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Tuesday, April 13, 2021

The Bradbury Problem • by Bruce Bethke

Oh yeah, I’ve read a little Ray Bradbury. Even met the man once, and had a nice conversation with him. When Pete Wood proposed doing a series of posts on Bradbury and his work, I went to my bookshelf and pulled down some books for research. This heap is by no means complete; for example, I have at least three different editions of The Martian Chronicles around here … somewhere. Nor do I know where my copy of Something Wicked This Way Comes disappeared to. I must have loaned it to someone who never returned it.

Bet you didn’t even know that Green Shadows, White Whale existed, did you? Perhaps it’s better you don’t.

But when Pete proposed the topic, I wasn’t too enthused about it. My never-finished thesis was to be a hatchet job on the man, taking issue with Bantam’s recurring promotional shtick, “The world’s greatest living science-fiction writer.” In hindsight it’s a far better thing that I never finished it, as it would have been the sort of cranky rant that only a 20-something with an enormous chip on his shoulder could believe the world needed.

Forty years later, after most of a lifetime spent in the SF publishing racket, I really didn’t think that there was anything left to be said about the subject. Ray Bradbury was. His works exist. He put a dent in the zeitgeist you just can’t ignore.

So what could I write about Bradbury and his work that hasn’t been written a hundred times before? I tried to interest Pete in writing about two stories that I consider especially problematic, “Way Up in the Middle of the Air” and “The Other Foot,” but Pete wouldn’t touch them with a ten foot cattle prod. I gave some thought to writing about the prescience of Fahrenheit 451, but didn’t have time to develop the topic. I got close to settling on writing about The Martian Chronicles, and the problems it has created for every writer and editor who has come afterward. 

Then, as I was giving one last thought to writing about Fahrenheit 451, a work more people seem to know from François Truffaut’s 1966 film than from the actual book, Ray saved me again, as he so often has before, with his “Coda” to the 1979 edition. If you’ve never read it before, here is what Bradbury had to say about the problems with Bradbury’s stories.

About two years ago, a letter arrived from a solemn young Vassar lady telling me how much she enjoyed reading my experiment in space mythology, The Martian Chronicles.

But, she added, wouldn’t it be a good idea, this late in time, to rewrite the book inserting more women’s characters and roles?

A few years before that I got a certain amount of mail concerning the same Martian book complaining that the blacks in the book were Uncle Toms and why didn’t I “do them over”?

Along about then came a note from a Southern white suggesting that I was prejudiced in favor of the blacks and the entire story [~brb: the aforementioned “Way Up in the Middle of the Air”] should be dropped.

Two weeks ago my mountain of mail delivered forth a pipsqueak mouse of a letter from a well-known publishing house that wanted to reprint my story “The Fog Horn” in a high school reader.

In my story, I had described a lighthouse as having, late at night, an illumination coming from it that was a “God-Light.” Looking up at it from the viewpoint of any sea-creature one would have felt that one was in “the Presence.”

The editors had deleted “God-Light” and “in the Presence.” 

Some five years back, the editors of yet another another anthology for school readers put together a volume with some 400 (count ‘em) short stories in it. How do you cram 400 short stories by Twain, Irving, Poe, Maupassant and Bierce into one book?

Simplicity itself. Skin, debone, demarrow, scarify, melt, render down and destroy. Every adjective that counted, every verb that moved, every metaphor that weight more than a mosquito—out! Every simile that would have made a sub-moron’s mouth twitch—gone! Any aside that explained the two-bit philosophy of a first-rate writer—lost!

Every story, slenderized, starved, bluepenciled, leeched and bled white, resembled every other story. Twain read like Poe read like Shakespeare read like Dostoevsky read like—in the finale—Edgar Guest. Every word of more than three syllables had been razored. Every image that demanded so much as one instant’s attention—shot dead.

Do you begin to get the damned and incredible picture?

How did I react to all of the above?

By “firing” the whole lot.

By sending rejection slips to each and every one.

By ticketing the assembly of idiots to the far reaches of hell.

The point is obvious. There is more than one way to burn a book. And the world is full of people running about with lit matches. Every minority, be it Baptist / Unitarian, Irish / Italian / Octagenarian / Zen Buddhist, Zionist / Seventh-day Adventist, Women’s Lib / Republican, Mattachine / Four Square Gospel feels it has the will, the right, the duty to douse the kerosene, light the fuse. Every dimwit editor who sees himself as the source of all dreary blanc-mange plain porridge unleavened literature, licks his guillotine and eyes the neck of any author who dare to speak above a whisper or write above a nursery rhyme… 

There’s more; much more. If you don’t have a copy of Fahrenheit 451 you owe it to yourself to get one and read it. Look for an edition published in 1979 or later, as it will include Bradbury’s Coda. Avoid the special October 1953 “fireproof” edition, as the cover is printed on asbestos and probably violates Amazon’s hazardous materials handling policy now. But for me, now, reading the Coda Bradbury wrote for the 1979 edition:

As Truffaut might say, “Plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose.”

—Bruce Bethke


Pete Wood said...

Those literary revisionists better leave Frost and Fire alone. I read that story in his anthology, R is for Rocket, when I was in sixth grade and I can still remember passages of it vividly. The best Bradbury story that nobody has heard of.

~brb said...

@Pete: they won't leave it alone. They can't help but meddle. It's their raison d'être.

Bradbury addresses that in his 1979 Coda, too. Apparently at the time he wrote it he'd just had it brought to his attention that there were some 75 significant changes between the original and then-current editions of Fahrenheit 451, all of them slipped in quietly and without his knowledge or permission by a succession of editors who'd felt the need to re-copyedit the manuscript every time the book was re-typeset and re-released. Bradbury was very happy that his new editor, Judy-Lynn Del Rey, was taking the time and trouble to restore the original text for the 1979 edition.