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Monday, April 12, 2021

Of Prose, Poetry, and Ray Bradbury • by Pete Wood


 

My wife and I have watched a California folk singer’s weekly acoustic concert every Saturday night since the pandemic began. Last week somebody asked him to name his writing influences. No songwriters for him. Nope. He talked for five minutes about Ray Bradbury.

And why not? Bradbury’s prose is almost poetry.

I love Bradbury. I struggle a bit with the sexism, but that is part and parcel of most 20th century science fiction. Bradbury doesn’t push the uber tough guy, like Heinlein. He just doesn’t have many female characters.

Last year I reread The Martian Chronicles and The Illustrated Man, and they hold up pretty well. They ain’t got nothing on A Sound of Thunder.  His 1952 short story stands head and shoulders above everything he’s written as far as I’m concerned. It is also the best time travel story of all time.

Second place falls to Robert Heinlein’s All you Zombies. Ah, to be a fly on the wall at any therapy sessions Heinlein may have had where he explained the Oedipal nightmares that inspired that story. In Zombies Heinlein not only disses women, he dispenses with them altogether. Zombie’s protagonist doesn’t need no stinkin’ women. He can be his own mother.  Hell yeah! The only true love is the love a man has for himself. It’s a better use of time travel than Heinlein’s A Door into Summer, a breezy novel for the most part except for the unsettling notion that time travel could be employed to have a legal relationship with that little girl down the street you’ve been pining away for.

My favorite time travel novel might be The Man Who Folded Himself by David Gerrold. Or perhaps A Christmas Carol. For movies, it’s hard to beat the Terminator.

Then there’s Needle in a Time Stack by Robert Silverberg. The greatest short story title I’ve ever seen and a really fun story to boot. I liked its theory of time travel so much that I lifted it for Academic Circles (Asimov’s, September 2016). If we’re talking stuff I’ve written, my favorite time travel story is The Old Man and the Safe, published by Every Day Fiction on February 26, 2013.

Anyhow, back to Bradbury. He is one of the rare authors whose distinct style has not been  emulated. It’s a short list. I’d include William Faulkner and a handful of others. A good argument could be made that Bradbury isn’t a speculative writer. He’s literary. Colliers first published A Sound of Thunder, not one of the pulps. But Bradbury felt at home in the pulps too. EC comics—of Tales of the Crypt fame—adapted the story in 1954 for issue 25 of Weird Science Fantasy.

In a sense many of Bradbury’s tales are about time travel. Like Jack Finney, he has a deep nostalgia for his childhood. When we travel to Mars in Mars in Heaven, we don’t find Martians, we find early 20th century small town America. Novels like Something Wicked This Way Comes and Dandelion Wine are a celebration of Bradbury’s youth in Ohio.

Bradbury sees change often as ugly and unnecessary. You get the feeling he’d like nothing better than to go back to the simpler days of his childhood. Fahrenheit 451 presents a nightmarish future dominated by corporations, advertising, and dolts who don’t read.

In The Martian Chronicles, when the Americans settle Mars, they accidentally kill off almost all of the Martians with chicken pox and then systemically start steamrolling over the joint. They reinvent the Red Planet as the  1950s postwar United States. They tear down the gossamer towers and crystal palaces of the Martians. They rename everything after American icons and lay down highways and set up hamburger stands and drug stores. God bless the USA!

As Alfred the janitor muses to Kris Kringle in Miracle on 34th Street, “here's a lot of bad 'isms' floatin' around this world, but one of the worst is commercialism. Make a buck. Make a buck.”

Bradbury’s disdain for big business and corporate greed is front and center in A Sound of Thunder where in 2055 time travel is a business. No government control. No academic study. Nope. Just salesmen who take you back in time to kill dinosaurs. The companies lay down boardwalks to keep the past safe from change and spray paint dinosaurs who are going to die anyway so yokel tourists can kill them safely.

I’m reminded of that Minnesota dentist who flew to Africa to gun down poor docile Cecil the Lion for his trophy case. I have no doubt that Bradbury’s commercialization of time travel might be the most prescient view. John Kessel certainly thought so in Corrupting Doctor Nice, where the crucifixion of Jesus had become a tourist destination and the apostles are reduced to selling souvenirs. John Kessel told me, “The past in DR NICE is exploited mercilessly, and the lives of historical people drastically changed, often for the worse. But because of the multi-universe time tracks, the future doesn’t pay a price. Like the first world exploiting the third world, a metaphor for colonialism.”

The plot of A Sound of Thunder is simple. I don’t want to summarize it, because, if somehow you haven’t read the short story, I don’t want to take away that pleasure from you. Suffice it to say that when you finish the story, you’ll never think of the term “the butterfly effect” in the same way again.

The Ray Bradbury Theater did a good, not great, adaption of the short story in 1989 for television. Barely adequate acting and poor production values about sink the episode. The 2005 movie is just a travesty. It has nothing in common with the story aside from the name. Stretching out the story, inserting endless special effects, and creating a truly incomprehensible theory of time travel doesn’t make it better. It’s like thinking you can improve on Robert Frost by adding a love interest and a gun fight to Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening.

I can heartily endorse the Simpsons segment “Time and Punishment” from Treehouse of Horror V. The episode is funny, with Homer as the world’s worst time traveler, and it gets the short story, unlike the movie.

 


 

Pete Wood is an attorney in Raleigh, North Carolina, where he lives with his kind and very patient wife. His first appearance in our pages was “Mission Accomplished” in the now out-of-print August 2012 issue. After publishing a lot of stories with us he graduated to being a regular contributor to Asimov’s, but he’s still kind enough to send us things we can publish from time to time, and we’re always happy to get them

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