The Long Shadow of Ray Bradbury
A prophetic writer’s stature grows with a new Library of America edition
If an ability to conjure scenarios that may play out in the remote future is the mark of a visionary science fiction writer, readers will find in Ray Bradbury not only an imaginer of plots and scenes with literal and figurative resonance, but also a critic of certain dogmas. Those who think that the unjust hardship of the Covid-19 lockdowns surpassed the imagination of people in past decades should read Bradbury’s story “All Summer in a Day,” which appears in the new Library of America collection of his short fiction. We might just send rockets to Venus, colonize the planet, and learn to live with its climactic extremes at some point in the future. But in 2022, the scenario of “All Summer in a Day” may remind some of what the self-appointed guardians of the public weal inflicted on millions of people with their poorly thought-out and authoritarian lockdowns and school closures.
Schoolchildren on Venus yearn for an occasion that falls once every seven years, when the rain drenching their jungle planet will pause for a couple of hours and they will at last be able to go out and romp in the sunshine and make memories to carry with them for the next seven-tenths of a decade. But, being kids, they are not above committing malicious pranks and lock one of their classmates in a closet just as the rain begins to cease. Only later, after reveling in the glorious sunlight and the bounties of the natural world right up until the clouds commence another seven-year tyranny, do they remember what they did to poor Margot and realize they have deprived the girl of some of the most precious moments of a lifetime with her needless and arbitrary confinement.
“All Summer in a Day” is just one of the stories that make the publication of the new LOA volume an event. Besides Bradbury’s collections The Illustrated Man and The October Country, it includes twenty-seven pieces grouped as “Other Stories,” a number of which have never appeared between the pages of a book until now.
Ray Bradbury outpaces other writers in his crowded field, along with a good many highbrow and “serious” writers, through the breadth of his imagination. While his tales of dark fantasy, horror, suspense, and science fiction span planets and galaxies, his genius lies in inverting the familiar and luring readers to undertake an exercise in which, in the words of T.S. Eliot, “The end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time.”
A perfect example is the tale “The Crowd,” in which a man begins to notice that the same characters gather at the scenes of car accidents on the street and comes to suspect that what many assume to be civic-minded concern for those who have sustained potentially fatal injuries is something far more sinister. Here Bradbury offers insights into the psychology of crowds. If you’ve ever wondered why some GoFundMe pages are so popular, it may be because viewers get a frisson from learning about people worse off than themselves.
But the spectators in “The Crowd” are not just voyeuristic, they are prone to a different kind of sickness. When the protagonist himself becomes the victim of a bloody accident, he deduces that people in the crowd have the perfect alibi for the murder they “unintentionally” commit by moving the bodies of victims that cannot be moved without making the injuries worse. You can’t blame them. They got swept up in a crowd, no one acted individually. It doesn’t take much imagination to find correlations to that phenomenon in our own time.
Eye of the Beholder
No one knows better than Bradbury the foolishness of conferring sympathy and support on the basis of categories as opposed to specific, verifiable information about the players involved in a given scenario. In “The Small Assassin,” a newborn more than realizes its parents’ worst fears about what it will mean to have a baby to care for. The infant turns out to be a murderous demon, and after one adult mysteriously trips on the stairs and other turns up dead, it is left to Dr. Jeffers to retrieve a scalpel from his medical kit and do the unthinkable. Don’t lavish your affection on any category of people for the wrong reasons. Babies are cute and their birth is a miracle, but as Roald Dahl reminded us in “Genesis and Catastrophe,” the worst people in history were babies once.
Bradbury inflicts moments of painful clarity, holding up mirrors to the reader without ever sounding preachy, and reminding us that what is strange, bizarre, alien, or crazy really is a matter of perspective. This applies as much to contemporary societal issues and tensions as to fantastic scenarios. In the latter category, one of the standouts in this tome, heretofore available in neither The Illustrated Man nor The October Country, is “The Fog Horn,” in which the crew of a remote lighthouse come to understand how the sounding of the eponymous device tempts a massive sea creature to come and assail their fortress head on. The default reaction is to identify with the humans under attack, but the story makes you wonder what is monstrous and what belongs to the order of things.
The nuclear threat surfaces over and over in the Bradbury oeuvre, often in situations where the blasé air of characters who announce the onset of Armageddon seems dumfounding. In “The Highway,” one of the stories in The Illustrated Man, a young man who stops at a farm to ask for a drink of water tells the owner, “It’s come, the atom war, the end of the world!” But the proprietor, not yet perceiving any disruption of his daily life, goes blithely on, wondering what the phrase the world is supposed to mean.
The point here is that his indifference is not much more incongruous than the callousness and amorality of those on the other side of events, the before side, who accepted a slide toward nuclear conflict as unexceptionable and tolerable. The same interpretation applies to the brief “The Last Night of the World,” from the same collection, in which a couple learn that the missiles are in the air and retire to bed for their final time together, but then the wife gets up again when she realizes a faucet is dripping.
Reading certain of Bradbury’s tales, you may recall Nietzsche’s famous admonition that he who fights monsters should take care that he does not become a monster. In “The Other Foot,” one of the pieces in The Illustrated Man, a number of the black colonists of Mars, remembering injustices visited on them in the past, grow enraged at the arrival of a spaceship containing a white refugee from an earth where people have succumbed to the urge to blow each other up. They fetch weapons and organize what quickly come to resemble lynch mobs, until the horror of what they are contemplating, and the need to be better than those who have wronged them, sink in. The story is as relevant now as ever.
These précis of a few stories do not begin to do justice to all the work in a nearly 1000-page volume that drives yet another nail in the coffin of the useless distinction between genre and literary fiction. But will Bradbury’s work ever make it into the future worlds he envisioned? The very canniness of his writing—its refusal to conform to ascendant tastes, then and now—places that prospect in doubt.