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Wednesday, April 14, 2021

How Ray Bradbury has driven my writing without me even knowing about it • by Guy Stewart



When Bruce emailed me with the announcement that this week was going to be “Ray Bradbury Week,” he asked, “How about a review of Fahrenheit 451, or something about the incredible impact of ‘A Sound of Thunder’?”

To tell you the truth, I couldn’t remember that particular short story, and it’s been like…a zillion years since I read Fahrenheit 451. I asked if could write something about a story that did leave a profound mark on me as a young person: “There Will Come Soft Rains.”

In the post-nuclear-attack 1970s, us littles still had memories of “duck and cover,” the sadly inappropriate policy that, when the nuclear attack sirens sounded and you were at school, you should get under your desk, cover your face, and close your eyes real tight…

When I was thirteen and reading every word of science fiction I could get my hands on in the school library and the public library—and without a single wise mentor or parent to guide me—I eventually ran across “There Will Come Soft Rains,” the second-to-last story in The Martian Chronicles. I read it, and to this day, the end of the story will flash into mind: the images, burned into the paint of the house, from a nuclear flash…as the house burns down and the home computer talks to itself.

Flash-forward to sometime at the end of the second decade of the 21st Century. My father had been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s, and being the closest child to where he lived, I was tasked with the job of making sure everything was going OK with him at the care center he lived at, in the Memory Care Unit. I began to wonder if there was a better way of caring for our rapidly fading parents and wrote a story that reflected the ultimate, pathetic (in the original sense) end of Human civilization as my own “world” ended, with Dad’s eventual death due to complications of Alzheimer’s. It was never published, but if you’d like to read it, the link below will lead you to the story on my blog site.

I chronicled my parents’ gradual deterioration (mom’s diagnosis was “age-related dementia”) on a blog you can find if you Google “Guy’s Gotta Talk About…”

In unconscious echo, I had returned to a Bradbury story I had read decades prior; and to this day, his poetic rendering of nuclear destruction is both chilling and oddly calming. Calming in that he puts into words that mimic prose, poetry that reflects deeper feelings of grief at the inevitability of something over which we—I—had no control.

Bradbury’s most famous novel, Fahrenheit 451, was required reading in high school, and I did my duty but haven’t read it since. I have it next to me on my desk, so there’s a good chance I’ll be picking it up soon to read it again.

But what I found startling was that I had written an echo of another piece of Bradbury’s work. “Invoking Fire” opens with a private library in the main character’s home being burned in toto. His Great Uncle is dead and he is charged with bringing a backpack full of books of increasing value to a mysterious library in the Erg of Bilma. (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Erg_of_Bilma).

So, why does the boy even try to do this? Because when I wrote it, it seemed inevitable that most books would become electronically stored. It seemed inevitable that given the editable nature of Wikipedia, anything online could be altered by anyone with the right skills. Certainly some of the altering was for puerile adolescent amusement. But what if someone altered the copy for political correctness? What if certain things became unacceptable in fiction? (And can anyone find a new or library copy of And To Think That I Saw It On Mulberry Street? I don’t know. I’m just asking for a friend.)

Na’Rodeny’s Great Uncle collects hard copies of books. In this scene of the story, he and his non-girlfriend compare a passage from Stephen King’s first novel, Carrie:

“Read the first paragraph of your online copy of CARRIE,” said Angelique.

“What?” said Na’Rodney.

“Just do it!” she snarled, waving the hardcover book. He looked down at the screen. “Shut your mouth and follow along while I read from the original. ‘When the girls were gone to their Period Two classes and the bell had been silenced (several of them had slipped quietly out the back door before Miss Desjardin could begin to take names), Miss Desjardin employed the standard tactic for hysterics: She slapped Carrie smartly across the face. She hardly would have admitted the pleasure the act gave her, and she certainly would have denied that she regarded Carrie as a fat, whiny bag of lard. A first-year teacher, she still believed that she thought all children were good.’”

“Mine doesn’t say that,” said Na’Rodney softly, looking at his cellphone. “This is what mine says, ‘When the girls were gone to their Period Two classes and the bell had been silenced (several of them had slipped quietly out the back door before Miss Desjardin could begin to take names), Miss Desjardin employed the standard tactic for hysterics: She knelt down and touched Carrie gently on the shoulder. She hardly would have admitted how much this poor girl needed a guiding hand in her life. The daughter of a religion-crazed bigot, her mother regarded Carrie as a fat, whiny bag of lard. A first-year teacher, Miss Desjardin believed that all children were good.’”

Na’Rodney blinked and said, “Again.” He read his passage, eyes on his phone as she read the paper copy out loud. He looked up, “They’re different.”

“That’s what your great uncle and the rest of the Papers are worried about. If someone, somewhere went to the trouble of changing an electronic work of fiction, how many works of nonfiction will be changed?”

You can read the entire story if you follow the link below. But rereading parts of Fahrenheit 451 and my own story, I can see a reflection of Bradbury’s book in my own story. In particular, the theme, which is a fear of the written word and what it can do to us.

“In a 1956 radio interview, Bradbury said that he wrote Fahrenheit 451 because of his concerns at the time (during the McCarthy Era) about the threat of book burning in the United States. In later years, he described the book as a commentary on how mass media reduces interest in reading literature.”

I didn’t realize until I took up the challenge of reviewing something Bradbury, that my own writing has been affected by Ray Bradbury. My writing has been so deeply affected that I didn’t even realize that it had until now. Reflecting just now, I realize that my first Stupefying Stories fiction was written using more of a poetic style than I usually use—again, this was a reflection of Bradbury’s prose, which is written as if it were poetry. It evokes rather than illuminates. Reading a Bradbury novel or story isn’t like reading a Lois McMaster Bujold novel or story—nor should it be! There are times when I just want to read a good story well told.

But Bradbury’s work doesn’t seem to be that kind of story. His work evokes feelings, and while it entertains, it doesn’t feel like its main intent was entertainment. When I was a young teenager, I read The Martian Chronicles as science fiction. Reading it as an adult, it’s very much not just a bunch of science fiction stories…and I won’t say anything more because I haven’t read them for some time, and Bruce is going to be doing or did do a piece about them.

I’m sure everyone has an opinion of Bradbury’s work, but my discovery that I have unconsciously picked up his themes and style was genuine surprise.

—Guy Stewart

 


 

Guy Stewart is a husband supporting his wife who is a multi-year breast cancer survivor; a father, father-in-law, grandfather, foster father, friend, writer, and recently retired teacher and school counselor who maintains a writing blog by the name of POSSIBLY IRRITATING ESSAYS (https://faithandsciencefiction.blogspot.com/) where he showcases his opinion and offers his writing up for comment. He has 72 stories, articles, reviews, and one musical script to his credit, and the list still includes one book! He also maintains GUY'S GOTTA TALK ABOUT BREAST CANCER & ALZHEIMER'S, where he shares his thoughts and translates research papers into everyday language. In his spare time, he herds cats and a rescued dog, helps keep a house, and loves to bike, walk, and camp.

References:

“A Sound of Thunder”: http://www.astro.sunysb.edu/fwalter/AST389/ASoundofThunder.pdf

“There Will Come Soft Rains”: https://www.btboces.org/Downloads/7_There%20Will%20Come%20Soft%20Rains%20by%20Ray%20Bradbury.pdf

Source Poem for the title: https://poets.org/poem/there-will-come-soft-rains

“Invoking Fire”: https://theworkandworksheetsofguystewart.blogspot.com/2017/07/invoking-fire-by-guy-stewart.html

“And After Soft Rains, Daisies”: https://theworkandworksheetsofguystewart.blogspot.com/2021/04/and-after-soft-rains-daisies.html

Wikipedia article on his novel: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fahrenheit_451


2 comments:

Pete Wood said...

There Will Come Soft Rains is probably the only story in the Martian Chronicles with any real science in it. It still gives me chills. More poetry than prose, but masterful writing.

GuyStewart said...

Absolutely agree. The last image still makes the hair stand up on my arms...