Over the years, I’ve come, with good reason, to have high expectations of Ray Bradbury’s works. Anyone who’s read this blog long enough knows that not too many months go by without a Bradbury reference or a full-blown raving about the man’s genius as a writer. But his newest work – which is actually a pair of stories from decades ago that were reworked again and again over time – is proof that even a master can stumble once in a while.
In “Now and Forever”, Bradbury presents us with two distinct tales: “Somewhere a Band is Playing” – about a young reporter who stumbles into a mysterious town and discovers not only love but the key to immortality (and its price), and “Leviathan ‘99” – a science fictional reforging of Melville’s “Moby Dick” substituting a comet and a rocket for the whale and the Pequod. While I enjoyed the first submission immensely, I was strangely unimpressed with the latter.
“Somewhere a Band is Playing” is classic Bradbury – all the fat, juicy poetic prose of his love of the American landscape and its small towns and the people within them. In his introduction, Bradbury gives the nod to Canadian author Stephen Leacock’s “Sunshine Sketches of a Little Town” for embracing the richness (if frequently ridiculousness) of isolated villages and the characters who inhabit them. But even greater still is the love Bradbury put into crafting his female lead, Nefertiti, inspired by his great admiration and affection for the late Katharine Hepburn, who he insists could have played Nef at any age.
The story is ultimately about the power of love and writing (with a dire warning about how the power of the word can bring about destruction, whether literally or metaphorically) and how they can achieve a kind of immortality. Immortality is something frequently on Bradbury’s mind, whether it is child gods of summer in small Michigan towns, ghosts that hold on to their mysteries down through the ages, or Stanley Laural and Oliver Hardy tickling funny bones across space and time with their antics.
And it’s no surprise the power of writing comes into play. A fairly good chunk of his body of work has characters who are storytellers of one kind or other. They tend to have to deal with the ancient dilemma of the artist who sees the world in all its shades, but is always somewhat removed from it. Until now, that is. Here we have the story of a writer who has finally come home – who can finally be part of the world.
But achieving this holy grail is not without its difficulties, the protagonist is beset by his arch-enemy McCoy, another reporter who follows him around the country polluting the subjects of his stories by exposing them to the attentions of an ugly world and detailing their subsequent corruption. McCoy is like a shark following a ship, like Melkor trailing after the other Valar in the early days of Tolkien’s Middle Earth and upsetting their works, like Mordred undoing King Arthur. And yet, this time the writer, the maker of things, manages to keep something pure and outwit his nemesis. His second challenge, like many knightly quests, is to fight temptation – to realize the truth of things, in this case, what he really wants out of life – where his heart lies.
In perfect Bradburian fashion, it makes absolute sense that the catalyst that allows the writer to achieve immortality is love. Nefertiti is lover, teacher, beacon and inspiration to the protagonist. Where some might see her initially as a test of temptation, she proves to be the key to finding meaning and happiness in his life.
I won’t say “Somewhere a Band is Playing” is Bradbury’s finest work, but this heartfelt story is a solid and worthy addition to his best material.
“Leviathan ’99”, on the other hand, I just couldn’t get into for some reason. Obviously I like Bradbury (to belabour the point). And I have a deep enjoyment of and appreciation for “Moby Dick”. And yes, I also got a kick out of his screenplay for the novel. Why then, don’t I like this story? I don’t know. Maybe I was bugged in part because I couldn’t figure out how a comet could blind a person. Many of Bradbury’s attempts to paste the items, settings and events of “Moby Dick” into a space environment seemed clunky to me. It’s not that I’m a stickler for hard science per se… I do enjoy hard SF, but I also enjoy the stuff (like Bradbury’s) that uses scientific terms and pseudo-science willy-nilly, as long as the plot and characters are well done. It just didn’t seem to work here though. That being said, the author’s intro makes reference to one of the story’s incarnations being an old BBC radio play with Christopher Lee as the mad captain, and I think that would be a treat to listen to.
The heartening thing about this book, even though one story’s a hit and the other’s a miss, is that you can see how active Bradbury’s imagination is and how hard he tries to spin a good yarn, even if it doesn’t always play out the way it should. One for two ain’t bad in a lifetime of successes that resonate now and forever.