Monday, September 01, 2008

Belated Happy Birthday to Bradbury

It’s been a little over a week since Ray Bradbury’s birthday, and since he’s one of my favourite authors (SF or otherwise), I figured I should do a little tip of the hat to the old Grandmaster here on the old soapbox.

I’ve raved many times before (in fact, he was the subject of my first posting on this blog back on a cold November night in 2005) about why I like Bradbury’s stories, so I won’t go into that again. Instead, I thought I’d offer a few thoughts on some of my favourites from his body of work.

My absolute favourite is “The Halloween Tree”. It’s not his most profound or most grown-up work, but this tale of a group of kids chasing through Hallowe’ens across time to save the soul of their friend has some truly beautiful descriptions that bring back a lot of memories from All Hallows Eve when I was a kid. That’s not, to say, that my friends and I spent the night in the company of a sinister old fellow named Moundshroud, rather, it’s his descriptions of the feeling of that evening, and what it’s like to be in a small town out in the middle of the woods and fields when the pumpkin carving season rolls around. Check this out:

“There wasn’t so much wilderness around you couldn’t see the town. But on the other hand, there wasn’t so much town you couldn’t see and feel and touch and smell the wilderness. The town was full of trees. And dry grass and dead flowers now that autumn was here.”

That could have been the little subdivision I lived in, tucked way out in the woods in North Dumfries Township. And the night itself? This about sums it up:

“Anyone could see that the wind was a special wind this night, and the darkness took on a special feel because it was All Hallows’ Eve. Everything seemed cut from soft black velvet or gold or orange velvet. Smoke panted up out of a thousand chimneys like the plumes of funeral parades. From kitchen windows drifted two pumpkin smells: gourds being cut, pies being baked. …Shrieking, wailing, full of banshee mirth they ran, on everything except sidewalks, going up into the air over bushes and down almost upon yipping dogs.”
Ah, those were the days! And all I have to do is open “The Halloween Tree” and the sights and smells and tastes in my memory are that much closer.

Next is “There Will Come Soft Rains” – the second last tale in “The Martian Chronicles”. The Chronicles as a whole are a masterwork, Bradbury’s meditation on humanity set against the backdrop of a Mars that never was and an Earth in its last throes. It’s a book that throws many different thoughts and feelings at you as you trek through it. But among its stories, the most emotionally powerful, the one that haunts and scars the memory forever, in my opinion, is “There Will Come Soft Rains”. In and of itself, not much happens in this story: amidst a ruined nuclear wasteland on Earth, a family dog crawls home to die, the automated systems of the house clean up, and the house itself is destroyed by fire. If you’ve ever had a family pet, the death of the dog alone is enough to bring you to tears – it sure did for me. But aside from the scene being one of merely a single cruel, lonely and sad death, it is one that evokes an image of planet-wide suffering of innocent lives – of the price paid by every living thing for the thoughtless violence of mankind. Even the destruction of the house shows that our mighty technology is incapable of withstanding our lack of self control. In fact, the story is most pointed in not telling us directly about the deaths of the Earth’s human population – we don’t get to indulge in even this level of selfish ego. One tends to sympathize more with the innocent bystanders than those who cause an accident, and so humanity is dismissed. In leaving us out of this story, the lesson about the consequences of our actions is more powerful. And yet, having learned this lesson, there is a second chance, for after the devastation of the fires on Earth, we are told in “The Million-Year Picnic” that there is a seed of humanity left on Mars, a story ending with a different element – water - and thus a chance to wash clean and hopefully not repeat the mistakes of the past.

Finally, I’d have to round-out my list of absolute Bradbury favourites with “Last Rites”. Originally appearing in the December ’94 issue of The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, I first encountered this story in Bradbury’s collection “Quicker than the Eye”. This is hands-down the most original time travel story ever. Most examples of this sub-genre see heroes traipsing across time to change the past or future, or prevent someone else from doing so. Not so with Bradbury’s character Harrison Cooper. Rather than attempt to rewrite history or explore ancient or far-future mysteries, Cooper launches himself across the sea of years to bring comfort to the giants of literature. As they lie alone facing death, Cooper appears with copies of their novels or poems or plays to reassure them that they will live on because their work had intellectual and emotional worth. He is a kind of polar opposite of Dickens’ Ghost of Christmas Future, showing the men before him not visions of doom, but proof that the fruits of their creativity had meaning. For one with the seeming god-like power to travel through time and affect history and lives, Cooper takes a path that is so subdued it can’t be anything but intrinsically human. This is a gentle tale that in taking a totally sideways view of what one could do with this kind of power, asks us to rethink what we ought to do with our abilities and opportunities – it reminds us that human connections are what’s most important.

For me, these are the finest of Bradbury’s works. There are many others that I enjoy immensely, but these are the ones that spring to mind first when someone mentions him.

I’m always interested to hear what Bradbury stories grab other people the most. For my wife, it’s “Tete-a-Tete” from “One More for the Road”.

What’s your favourite Bradbury story?
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