Posts Tagged ‘Ray Bradbury’

On living in a bubble

April 15, 2017

I think I was probably a fully paid-up hippy in the 1970s, and that means I read quite a bit of what I suppose must be hippy-lit in those days, too, writers like Richard Brautigan, Jack Kerouac and William Burroughs, as well as others like Hermann Hesse who, though not hippies themselves, were adopted by them. One book I’ve hung on to since then – Another Roadside Attraction, by Tom Robbins – I’ve just been back to, for some reason, probably the trippy cover, I suppose. And it’s got me thinking…

I enjoyed the book back then, read it twice according to my back-page notes. This time around it was just ever so faded, dull, not boring but I didn’t really care whether I finished it or not: I’d out-grown it. And I’ve written before about this idea, too. It’s an amusing tale, full of zany characters and outlandish events, plenty of sex, drugs, music and anarchy, the kind of things I suppose I aspired to way back then.

I found myself realising how much of a bubble I lived in then, still do now, and thought that perhaps actually we all do, in our different ways. Here was a novel in which nobody did anyone any harm, everyone strove for pleasure and a happy life free of restrictions – what’s not to like? Except, of course, that there were plenty of people then who didn’t like such ideas, such freedom, such lifestyles: think of the ending of the film Easy Rider.

We all discover the things, places, people and pastimes that we enjoy and find superior to others; this allows us to look down on and make judgements about those who have different preferences. I don’t read chick lit, war novels, westerns, fantasy, novels about sport or horse-racing; I read proper literature, novels from other cultures, the classics, dammit! And when you realise that the entire world is actually fragmented into uncounted numbers of subgroups in terms of so many things – literature, food, drink, television, religion, politics, then you realise just how hard it would actually be to get enough people to agree on enough things to actually make any positive changes in the world we all share. I’ve read plenty of dystopian novels about overpopulation, pollution, climate change… most people haven’t, and probably don’t give a monkeys.

And this is where I find myself getting political, and remembering that feminist slogan from the 1970s: the personal is political. We all make choices, and choices have consequences. It serves the needs and continuation of the current system very well that we all live in our own little bubbles, that we all belong to so many subgroups according to our particular concerns, and that we don’t come together to make a bigger challenge to the status quo: divide and conquer, as the Romans realised a very long time ago.

Back to my hippy novels – which I’m revisiting prior to the next clear-out, I think – whilst I don’t actually think many people at all would disagree with the idea that we should all be nice to each other, not fight wars, enjoy ourselves, be nice to the world and cherish our environment, there are few places for ordinary people to discover that about each other or to share what they really believe in. Mass communications and the media are in the business of keeping us separate, individual. Ray Bradbury’s short story The Pedestrian is our scary world: utopia is a lot further away than I imagined.

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My A-Z of Reading: X is for XXXX (censorship)

December 26, 2016

I have always had the impression that a great deal of swearing goes on in the armed forces. There is the story that NCOs were forever yelling at squaddies, “Get your f***ing rifles!’ but they knew that if one yelled, “Get your rifles!” then the situation was for real, deadly serious, and reacted accordingly. And so, a play set in the trenches during the First World War will be full of expletives… or not. Journey’s End, by R C Sherriff, a play I know extremely well from my teaching years and from the study guide I wrote about it, contains no bad language at all. Until the nineteen-sixties, all plays staged in Britain had to be passed for performance by the Lord Chamberlain, and profanity was not permitted. You can even find examples, comparing different versions of Shakespeare’s plays, where the language had to be toned down after James I inveighed against bad language onstage…a look at the textual variations in Othello is quite interesting.

More serious, of course, is the censorship of undesirable ideas. Graphic descriptions of sex (among other things) restricted publication of such classics as James Joyce’s Ulysses and D H Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover (now utterly toe-curling); would-be British readers had to smuggle such books in from France! And there was the hilarious court case about Lawrence’s novel in the early 1960s when Penguin Books first published it in this country. Political correctness now demands censorship of some American classics such as Tom Sawyer, Huckleberry Finn, even To Kill A Mockingbird, because they all contain a certain word beginning with ‘n’. Grossly offensive though that word is, I’ve always felt that the shock effect of actually meeting it in a novel, and the brief discussion that could ensue when a class did meet it and realised that the word used to be ‘acceptable’ in the past, was better than neutering the book.

In the days of the USSR, many entire books went unpublished. Writers wrote ‘for the bottom drawer’, knowing that their manuscript would have to stay in their desk. And they wrote anyway. Vassily Grossman was told by a KGB officer that it would be at least two hundred years before his novel Life and Fate could possibly be published. The effect of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s novella One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovitch being published in a Soviet literary magazine was like that of an earthquake; none of his other novels was allowed to be published and he was eventually driven into exile and obscurity, like a number of other dangerous authors.

Books and ideas can be very dangerous to established power. The Catholic Church maintained its Index Librorum Prohibitorum up until a generation or two ago, and books can still be shunted into a religious limbo by being denied the official imprimatur of the Church. A small plaque in the Bebelplatz in Berlin marks the site of the Nazis’ public book-burning. And in Nineteen Eighty-four, George Orwell saw the advantage to the state of controlling everything in print, of rewriting the past, and of manipulating the language itself, far more clearly than anyone else has done. Ray Bradbury eliminates print and writing totally in the society of his novel Fahrenheit 451.

I have always regarded censorship as a very dangerous thing. And yet, I have also always felt a profound unease with the simplistic idea of the free speech argument: why should one allow free speech to those who would use that very ability as part of their struggle to destroy that very free speech for everyone? That’s a circle I’ve never managed to square for myself; I think we must acknowledge that we live in a very imperfect society and that ownership and control of the means of publishing and disseminating ideas is not neutral in itself.

Jorge Luis Borges: The Total Library

May 9, 2016

51VA7luBneL._AC_US160_I like Borges: he’s another wonderfully learned, eclectic writer like Umberto Eco, who, of course, paid tribute to him in The Name of the Rose by naming the blind librarian Jorge… He’s an essayist in the spirit of Montaigne, too, offering thoughtful and provocative disquisitions on a wide range of subjects. I’ve read and enjoyed his collected short stories a couple of times, and decided to venture into his non-fiction.

In his early writings, you can see just where some of the later stories were going to come from: the ideas, the thinking is the same. There are some curious book reviews, and thumbnail portraits of various authors. Here, Borges is both compelling and perceptive, precisely because he zeroes in on his subject-matter from a very individual, and usually totally unexpected viewpoint. In a review he can demolish a book and a writer in very few words – Aldous Huxley comes off very badly – and equally swiftly praise writers such as Woolf and Faulkner. Joyce‘s Finnegan’s Wake is damned completely in less than a page, and he comes back to this stance on that novel a number of times in different places… Edward Gibbon and Walt Whitman also come in for some fairly fulsome praise.

I often reflect on which writers and books will stand the test of time, and it’s interesting looking at these reviews, a lot of which are from the 1930s and 1940s: some of the titles and writers we still recognise, whereas many have vanished without trace. He has, for instance, a curious and quite deep regard for GK Chesterton, whom almost nobody reads nowadays.

A good deal of the content of this collection is, however, rather dated, and presumably of some academic interest to students of Borges’ work; the good bits do need some searching out, but they are certainly here. His essays on Nazism, and Germany in the Second World War are very interesting. I’d never heard of Biathanatos, a defence of suicide by the poet John Donne; I was surprised by his liking of (some) science fiction, including Ray Bradbury‘s Martian Chronicles, and there’s a really good essay on the Shakespeare authorship controversy, from 1964, which was the quatercentenary of Shakespeare’s birth. That one is both sensitive and quit sharply focused and interesting on language issues. The most moving essay is probably on his blindness and what he felt he shared with other writers who had lost their sight.

The Total Library is a Borgesian concept, a library containing every book which can be written, not only in every language, but in every non-language as well; it features in one of his most famous short stories The Library of Babel, and thanks to the internet and its possibilities, someone has actually created it and you can go and play with it here.

 

 

American literature and me

August 28, 2015

American literature was part of my study syllabus at university, and I remember enjoying it very much, at times more than the Eng Lit I was also reading, but I cannot now remember why, apart from the lifelong love of Mark Twain it gave me. I liked his adventurous and pioneering life, his wide-roaming travels, and the ways in which he brought his own childhood to life in The Adventures of Tom Sawyer and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. One got a sense of the relative innocence of the times, and the incredible freedom available then, too. I taught Tom Sawyer whenever I could at school, and I think my pupils enjoyed it mostly, identifying with the adventures, the rebellion, the dangers and the finding of a fortune.

It’s the American Dream, par excellence, of course, in the days when perhaps it still was available to everyone; Huck’s decision to light out for the territory is an astonishing breath of freedom and escape from a stifling world. Twain also conveys his love for the physical landscape and the vastness of the United States: Life on the Mississippi is his tribute, and I can thoroughly recommend the excellent Librivox recording of it.

I read Moby Dick and was suitably awed by it at the time, but have felt no call to re-read it. On the other hand, Walden bored me to tears as an undergraduate, and I only came to appreciate it in later years. Its magic was a little dimmed by the discovery that the cabin in the woods, though isolated, was not that far from civilisation, and Thoreau was able to take his washing home for his mother to do… Emerson and the transcendentalists left me cold; I loved Poe and his macabre tales. In the twentieth century, I could not get into Faulkner, and though I tackled a lot of Scott Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby left me, and still leaves me, utterly unmoved.

More recent writings I have warmed to include those of Garrison Keillor; again, his tales capture some of the original innocence of bygone days and the back of beyond. In my hippy days I loved the vague and lyrical weirdness of Richard Brautigan, but have not gone back to him despite the books still lying on my bookshelf. You can keep Don de Lillo.

If I had to nominate a single twentieth century American classic, it would undoubtedly be Joseph Heller’s masterpiece, Catch-22, which will stand up to any number of re-readings; satire, history and gut-churning realism, it destroys the illusion of a ‘good’ war and forces the reader to engage with the complexity of the issues.

Science fiction has been an enormous part of American literature in the past fifty or sixty years and the US contribution to the development and flourishing of the genre should not be overlooked or underestimated: let’s mention Ray Bradbury, Isaac Asimov, Philip Dick and Ursula LeGuin just for the record… and then there’s detective fiction and Raymond Chandler

For me, American literature epitomises freedom and independence; the proclaims a sense of space and freedom to experiment, to be able to rewind or go back to start in so many ways, if one’s original ideas don’t work, and this is not the way we tend to think or to view life here, I feel. There’s a sense of power, too, which comes from living in a country which is also a continent: there are no enemies bigger than you, no possibility of invasion and conquest – again, how unlike Europe – ironically the US thereby actually becomes more isolated, more insular, and that’s something we know about here in England too.

The profound differences between the dynamism, violence and openness of the US continue to astonish me; perhaps I am naive, but I sometimes feel the almost-shared language has hidden these differences from this Brit…

Arkady & Boris Strugatsky: Hard To Be A God

February 1, 2015

51igRYl2qoL._AA160_ A14HOeYaWZL._SX75_CR,0,0,75,75_This Soviet science fiction novel, just like Ivan Yefremov’s Andromeda, starts from what now appears a very strange premise: utopia has been established on Earth, and it is a soviet utopia. That is, the whole planet flourishes happily under communism. Unlike Andromeda, which presents and explores this utopia in some detail, in Hard to be a God, we only get fleeting references back to the home planet, for this novel is set on a violent, savage, feudal world.

A group of observers from Earth, who are also participants in and therefore members of this primitive society and its barbaric feudal wars, slaughters and power struggles, confront the problem of how such a world might be nudged towards more civilised behaviours. The observers, and indeed the authors themselves, reflect on parallels with various moments in Earth’s history. Their knowledge, technology and weaponry is far advanced compared with that of the planet, so their status, though concealed, is god-like, and presents them with serious moral dilemmas and conflicts.

We are not in Ray Bradbury’s ‘butterfly effect’ territory, where absolutely no interference is permitted for fear it irrevocably change the future pattern of events. Rather, given the observers’ superior knowledge, what should be done for the best? And, god-like though their powers may feel, they cannot predict the future or potential outcomes of their actions.

The premise struck me as quite similar to the Ekumen of Ursula LeGuin’s Hainish novels and stories, where, again, observers from more advanced worlds are present on other planets: the idea occurred to Soviet and American writers at about the same time. Let’s hear it for serendipity.

Next question is, of course, what if that happens – or did happen at some point in the past – to us on planet Earth? And also, what if someone realised, or worked out in some way, that this was going on? As one of the characters in Hard to be a God actually does; another has at some point been told, but does not really understand what it means.

The novel develops rather slowly and it took a while to see where the writers were heading with their idea: I thought it was just going to be mediaeval sword and sorcery nonsense and would have given up had I not read and enjoyed other of the Strugatsky’s novels and known that there would be something worth waiting for. I was not disappointed: the ending is powerful, the framing carefully done and the overall effect very thought-provoking.

I gather that the story has been filmed: thanks to Jack Avery for the nudge to read the book, which had languished for 30 years on my bookshelf…

The sifting of time….

January 23, 2015

When challenged about how poor a lot of science fiction writing was, the writer Theodore Sturgeon apparently said, “Ninety percent of science fiction is crap. But then ninety percent of everything is crap.” I’ve often found this a most astute judgement on life in general. But it does lead me on to a question that continually returns, and I never manage to formulate a clear answer to: what works of literature are good enough to survive the test of time?

I’ve written elsewhere about weeding my library of books I no longer want, because I have moved on, as it were; books that said important things to me in my younger years, but that I’ve grown out of. But that’s me leaving books behind, as opposed to the world forgetting writers and authors.

Back to SF: when I first started reading it, way back when, Ray Bradbury and Isaac Asimov were really big names: everyone read them, many raved about their writing and their ideas. But now? Recently I went back to some Ray Bradbury stories, and didn’t really enjoy them that much. And who reads Asimov now? I got rid of my copy of the Foundation trilogy years ago. But Asimov formulated the laws of robotics, which most writers pay service to nowadays, and he had a seminal influence on many later writers.

When I went up to university, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn was on everyone’s lips: he was a great writer, he was awarded the Nobel Prize for literature, he was persecuted by the Soviet authorities and eventually forced into exile in the USA, where he became a religious oddball, fading into obscurity. One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovitch is a stunning achievement, and The First Circle even more powerful, in my estimation. But most of his writings are out of print, and many people will not have heard of him. I bought and read August 1914 when it was first translated forty years ago and have intended to go back to it to see if it is any good, but will I actually bother? It’s quite revealing to look back through the lists of those awarded the Nobel Prize, to see how many have disappeared from the literary radar; the list of those who should have won but never did is also interesting.

I suppose the most significant example on my list is D H Lawrence. Again, back in the seventies, when I was at university, he was widely read. But does anyone read him now? Lady Chatterley’s Lover was an interesting read for a teenager, but even the thought of picking it up again is toe-curling. Sons and Lovers may be worth it, but The Rainbow? Women in Love? I don’t really think so. Reflecting on how Lawrence bored me at university, I remember how many lecturers made their reputations writing critical works; now that they and their books have dropped off the radar, so has Lawrence himself. The shock-horror of the Lady Chatterley obscenity trial was only a dozen years old then; it’s more than half a century now.

And who remembers the writers of thrillers from the 1960s – Arthur Hailey, Alistair MacLean, Hammond Innes? Good entertainment at the time, but tame compared with what’s written today, and long forgotten.

My big question: will Harry Potter survive the test of time, or will even he fade into obscurity in fifty years?

Ray Bradbury: The Day It Rained Forever

December 10, 2014

51D18P7WNNL._AA160_

OK, I think I’m over Ray Bradbury now, and give The Martian Chronicles my vote as his best and the only one that is really worth the effort and likely to survive as a read in the future.

This collection was disappointing and felt very dated; too many of the stories had those twee and mawkishly sentimental portraits of smalltown US life that are charming enough when met once or twice, but do pall when they reappear time after time. At the end of the book, my overall feeling was, ‘Yawn. What was the point?’. And yet, I can’t deny that Bradbury uses the language beautifully – skilful and evocative descriptions, conjuring up that sense of nostalgia for a mythical, lost and unspoiled past: you can really feel yourself there…

The Cold War overshadows most of these stories, though that’s not the reason I find them rather dated. Atomic warfare lurks in the background, moves to the foreground, actually explodes and trashes the planet, yet it’s presented in an offhand and barely understood manner; that’s what’s really dated, the faux-naivete. Our world isn’t like that, and the pretence no longer washes.

There are two stories out of the two dozen or so that stood out:Dark They Were, And Golden-Eyed has the immigrants from Earth to Mars gradually physically transformed into Martians, members of the indigenous race that has (apparently) died out; they perceive this, try to resist, and ultimately don’t really want to. And The Rock Cried Out is much darker, a tale of revolution in some Latin American nation, where the tables are turned on American tourists and the couple get their comeuppance as they gradually see the world from the point of view of the colonised and oppressed. It’s made more acute by the sympathetic nature, the understanding and the niceness of the couple, to which the locals do not respond…

Ray Bradbury: The Martian Chronicles

November 28, 2014

31ZJ8BB6C6L._AA160_So, I’ve revised the opinion I expressed a few days back, because this volume is surely Bradbury’s masterpiece. In places the language verges on the poetic, in other places he is still mawkish and sentimental, but the overall achievement is marvellous.

For some reason which I haven’t fathomed yet, The Martian Chronicles was published in the UK as The Silver Locusts, which meant I spent a while hunting for a book which I thought I didn’t have, but had all along. It dates from the 1950s, and is a collection of themed short stories, about Earth colonising Mars. The stories are dated from 1999 to the late 2020s, during which time Earth manages to colonise Mars, exterminate all the Martians, and then exterminate themselves back on planet Earth by having a nuclear war. Bradbury’s portrait of Mars is clearly not an accurate one, in terms of our current knowledge: for him and his characters, it’s basically Earth but a bit colder and the atmosphere is thinner. But the book is actually much more successful in having us as a species and a civilisation (?!) reflect on ourselves and what we do to our world and its inhabitants…

I was thinking about the silver locusts business, and realise that the silver may be the colour of the hulls of all the spacecraft heading for Mars, and the locusts represent the effect of the hordes of Earthmen taking over and trashing the planet. The Martians have only one advantage over humans – telepathy – and they try vainly to keep us off their planet, but ultimately fail, and are wiped out by a human virus. Remind you of anything? Their ghosts haunt the planet as humans colonise and reshape it the way they want. Thousands flock there, inspired by the dream of a new life. Remind you of anything? And white folks back on Earth are outraged when all the people of colour in the US emigrate en masse…

And the foolishness of our race knows no bounds – the war which everyone feared in the 1950s comes to pass, and the humans on Mars watch in horror as they see Earth glowing with nuclear war, and then all dash back patriotically to do their bit, leaving only a few lonely souls behind, to be joined by some who are sensible enough to flee the ruins of Earth in the hope of starting a new life. The story August 2026 There Will Come Soft Rains is wonderful.

It is very much a piece of its time. It’s barkingly unrealistic, beautifully lyrical, and a powerful allegory about many of the things that are wrong with our world. If anything of Bardbury’s oeuvre survives the test of time, it deserves to be this.

Ray Bradbury: The Golden Apples of the Sun

November 26, 2014

9780380730391A collection of short stories, which I’ve reread, trying to work out whether I really rate him any more.  There are some surprises here – an eye-opening glimpse into the race-relations issues in the 1950s US, and a very prescient story which seems to address today’s issues about omnipresent and intrusive social media communications. Then there is the very famous time-travel story, The Sound of Thunder, which explores the idea that going back into the past – if it were possible – would be very dangerous, because of the possibility of a chain-reaction in changes to that past. I shan’t say any more lest you haven’t come across this story, which is one of the classics of the genre, and has been anthologised many times.

Bradbury is big on Mars – we need to remember that the Soviet Union hadn’t launched the first space craft when most of these stories were written – and the possibilities of colonising another planet and emigrating to it. He links this in to the old frontier days of the early United States. I’m planning to read his collection The Martian Chronicles next, as my final catch-up with him.

There’s an awful lot of dross, though. Stories written by the word to make money, published in long-dead magazines, with magic, witches and the twee-ness of small-town American life presented in a very saccharine or maudlin manner. And then there’s the Cold War, always lurking in the background, always ready to leap into Hot War unexpectedly. This last is a more convincing and genuine recurrent theme, though others have developed it better, I feel. I’m beginning to feel that Bradbury is now a name to which readers pay reverence as a pioneer of the SF genre, and the SF story in particular, without necessarily being all that familiar with much of his work, and that he will eventually fade into obscurity.

Ray Bradbury: Fahrenheit 451

November 23, 2014

9780007491568The temperature at which paper catches fire (apparently). This dystopia from the days of the Cold War (1954) is one of the oldest in my library: I’ve had it so long, I noticed the price on the back cover is in real money (3/6 if that makes any sense)… It starts out from a single idea, that the written word is dangerous because it confuses and divides people, causes disagreements – so it’s outlawed. The hero is a fireman, except that in this dystopian USA, firemen go around burning down the houses of people found in possession of books.

Ironically, it’s a book. The film of the novel, made by the French director François Truffaut, is better, because it does just that: there is no written word or letter in the film; titles and credits are recited.

Utopias and dystopias are notorious for their didacticism, and this one is no different: various characters preach to the reader, telling us how certain situations came about and what must be done; these parts are as annoying as some of the most difficult bits of Orwell‘s Nineteen Eightyfour. I don’t know if it is possible to get around such excesses: the author has a point that just has to be made, no matter the effect on the story. And Bradbury is capable of some very lyrical and descriptive writing, with his nostalgia for a mythical golden age in the past where everything was just hunky-dory.

It’s a trope of his – and a very relevant and well-presented one, not just in this novel, either – that in modern society people are increasingly alienated from themselves and each other: conversations are not ‘real’, everyone is diverted constantly by noise, advertising and endless, meaningless, trivial entertainment. People who hang on to the past and its ways are dangerous; Bradbury’s short story The Pedestrian is probably the most chilling example of this.

And yet, real analysis is sadly lacking. Bradbury seems to hint at this alienation being some sort of communist plot – he was writing in 1954 – but this doesn’t wash at all nowadays: I would argue that we see ever more of this alienation and triviality around us nowadays, and that it is a logical and expected facet of late capitalist and consumerist society: if you divide people from each other, you can sell them more stuff; if you fill their heads with trivia then they will consume more in a desperate search for meaning and fulfilment…

The novel ends with the start of a nuclear war, and the only vague hope Bradbury can offer us is a group of misfits hidden in the wilds who have memorised sections of books in the hope of being able to pass them on to future generations. It’s not as grim as the boot stamping on a human face forever, but it’s hardly any more hopeful. In the end, the concept is rather more powerful than the execution; coming back to this novel after a very long time, I was somewhat disappointed.

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