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Thursday, April 15, 2021

The Essential Bradbury • by Eric Dontigney



So, Bruce suggested that I write a blog post about the must-read Bradbury stories. I liked the idea at first. Any excuse to revisit Bradbury is usually a good one. Then, I did a Google search to see what turns up on all of these kinds of lists. Guess what? Those lists all resemble each other pretty closely. The list usually looks something like this:

1. “The Veldt” [i]

2. “The Small Assassin” [o]

3. “A Sound of Thunder” [g r]

4. “The Fog Horn” [g r]

5. “There Will Come Soft Rains” [m]

6. “Kaleidoscope” [i]

7. “The Long Rain” [i r]

8. “Marionettes, Inc.” [i]

9. “The City” [i]

10. “I Sing the Body Electric” [e]

You can trade out a story here or there. For example, I’m a big fan of “Skeleton” [o] and less a fan of “I Sing the Body Electric.” Still, most of these show up on every list. This tells me that these probably are the best stories by consensus opinion. Or, they’re the ones that get anthologized most often. Either way, if you’re looking for a Bradbury primer, you can start with these. You’ll get the bleary-eyed nostalgia and obsession with the teetering cusp between childhood and adolescence Bradbury is famous for in at least some of them.

That left me at something of a loss. The list has been written. The reasons why people chose those stories aren’t substantially different from any I might use to justify my otherwise arbitrary choices. The reality is that we tend to have a visceral reaction when in the presence of truly great writing. We get chills. We feel our hearts race a little. We know we’re reading something special, something that often transcends the boundaries of genre trappings. Bradbury was a master of short fiction, and it shows. What more can I really add to that? Not much. 

Bruce also mentioned he was thinking of writing something about the prescience of Fahrenheit 451. I can certainly see why he was thinking about writing something about that book. It’s arguably Bradbury’s most famous work. It’s so famous, in fact, that the title has lodged itself into the lexicon as a synonym for censorship. It’s so famous that most people don’t even talk about the writing or the story. They talk about what it means. As I considered all that, I realized that Fahrenheit 451 falls into that rarefied category we usually dub: Important Books.

I have kind of a problem with Important Books. We get so caught up in the importance of the book that we leave off of other questions. Things like, was this a good story

I recently read through Chris Fox’s Void Wraith saga. It was a six-book series. The books are not on the list of Important Books. They don’t touch on deeply important questions of free speech, the negative impact of mass media, or how the march of technology alters society. They did tell a good story, though. I cared what happened to the characters. I wanted to know what happened next. I was interested. 

That made me think back to when I got Fahrenheit 451 as assigned reading back in high school or college, I’m not sure which. I had an unusually good high school English teacher, so it might well have been then. Did Fahrenheit 451 tell a good story? Was it something I would have read to completion if I’d just picked it up on my own?

Thinking back now and skimming through the first few chapters of the book, I’m inclined to think that I’d have abandoned it for something else. I’m not arguing that it doesn’t touch on relevant and ongoing issues in society. I’m as aghast as anyone else at the idea of burning books. I’m even old enough now to mourn a time when mass media hadn’t reduced people’s attention spans to that of the average fruit fly and gutted their critical thinking skills. I can recognize that watching endless hours of streaming television has a numbing effect on people and encourages them to disengage from actual human relationships.

Yet, the story itself isn’t that interesting. We’re supposed to see Guy Montag as the protagonist, but he’s a terrible fit for the role. He’s incredibly passive right up to the moment that circumstance forces a choice between fleeing and dying. So, he flees. It’s not a heroic act. It’s not an act of conscious resistance to the system. It is self-preservation and nothing more.

The people he runs to aren’t all that interesting either. They’re understandably paranoid, but there’s an underlying vibe that Montag might not be all that welcome to stay if he didn’t conveniently have part of The Bible memorized. They aren’t a resistance in any traditional sense. They aren’t taking action to overthrow the system. They’re on the run and plan to stay that way. Nor is it entirely clear how Montag finds them at all. The nuclear strike at the end of the book is something of a deus ex machina. Yeah, it levels the city and makes it feasible for the book rebels to turn back the clock, but almost every important action in the book stems from external forces at work.

The most dynamic characters in the books are Millie Montag and Captain Beatty. The first is a drug-addled, suburban housewife who takes petty vengeance on her husband. The second is a fallen idealist who seemingly commits suicide by fireman. In other words, these are the primary antagonists of the story. The problem is that I simply didn’t care about any of them. I didn’t care what happened to them. I didn’t care what happened next. 

Fahrenheit 451 is an important book because it forces us to examine important issues. I’m just not so sure that it’s actually a good book.



Eric Dontigney is the author of highly regarded novel, THE MIDNIGHT GROUND, as well as the Samuel Branch urban fantasy series and the short story collection, Contingency Jones: The Complete Season One. Raised in Western New York, he currently resides near Dayton, OH. You can find him haunting obscure sections of libraries, in Chinese restaurants or occasionally online at ericdontigney.com.

 


 

P.S. A few editor’s notes about Eric’s Top Ten list…

[i] denotes found in The Illustrated Man.

[g] denotes found in The Golden Apples of the Sun.

[r] denotes found in R is for Rocket.

[m] denotes found in The Martian Chronicles.

[o] denotes found in The October Country.

[e] denotes found in I Sing the Body Electric.

As you can see, you can find half the stories on the Top Ten list in The Illustrated Man and a good share of the rest in R is for Rocket. Bradbury’s paperback publisher excelled at repackaging and re-repackaging his stories many times over. For example, R is for Rocket and The Golden Apples of the Sun contain many of the same stories, just in different order. As a young reader, spending my own hard-earned cash on sci-fi paperbacks bought by mail-order (“Bookstores? What are these bookstores you speak of? We don’t have any of those in my town.”), I can’t adequately describe how quickly it turned me off to Bradbury to realize that I’d just bought his “new” book, only to find it was full of the same old stories I’d already bought twice before.

Purely from a consumer advisory standpoint, then, if you want to get all the Bradbury you reasonably need, buy The Illustrated Man, R is for Rocket, The Martian Chronicles, and perhaps The October Country, and skip the rest, unless you really want to read I Sing the Body Electric. And if you should happen to come across a copy of The Toynbee Convector somewhere, just put it back on the shelf and pretend you didn’t see it.

—Bruce Bethke

P.P.S. 

And be sure to check out THE MIDNIGHT GROUND. Seriously, it is really good, and I want to encourage Eric and get at least two more books out of him before someone from one of the big publishing houses discovers him and takes him up to the big leagues. 

2 comments:

Pete Wood said...

I am mystified why the Small Assassin would make anyone's top ten list. I hate that story. Mars is Heaven, the Man, Frost and Fire, Boys! Raise Giant Mushrooms in your Cellar!, Zero Hour, and To the Future are all much better. As are many others.

Eric Dontigney said...

Top 10 lists are like that. You’re always bound to see an entry or two that baffles you. Yet, those entries inevitably have their defenders.