now on, I’ll try to keep up to date with some sort of weekly ramble here on bloginhood’s SF soapbox.
On to the point…
It’s been an early Christmas for fantasy lovers this year. The latest installments of two of the best (and longest) stories in recent years have hit the shelves. Robert Jordan has presented us with “Knife of Dreams” from his “Wheel of Time” saga. And just weeks later, from his “Song of Ice and Fire” series, George R. R. Martin has served us “A Feast for Crows”.
Interesting timing, since I seem to recall both series had installments published at roughly the same time back in the winter of 2000/2001. This kind of double helping from the book-buying menu is hard on the old bank account (especially since both are hefty hardcovers), but how can you resist? I can’t. Admittedly, I’ve always been a glutton when it comes to good books.
In both cases, fans have been waiting with baited breath for these new additions to the story lines to come out. In fact, the breath of Martin’s fans has been so baited they’re now blue in the face, since the last installment, “A Storm of Swords”, came out in 2000. But we can forgive him the half-decade delay since it’s obvious he’s been crafting his tale with such diligence and attention to quality. Martin himself has been up-front in admitting the story was getting just too long and complex to publish on time and in one volume. Instead of making us wait another year or two for what would be a monster of a couple of thousand pages, he’s decided to split the story in half – wisely, not square down the middle, but rather allocating the individual story lines of some characters to this book, leaving the other characters for the next, thereby allowing him to do them, and the broader story, justice, by flushing them out in another volume expected sometime next year. (Keep your fingers crossed)
In fact, the issuing of both series’ installments so close together almost invites comparison of the two. Especially since being the afore-mentioned book glutton, I gorged myself on both of them back-to-back.
Let’s take a look at the man wielding the One Power first. Jordan gets points right off the top in the fast service department, with three new volumes and a prelude within the past five years, as opposed to Martin’s two. Jordan’s installments are entertaining and always leave you wondering what the protagonists will do or have to put up with next. He’s drawing from a lot of influences including Tolkien, Herbert and the Arthurian legend. Jordan also goes into detail about how his elemental magic works, and more interestingly, how men and women wield it differently, and their impressions of how the other sex uses it.
But his world lacks depth.
Hold your gasps of outrage, here, I know Jordan’s shooting for high fantasy, but in a story line this long and with the amount of effort the author’s put in to detailing the different nations of his world and the occasional phrases from the Old Tongue, there are plenty of issues that haven’t been examined enough or dealt with at all, and streaks of luck for the main characters that are getting a little hard to believe.
In all the battles that have ravaged the lands, be they Trolloc-caused or due to yet another onslaught from the late-returning invaders from over the sea, do any of his young lordlings ever stop after the slaughter to consider the long-term consequences of the chaos on the people they’re fighting to protect? Have they ever looked at the wreckage of a barn or a blasted field and thought “Gee, some of these little folk may starve this winter. That’ll mean lower tax revenues, fewer new recruits for my army, fewer supplies for my army, a likely spread of crime in the cities due to refugees, and the possible spread of disease. Oh, not to mention the human cost of this tragedy. Yadda, yadda, yadda.”
Why, if it’s common knowledge that the “Wheel” turns and the ages repeat themselves, do his protagonists never actually pause to reflect on the implications of their constant reincarnations and the world’s repetition? Granted, they’re all strong-willed, driven types, but amidst all the battles, grim pauses before the battles, imprisonments and inconvenient political machinations, wouldn’t you think at least one of them would entertain a second of bleak resolution and think: “Well, even if I blow it, it doesn’t much matter in the grand scheme of things, ‘cause the Wheel of Time always repeats everything, so one way or another the Dark Lord will be overthrown by somebody, if not me in yet another incarnation, so why bother worrying much?” And what if one of these ta’veren actually DID give up, pack up his ball and go home? Why do they seriously worry about the head honcho of evil actually upsetting the pattern when in all the countless repetitions it’s never happened before?
On that note, for the large number of protagonists in Jordan’s tale, they all have quite a knack for surviving. Despite all the close calls, the very nature of this repetitive universe dictates that the good guys will make it through at least to the final battle. Kind of robs the tension from some of those moments. The reader may wonder how the characters will get out of this sticky situation, but it’s unlikely you’re seriously doubting they will get out. After all, who, among the primary cast, has actually died? Thom Merrilin pulled a disappearing act after slugging it out with a Myrddraal but later reappeared. Moiraine apparently went down fighting one of the Forsaken, but there were always indications (now clearer than ever in the most recent volume) that she’d be back too.
And if the protagonists aren’t dying, they’re certainly not changing much emotionally/mentally/as people either. Rand may have become somewhat testy since looney Lews Therrin crawled out of the closet inside his head, and may get even more touchy with the loss of his hand, but ultimately, he’s still the same good country bumpkin who wants to save the world, cuddle his three wives, and has resigned himself to one day going buggo and breaking the world. The other characters as well are all psychologically pretty much the same as when they were first introduced: Mat checks out the chicks but wants his independence and is annoyed with constantly falling into trouble; Perrin’s something of a stoic (except when it comes to his wife), finds his position as a focal point of fate to be a pain in the ass, and is extremely secretive about his doggy-style allies.
In fact, one of the earliest criticisms about Jordan’s character development was his portrayal of women. While many have applauded his accurate portrayal of a female mindset, his women are frequently all of the same mindset. They’re all more or less scheming and somewhat distrustful of the intellectual abilities of the men they’re trying to control. That may be a female mindset, but it’s certainly not the only one. The fact that it creates a certain constant degree of paranoia in his male characters is a stretch too.
And what’s with the spanking fetish in these books? It seems that’s pretty much the only punishment around for characters who have been naughty or merely perceived to be out of line or disrespectful of assumed authority. You’d think they would come up with something else as a civilization.
After so many installments, it’s also becoming apparent that Jordan’s getting a lot repetitive in his descriptions of what it feels like when his magical miscreants touch “the Source”: “he struggled to master the torrent of fire and ice that was saidin” – yep, haven’t heard that one yet. More than 50 or so times that is.
Don’t get me wrong; I’m always eager for the next “Wheel of Time” book to come out. I do enjoy the story for all its flaws. But ultimately, Jordan’s writing is like a nice piece of chocolate cake at The Bread Garden – sweet, available quickly right out of the case, and it goes down easy, but missing it won’t mean that you haven’t experienced the best there is.
Martin’s work, on the other hand, is like a hot chocolate cake at Morton’s – it takes a long time to bake, and it’s deep and rich and memorable with a variety of textures and degrees of flavour, and you really should order it at least once.
What I said before about Martin’s delay being due to his attention to quality wasn’t written idly. Martin has written a fantasy with a hefty dose of realism. There’s a grittiness to his world, where people have to go to the bathroom (and sometimes get shot with a crossbow while going about their business in there), where soldiers desert or suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder or prey upon the peasantry, where inns are less than sanitary and protagonists sleep on flea-infested straw or cloth-stuffed mattresses, where wealthy teenagers are pawns in their parents’ political games, where people stink and where major characters who we’ve been allowed to ride along with get killed - sometimes abruptly. The term “used universe” that Lucas applied when describing the look of “Star Wars” is even more apt here – Jordan will merely tell you that his character is entering this or that big castle, Martin will tell you how long it’s been there, what it looks like in detail, when and how it was modified, and what sort of sieges it’s endured. Martin describes the intricacies of his nobles’ fashions, like Jordan, with the same eye as a Paris designer, but takes it farther and describes the degree of shabbiness and datedness that couture suffers.
Life is tough for Martin’s people. In Westeros, kings have to count their coppers if they want anything done (especially with bankers from across the sea incessantly demanding payment from regent Queen Cersei), and you believe his protagonists like Brienne of Tarth could starve on the road like any other poor schmuck they encounter. Kings even die: Robb Stark never lost a battle, but ended up losing his head after annoying the Freys.
More important than the harsh realities they face though, is the fact that Martin’s characters change over time because of those experiences and because of introspection. Moreover, these developments are believable. In losing a hand, the once arrogant uber-knight Jaime Lannister suddenly has to start considering people for who they are instead of merely rolling over them, and realizes his supremacy is not a natural fact. Sansa Stark goes from being the spoiled teenager who’s so grotesquely na├»ve she gets her own father killed to being a young lady of the Vale who’s learning politics at the hands of her adoptive father in order to survive. She even changes her name, something also true of her younger sister, Arya, who’s so determined to get the tools of revenge that she goes so far as to enlist in an assassin’s cult where she will have to give up her identity and recreate herself entirely. This makes all of his characters, even those like Cersei who are too trapped in their self-delusions, exquisitely memorable. Five years may have elapsed since the last book in the series, but it’s easy to get back into the story and remember who was doing what because the characters are so interesting. With Jordan, on the other hand, I find myself frequently during the first few chapters rechecking the index at the back of the book to bring myself up to speed again.
All in all, both Robert Jordan’s “Knife of Dreams” and George R. R. Martin’s “A Feast for Crows” were worth every penny. I think on the balance though, I’m a little more eager for the next trip to Westeros than another spin on “The Wheel of Time”.
In the meantime, since it’ll be a while before either series has a new offering, I’ll be contenting myself with other fare. My recommendation for the coming months: the somewhat late fall issue of “On Spec” – a Canadian quarterly magazine of speculative fiction. While it’s understandably heavy on the Can-con (local slang for “Canadian content” to those of you not from The Great White North), there are submissions from authors from around the globe, and they all have one thing in common: regardless of their country of origin, whether they’re prose or poetry, or where they sit in that great realm of sci-fi, fantasy and everything in between, all are well-crafted and thought-provoking. If you can’t find a copy in your local bookstore, I suggest you check out their website at www.onspec.ca and look into getting yourself a subscription.
At any rate, I think this babble session has become long enough. Next posting: another trip to the movies.

Tuesday, November 29, 2005

Magic Shadows

I thought I’d borrow the title of the classic TV Ontario series for this installment, since Hollywood seems to be serving up a spate of SF during the fall/winter months at ye olde multiplexe that are worth looking at. While many people probably cringe with guilt when asked who is the first the TV movie host they remember, and they have to admit it’s Elvira (let’s hear it for hooker hair and goth underwear!), my own early cinematic education, courtesy of my folks’ antenna tower out in the country, came in weekly installments in the grandfatherly form of Elwe Yost. While good old Elwe was more inclined to screen Bogart-esque gangster films noire than days when the Earth stood still, once in a while he’d give us a treat. It was “Magic Shadows” that blew me away one evening with the 1930’s classic “King Kong” - and yes, months later, even the rather obscure sequel “Son of Kong”. (betcha didn’t see that one coming!)

He darted across the screen with twitches and jerks, rolling his eyes (Kong, that is, not Yost) as he put the boots to dinosaurs and swatted biplanes away from the zeppelin docks of the Empire State Building, all the while holding Alberta’s own Fay Wray close the way a 20-year-old frat boy at a bar on spring break clutches his beer at last call when he realizes all the women have left, and in so doing, that greatest of apes plunged into my imagination. It was one thing for directors to make cookie-cutter gangster flicks, but this! Harrihausen and the other geniuses behind that prince of the primeval jungle knew how to dream big! King Kong was one the movies I saw in my formative years that helped put the SF monkey on my back.

I’m hoping Peter Jackson’s remake will do justice to the original. Certainly Jackson’s proven with Lord Of The Rings that he can wrangle special effects without impinging on the story, so Kong will be no problem in the CG department, judging by the previews. Granted, the product of the special effects is central to this story, and Kong is nowhere near as weighty as the drama of LOTR, but I’m still a bit nervous. Hollywood’s track record isn’t great: colossal blunders with the big ape that come to mind are the 1970’s flop starring Jeff Bridges (which should in no way be taken as a strike against Bridges, who was great in “Tron” and “Starman”), and let’s not forget (try as we might) the lame duck of the 80’s: “King Kong Lives” starring Linda Hamilton (again, no insult to the lady, who punched her weight in “The Terminator” though she served as little more than wallpaper in “Mr. Destiny”) which was so bad it should have been prominently featured on the late, great Mystery Science Theatre 3,000 – right next to “Hercules Battles The Moon Men”. In fact, Hollywood has only redeemed itself on the ape front inadvertently with the Simpsons “Treehouse of Horror” episode entitled “King Homer” (“Hey, Karl, do you know where we’re going?” “Ape Island.” “What’s there?” “Big Apes. I wish we were going to Candy Apple Island.” “Candy Apple Island? What’s there?” “Apes. But they’re not so big.”). Don’t let us down, Pete.

Also looking forward to “The Chronicles of Narnia – The Lion, The Witch, And The Wardrobe”. Yet another trip down memory lane to the library of childhood. Again, based on the preview, the special effects look mighty sweet. Now let’s see if the director can walk the razor’s edge of keeping C.S. Lewis’ good story intact, while at the same time sparing us from the professor’s unrelenting Bible-thumping.

And, of course, if we’re going to talk magic and kid-oriented movies, we’ve gotta give the newest Harry Potter installment its due. Saw it this past weekend in IMAX – very nice. I think Newell did a superb job of stripping down Rowling’s 636 page tome to a 2-and-a-half hour movie while keeping the plot intact, and, more importantly, keeping the characters interesting and actually showing some development in them. And what an eye for detail! From the grit under Snape’s nails to the cereal boxes in the background during the breakfast scenes actually having names like “Pixie Puffs” that would be consistent within the world he’s creating, rather than just leaving the boxes blank or selling out and slipping in some corporate sponsorship from the likes of Kellogs. There’s also the debris in the great hall after the dance – the place actually looks like kids have been in there for hours partying it up (as opposed to most teen movies where the school gym looks surprisingly neat for a dance night). Granted, some of the credit for that has got to go to the costume and set designers, but Newell’s also got an eye for social details that enhance the reality. Look at the stairs in the background as Hermione takes Ron and Harry to task after the dance – there’s a trio of girls behind them with one sniffling away while the other two play mother hen. That’s bang-on. It’s a fundamental law of the universe that at any given teenage party there will be at least one girl who brings her emotional baggage (either due to a legitimate problem or in a well-calculated attempt to get attention) to the shin-dig and dumps it out onto the floor for all to see and for the other girls to pick up. Do we hear what particular problem they’re trying to solve in this scene? No. But it doesn’t matter. It’s the mere glimpse of them back there that provides that extra little bit of life that adds authenticity to the whole collage of “the dance” that Newell’s pasting together for us. Something we can all identify with, and something that underscores Hermione’s Breakfast Club-esque diatribe against the boys. Did the three problem girls have to be in the back of the shot for Hermione’s harangue to work? No, but it added another level of reality, and I think it shows Newell’s knowledge of, and respect of his audience (young and old).

Let’s also give credit to Brendan Gleeson for bringing Mad-Eye Moody to life as though Irish geneticists had managed to create a hybrid of Anthony Hopkins’ Abraham Van Helsing and Kurt Russell’s Snake Plisskin and raise it in Dublin under the tutelage of Merlin. Don’t know if that’s how J.K. Rowling intended him, but that’s how I’d imagined Moody when I read “The Goblet of Fire”.

Lastly, we’ll turn the way-back machine a notch or two and give a tip of the hat to the end-of-summer/early fall “Serenity”. Truly a “leaf upon the wind”. Good old Joss gave us a nice, straight-forward sci-fi story and western at the same time, and that’s no small feat. He even had the balls to kill off not one, but two main characters – and likeable ones at that, risking the wrath of the die-hard series fans. Looking forward to the DVD release and the hopeful inclusion of a fat package of extras.

You save the seats and I’ll grab the popcorn. See ya next time.

Monday, November 21, 2005

Welcome to the soapbox, and why Bradbury is like butter

For what very little it’s worth, I’ve decided to climb the soapbox in the internet marketplace and become another voice vainly screaming “listen to me!” amidst the roar of the crowd. The question now becomes, what to say, and is it worth while? There are lots of blogs out there covering every subject under the sun – some with people squeezing all of their thoughts on everything under the afore-mentioned sun into a single blog. But, being a former journalist, I tend to believe you’ve got to have a focus – keeps you coherent (hopefully), and makes it easier to keep an audience interested (hoping against all hope that one’s interesting enough to even attract an audience). Let’s face it, that’s the purpose of these things, isn’t it? If you’re creating an on-line forum, you need other participants, and if it’s merely a journal for a journey to the center of Narcissus, part of the self-indulgence is to make it a performance of sorts by posting it in front of the world for all to snicker derisively at (if not attaining the desired gasps of awe).

To that end, I think this’ll be a corner to talk about science fiction and fantasy and most sub-genres in between (or “speculative fiction” as some literati are trying to redefine it up here in the great white north – and I’m not sayin’ they’re wrong in doing so) in books, TV and film, though there’s no guarantee we won’t digress from time to time, ‘cause conversation’s just a series of asides – I’ve never had a worthwhile chat with anyone that hasn’t crumbled into a blizzard of “oh, you know, this is completely off topic, but…” or “just as an aside…” or “…but I digress.” And having just digressed, I’ll try to get back on track. You may wonder why the ‘net needs yet another platform for sci-fi/fantasy/speculative fiction/whatever fans to jabber at one another, but hey, that’s where the self-indulgent aspect comes into play. Thing is, you don’t have to be a drooling freak living in your parents’ basement watching the classic Trek box set every day to get a kick out of this stuff – I’m not interested in rehashing the classic geek battle of “which would win in a battle between the Enterprise and a Star Destroyer?” – I just want to discuss some of the great literature and broadcast/filmed stories out there – old and new – and I don’t think you have to be a slave to this genre and this genre only to say something worth while. (Not that I’m guaranteeing there’ll be anything worth while here, just wishful thinking.)

Why “bloginhood” you ask? Well, as tempting as it would be to feed you a line like “because I will lead you like that famous band of merry poachers through the forests of literature/tv/film to feast upon opinions plundered from the hoards of imagination we track down while bullseyeing The Meaning with our arrows of perception” or something equally pretentious, the bottom line is I was just trying to come up with a corny handle, and this seemed as good as any.

At any rate, welcome to the soapbox, I hope you hear something interesting before passing on to another stall here in the internet opinion marketplace.

On to the point: winter’s setting in, slathering BC’s Lower Mainland in fog for the next 6 months (and I’m talking about the real concrete-thick stuff, like the set-fog Carpenter had billowing through the restaurant doors at the end of “Big Trouble In Little China” when Kurt Russell’s John Wayne-wannabe Jack Burton goes moseying out into the night), so I find it a strangely-fitting coincidence that I just happening to be reading about the mist-shrouded streets of 1949 Venice, California in Ray Bradbury’s “Death is a Lonely Business” (I was lucky enough to pick up an old hardcover copy at Powell’s down in Portland, Oregon this summer). Granted, this gem from ’85 isn’t one of his truly speculative fiction pieces of work – no Martian canals here, no mummies whispering in the attic, no Laurel & Hardy revived to entertain Alpha Centauri and no Hallowe’en Trees flashing their flickering golden fruit in the Illinois night (I’m only 167 pages in at this point, so if something sci-fi-ish or magically realistic does pop up at the end, don’t come down on me for not knowing yet, and whatever you do, don’t tell me what happens next!). But it is a good example to use to springboard into a talk about Bradbury’s prose.

Let me just say right off the bat, I love Bradbury’s writing style. It’s a smorgasbord of images and metaphors with old Ray darting back and forth across the table like a jovial chef, heaping chunky descriptions of characters onto your plate before randomly lurching over to another part of the buffet to daub an arcane pop-culture reference from his childhood on top of your first helping. His stories flow fast and wild leaving a reader breathless by the end, as well as either smiling or sometimes looking over your shoulder just a little unnerved. Each new serving, like his recent “The Cat’s Pajamas” or classics like “The Martian Chronicles”, or the afore-mentioned “Death is a Lonely Business” are delicious samplings in the culinary academy of speculative fiction that I look forward to gobbling for the first time or savoring again.

But ultimately, Bradbury’s like butter. I can’t have too much of him at once, or I’ll get sick of him.

“Sacrilege!” some of you may howl, especially since Mr. B. is, without a doubt, one of the elder gods in the S-F pantheon and has earned the right to be free of criticism from twerps like me.

Here’s the thing though, with some writers, moderation is the key. Admittedly, there are some authors where I could devour nearly all their books of in one sitting: Dan Simmons is one – give me “Hyperion” through “The Rise of Endymion” all in one shot, with “Illium” and “Olympos” for dessert (certainly not Simmons’ entire portfolio, but you get the point). But with dear old Ray, I can’t pig out.

Why butter though? Well, when I was giving this some thought, the first example, staying with the food metaphor, belched from the depths of my mind was a family story about butter (maybe it’s the B’s, Bradbury and butter, and the rolling round sounds of both words). When my dad was young, he, like most of us, liked butter. But one day this greedy little kid decided he’d indulge in a LOT of butter – he grabbed a whole stick and took a huge bite. From that point on, he’s hated the stuff. Admit it, pretty much all of us have made ourselves sick overdoing it on some food or other and have ended up relegating it to our personal “I don’t go looking for it, but I’ll eat it if I absolutely have to” lists, if not outright avoiding it at all costs forever after. Now, I like butter on my toast, and I like Bradbury to come off my bookshelf and onto the bedside reading table from time to time, but they both carry the same risk.

Bradbury’s child-like perspective in many of his stories, and “Death is a Lonely Business” is a great example, gives readers that signature sense of wonder of his and it helps give his tales their often breakneck pacing. But too much of the wide-eyed innocence of the plucky young fella narrating them can be nauseating. I found that out after making the mistake of reading “From the Dust Returned” and “A Graveyard for Lunatics” back to back on a whim a few years ago, and came perilously close by the end of Graveyard to wanting to toss it in the recycling bin. Don’t get me wrong, I dearly enjoy both books, but heavy doses of Bradbury stories where a secondary character makes a crusty, if affectionate remark like “you child!” to a protagonist who’s a grown man in the middle of some bizarre misadventure can get a little grating.

Then there’s the ubiquitous self-referencing: main characters who are writers who are considered nuts because they’ve written stories about Mars or men who are afraid of their own skeletons. Yeah, Ray, I know, you’ve written a few tall tales in your time. I have most of them on my shelf. No need to constantly remind me of their presence. Do you really need to keep telling us you’ve written them? Again, this is not something that in any way bugs me if it’s been a while since I’ve picked up one of his books. But too many, too close together, and I teeter on the brink of leveling the accusation of narcissism when I see his various works mentioned within another, or thinking perhaps he’s just padding things out, going into cruise control and filling some page space with easy words while waiting for a new idea to come bustling out of his brain’s kitchen.

Luckily, instead of swallowing the butter of my annoyance from the Dust/Graveyard experience, I realized Bradbury’s to be taken in measured doses. Let the metaphors stay sweet and delicious by realizing they can keep on the shelf for a while, and don’t need to be sucked down in a single sitting. So, after finishing this extremely satisfying meal of “Death is a Lonely Business”, I’ll do the right thing: amble out into the fog and find a table at another author’s restaurant.