On Ray Bradbury's 100th birth anniversary, a reading primer to immerse yourself in the author's oeuvre

When it comes to prolific authors like Ray Bradbury, there’s not always an obvious choice that can open the door to seek out other books.

Prahlad Srihari August 22, 2020 14:00:30 IST
On Ray Bradbury's 100th birth anniversary, a reading primer to immerse yourself in the author's oeuvre

There are two kinds of sci-fi readers: ones who jump right in with the hard stuff of Robert A Heinlein and Isaac Asimov, and those who ease into it with the gateway variety of Philip K Dick and Ray Bradbury. Unlike Heinlein and Asimov, Dick and Bradbury's work had a crossover appeal which made them more accessible to readers new to science fiction. More importantly, they helped a genre once relegated to pulp magazines build enough cultural goodwill to become an established fixture in the literary mainstream. Bradbury more so than Dick, as sci-fi critic Gerald Jonas once wrote. During this cultural shift, both attempted to dissect mankind's technological and astronomical dreams for the future with an equal share of curiosity and cynicism.

But if Dick's prose was nothing but oil that greased his idea machine, Bradbury's prose sang like a soundtrack to his stories. There was a poetic cadence to it which enriched his plot with a meditative quality. "Plot is no more than footprints left in the snow after your characters have run by on their way to incredible destinations," he wrote in Zen in the Art of Writing. "It is human desire let run, running, and reaching a goal. It cannot be mechanical. It can only be dynamic.”

Perusing Bradbury's CV, the uninitiated might feel daunted by his vast literary output of novels, short stories, poems, plays and non-fiction works. He was as prolific as Stephen King, if not more. For every know-it-all already familiar with Bradbury, there’s a newbie trying to figure out where to start. To commemorate what would have been Bradbury's 100th birthday, we've created a reading plan to set you on the course from greenhorn to geek. With that damn virus having spoilt nearly all our 2020 plans, there’s no time like the present to dive into it. Like Bradbury wrote, "While our art cannot, as we wish it could, save us from wars, privation, envy, greed, old age, or death, it can revitalise us amidst it all."

The Greatest Hits

While exploring new writers, each bookworm has his/her own method and reading pace. For instance, some may prefer to take the chronological route. When it comes to prolific authors like Bradbury, there’s not always an obvious choice that can open the door to seek out other books. What is obvious is where not to start. That would be the Crumley mysteries (Death Is a Lonely Business, A Graveyard for Lunatics and Let's All Kill Constance), where Bradbury unsuccessfully attempts a Raymond Chandler. The Wonderful Ice Cream Suit and Other Plays is also not a natural entry point. The Martian Chronicles sure is.

On Ray Bradburys 100th birth anniversary a reading primer to immerse yourself in the authors oeuvre

An introduction to the work of a new writer within the bounds of eight-page stories feels more manageable than a 250-page dystopian novel, classic or not. In 28 mostly standalone stories of The Martian Chronicles, Bradbury transposes typically terrestrial concerns to the extra-terrestrial surface of Mars. Mirroring as a re-enactment of the European colonisation of America, the customs and culture of the Martian natives are transplanted with those of the earthlings. Soon, Mars becomes the new new frontier, a replica civilisation of rockets, hot dog stands and cosy couches. Similar to their European counterparts, these earthlings also bring the plague with them, nearly decimating the indigenous population. Bradbury condemns man's conquest of nature and his conquering nature, as exemplified in his will — and what he deems to be an obligation — to take over the land and culture of another for "the greater good of humanity." The Martian Chronicles also introduces strands that will reappear in subsequent works: humanity's quest for self-knowledge, fear of humanity unable to keep up with rapidly evolving technology, and how humanity and technology's dark sides often intermingle.

For those who would prefer to start with a book with the cross-over appeal of fantasy and horror, Something Wicked This Way Comes is a good entry point. It's a setting far different from that of The Martian Chronicles. We're in the fictitious Green Town (Bradbury's Illinois analogue to King's Maine), where two kids uncover the terrible secrets of a newly arrived carnival. The boys embody courage in the face of fear, and the contrary — how fear can subdue them — in a tale of lost innocence. If you're a King fan, you'll certainly notice how Bradbury's coming-of-age horrors and brooding sense of place are echoed in many of King's novels. An alternate Bradbury gateway would be another coming-of-age book also set in Green Town called Dandelion Wine. In reference to a wine made by the protagonist's grandfather, this collection of vignettes loosely based on Bradbury's own childhood play out from the perspective of his 12-year-old alter ego. Bradbury commingles all the joys and magic of an idyllic summer into a single bottle of nostalgia, synaesthetically evoking his love and desires from his youth.

In the tradition of The Martian Chronicles, Bradbury's style of writing intertwined short stories become more crystallised in The Illustrated Man. We meet the titular character, whose body is entirely covered in tattoos created by a time-traveller. Each of these tattoos come alive in stories. "The Other Foot" reverses the balance of power between black and white people following a nuclear war. Death becomes a reflection of life in the Gravity-esque "Kaleidoscope" where astronauts drift in space and come to terms with their fears, and in "The Last Night of the World", which follows a couple's last evening before the end of the world. There is a certain inescapability to stories like "The Veldt" and "Zero Hour", which see two VR experiments involving children go horribly wrong. It's a near-perfect collection, in which Bradbury's voice and vision are fully formed as he imagines scenarios where technology has outpaced humanity.

What was a short story about the dangers of government-sponsored censorship in The Martian Chronicles' "Usher II" becomes a full-fledged manifesto against it in Fahrenheit 451. In his most well-known novel, Bradbury envisions a society where reading and writing books — and therefore imagination itself — are outlawed. The government subjugates its citizens with "non-combustible data", which presents a version of events which keeps them docile and happy. Here, a fireman (one who burns books, not puts out fires) rebels against the status quo to preserve the writings and values of a soon-disappearing civilisation. Books preserves the stories of our civilisation, and in their burning, Bradbury sees the destruction of the very soul of humanity. His novel is thus a declaration of love for literature, and a plea to preserve it for eternity.

On Ray Bradburys 100th birth anniversary a reading primer to immerse yourself in the authors oeuvre

In Bradbury's dystopia, happiness is equated as freedom from thought and reflection, and watching television chloroforms the population into a constant state of contentment. But being in a constant state of contentment only results in a deeper melancholy. Fahrenheit 451 not only reflects many of our current anxieties as facts are continually misrepresented by the government and media, it also acts as a warning to a tech-obsessed generation content with the dopamine hits served by social media.

The B-sides

If you've made it this far, it's time to dig into the underrated gems from Bradbury's back catalogue. In the short story collection I Sing the Body Electric!, Ernest Hemingway is resuscitated in a journey through time ("The Kilimanjaro Device") and a robot Abraham Lincoln is shot dead by a Mr Booth. Like Black Mirror did with “San Junipero”, Bradbury treats technology like the good guy for once in the titular story where an electric grandmother cares for three children after their mother passes away. Pushing humanity to the logical, sometimes illogical, extension of its technological dependence, The Golden Apples of the Sun and The October Country reveal some dark truths about human nature. If the former includes a precursor to the theory we now know as the butterfly effect in a time travel story ("A Sound of Thunder"), the latter includes a precursor to the homicidal baby in "The Small Assassin". Green Shadows, White Whale is another little-read but unmissable Bradbury novel. An epitome of his writing style, it provides a fictional chronicle of his time in Ireland working on a screenplay for John Huston’s Moby-Dick.

Fahrenheit 451, Aldous Huxley's Brave New World and George Orwell's 1984 are often considered the Big Three of dystopian fiction. Indeed, Bradbury's Zen in the Art of Writing — along with King's On Writing and Ursula K Le Guin's Steering the Craft — also makes a great case for a Big Three when it comes to self-help books for wannabe writers of genre fiction. The book not only gives us a behind-the-scenes look into his craft and production, but is filled with great writing tips. Across 12 essays, he drops plenty of sweeping truth bombs: on the challenges of writing (“Writing is supposed to be difficult, agonising, a dreadful exercise, a terrible occupation."), on the necessity for introspection (“When people ask me where I get my ideas, I laugh. How strange – we’re so busy looing out, to find ways and means, we forget to look in.”), and on the importance of reading poetry every day ("It flexes muscles you don’t use often enough.") among others.

Despite dealing in a genre with an inherent cinematic quality, Bradbury's stories have rarely been adapted (successfully) on screen, compared to his peers like Philip K Dick and Michael Crichton. But what he did leave behind is a rich legacy of literary output. In Fahrenheit 451, Bradbury wrote: "Everyone must leave something behind when he dies...A child or a book or a painting or a house or a wall built or a pair of shoes made. Or a garden planted. Something your hand touched some way so your soul has somewhere to go when you die, and when people look at that tree or that flower you planted, you're there. It doesn't matter what you do...so long as you change something from the way it was before you touched it into something that's like you after you take your hands away. The difference between the man who just cuts lawns and a real gardener is in the touching. The lawn-cutter might just as well not have been there at all; the gardener will be there a lifetime.” Bradbury’s work will sure be read and re-read to last us a lifetime.

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