the contextual life

thoughts without borders

cultivating your geek cred :: sci-fi classics (II)

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those who are unfamiliar with the science fiction genre could be quick to discount it as frivolous escapism for boys. while some books certainly fit that description, i’d argue that there are a few titles capable of going head to head with the greatest works of literature. many of the themes literary classics grapple with, which is one reason for their cultural endurance, are grafted onto the landscapes of faraway lands and played out between fantastical characters.

ray bradbury is one such author who uses stories set in the future to speak to the political and moral questions of his time—and ours. born in illinois during the summer of 1920, bradbury is a true american writer; while growing up he was taken with the country’s burgeoning science fiction culture. his fascination with buck rogers, a fictional space explorer who appeared in newspaper comic strips, serialized films, and on television, offers an interesting anecdote. bradbury was teased by a group of boys at school for reading buck rogers comic books. embarrassed, bradbury caved to peer pressure, ripped up the comics and disposed of them in the trash. days later he realized he’d become depressed. why? buck rogers of course. so young bradbury, deciding that the boys werent his friends and that buck rogers was a more valuable presence in his life, went out and replenished his collection, vowing never to care about the teasing again—which is quite fortunate for the millions of high school English teachers who assign Fahrenheit 451 each year.

drawn to the craft from an early age, bradbury became a full-time writer in his twenties, publishing short stories in the 1940s and then full-length novels in the 1950s. it was at this time that the world was reeling from its second major war of the century; fear of all-out destruction at the hands of the atom bomb weighed heavy on people’s minds: hiroshima and nagasaki had been bombed 5 years earlier. the martian chronicles, bradbury’s first short novel about human attempts to colonize mars, explores this anxiety. inhabitants of earth, noticing the degeneration of society and increased possibility of death at the hands of aggressive nations, opt to move to mars despite not knowing what they might face. anyplace is better than here is the message.

but utopia is not in store for the adventurous humans—americans to be exact since, in bradbury’s story, the US is the only country to have developed the technology to make space travel possible. in the world of anti-colonial literature sartre, camus, and foucault come to mind but i believe bradbury has a place in that circle as well. his observations, poignant yet subtle, have the effect of a zen koan rather than a political science lesson.

from the time of the first arrivals, mars is outfitted with neighborhoods similar, if not identical, to the ones the explorers just left. the Midwestern feel is intentional; aside from bradbury having spent his early years in illinois, he cites sherwood anderson’s classic winesberg, ohio as an influence. the places where the astronauts land carry the same, or similar, names of american towns, landmarks, and public heroes. one could say that mars has experienced hegemony: the social, cultural, ideological, or economic influence exerted by a dominant group. just in case the reader misses the point, bradbury sends an enlightened explorer with the second expedition who ends up sounding a lot like an anarchist from the Pacific Northwest:

“Ask me, then, if I believe in the spirit of the things as they were used, and i’ll say yes. They’re all here. All the things which had uses. All the mountains which had names. And we’ll never be able to use them without feeling uncomfortable. And somehow the mountains will never sound right to us; we’ll give them new names, but the old names are there, somewhere in time, and the mountains were shaped and seen under those names. . . .No matter how we touch Mars, we’ll never touch it. And then we’ll get mad at it, and you know what we’ll do? We’ll rip it up, rip the skin off, and change it to fit ourselves.”

“We won’t ruin Mars,” said the captain. “It’s too big and too good.”

“You think not? We Earth Men have a talent for ruining big, beautiful things. . . .A few men like us against all the commercial interests. . . .They know we’re here tonight, to spit in their wine, and I imagine they hate us.”

bradbury, writing a few years prior to the official start of the African-American Civil Rights Movement, includes a sort of slave narrative. back on earth, somewhere in the deep south, a group of white men, playing their stereotypical roles, are spending an afternoon on the porch when, suddenly, it becomes apparent that all the black people in town have orchestrated a great exodus to mars. on this one day, with a brief window of opportunity, all the black people have gathered their things and march down to the launching field. although some of the language falls uneasily on my 2010 ears, the scene is set using the poetry i’ve come to associate with bradbury and what i think makes him a literary giant:

Far up the street the levee seemed to have broken. The black warm waters descended and engulfed the town. Between the blazing white banks of the town stores, among the tree silences, a black tide flowed. Like a kind of summer molasses, it poured turgidly forth upon the cinnamon-dusty road. It surged slow, slow, and it was men and women and horses and barking dogs, and it was little boys and girls. And from the mouths of the people partaking of this tide came the sound of a river. A summer-day river going somewhere, murmuring and irrevocable. And in that slow, steady channel of darkness that cut across the white glare of day were touches of alert white, the eyes, the ivory eyes staring ahead, glancing aside, as the river, the long and endless river, took itself from old channels into a new one.

bradbury goes on to inject what must have been the common mood coursing through the south at that time. one of the white men on the porch, realizing the conspiracy unfolding before his eyes:

“I can’t figure why they left now. With things lookin’ up. I mean, every day they got more rights. What they want, anyway? Here’s the poll tax is gone, and more and more states passin’ anti-lynching bills, and all kinds of equal rights. What more they want? They make almost as good money as a white man, but there they go.”

the martian chronicles packs in many timeless themes, including a question for expatriates: when your home country is at war do you go back to fight? the big questions are as intentional as anderson’s influence on place. in his inspiring nonfiction title, zen in the art of writing, bradbury describes a time before science fiction was taken seriously by teachers and librarians, when in the 1930s and 40s students could not have found l. frank baum in their school library and in the 6os when there was no issac asimov on the shelves. it took children to spark the revolution. they did it by passing along their favorite novels to the gatekeepers. it was only then, as bradbury puts it:

. . .the bomb exploded.
They not only read the first but the second paragraph, the second and third pages, the fourth and fifth chapters.
“My God!” they cried, almost in unison, “these damned books are about something!”
“Good Lord!” they cried, reading a second book, “there are Ideas here!”

and so, if it’s Ideas you’re looking for, bradbury is an excellent guide.

Written by Gabrielle

December 2, 2010 at 5:53 am

Posted in books

Tagged with ,

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