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Journey to planet impossible

Ray Bradbury’s characters are in search of that long afternoon of Time

Written by Jaideep Unudurti |
June 9, 2012 3:06:56 am

Ray Bradbury’s characters are in search of that long afternoon of Time

The first science-fiction story I ever read was in a school textbook. The story was right at the back,beyond the pale of the portions,at the edge of the non-detail. It was “There Will Come Soft Rains”, a story with no characters to speak of or a plot,just an account of the slow,systemic failure of an automated house that cheerfully goes about its business,unaware that its inhabitants are dead. Reading it was a delicious blow — a story could be like this too. And I marked out the name of the author — Ray Bradbury,to see if I could run into him again. And I was not disappointed.

Now,after he has “to the dust returned”,I am leafing through the giant 900-page Borzoi edition of The Stories of Ray Bradbury. It is a carnival of wonders,a descent through the strata of an incredibly inventive mind.

Bradbury burst into fame and fortune with his masterpiece,Fahrenheit 451,with that memorable opening line,“It was a pleasure to burn”,but it is his short stories that would be loved the most. A Bradbury short story is superbly crafted,not more than 8-12 pages long,combining clockwork perfection and a simple,essentially human tale. A certain strong morality shines through,and in his best work,suffuses his words without overwhelming it.

When once asked why he wrote so few novels,he snapped back,“I’m a sprinter,not a marathon runner.” Still,he had a brutal schedule,worthy of any endurance athlete. On Monday,he would write the first draft of a new story,and every successive day write another draft till Saturday,when he would send out the final version to the magazines at noon. On Sunday,he would “ideate” for a new story. And on Monday,the process would begin anew. Bradbury said,“If all this sounds mechanical,it wasn’t. My ideas drove me to it,you see. The more I did,the more I wanted to do. You grow ravenous. You run fevers. you know exhilarations.”

Science fiction is the fiction of ideas and Bradbury,like his hero Jules Verne,was uniquely suited for it.

His best work is filled with fantastic imagery,stories shot through with melancholy,a wistful yearning for a boyhood summer that will never return,characters in search of that long afternoon of Time. Evocative titles,like “When elephants last in the dooryard bloomed” and “Dark they were,and golden-eyed”,abound.

The stories are visually in the “golden hour”,in the diffused light and scattered blue so favoured by photographers. And his explorers to strange worlds discover that the loneliness between each of us is as profound as the loneliness between the stars. Long before magical realism became a buzzword,Bradbury was out there,writing it — appropriate for someone who considered a career as a conjuror.

His stories ranged from man’s primal fears to the empyrean skies of wonder and love. He could also do horror,especially the terrors that stalk children,as novels such as Fever Dream showed.

Bradbury’s Green Town,Illinois,which forms the setting for many stories,is a veritable Malgudi in the Midwest. In that sun-kissed epitome of small-town US,he seemed to distil childhood memories,hopes and dreams,minting them into some universal currency.

Bradbury was a revenant,one of the final links to the long vanished age of pulp,the golden age of SF,when writers honed their skills by writing for magazines as numerous as the asteroids,with covers as lurid as exploding supernovae.

Mars has exercised a powerful gravitational pull on science fiction. H.G. Wells’s Martians are our mirror image but from the future — cruel and pitiless. It was also the first destination of Soviet science fiction,with Aelita. Edgar Rice Burroughs’s Barsoom tales made Mars a place for feudal glory. It took Bradbury to do a breathtaking re-imagining of the Red Planet with The Martian Chronicles. A collection of stories about the colonisation of the fourth planet,it is probably his greatest SF achievement. Bradbury explores all the tropes of first contact,the uneasy meetings between two races in a simple,pellucid style. My favourite,“Mars is Heaven”,involves one where the invading humans are lured with an almost perfect illusion of their childhood hometown,all dredged from their memories by the telepathic Martians.

The predictive function of science-fiction is often overvalued. But Bradbury’s record was impressive there too. In “The Murderer”,written in 1953,he not only predicts cellphones but more impressively,ringtones as well. Its depiction of a man in a world gone mad,“keeping in touch”,constantly surrounded by people chattering on phones and hand-held videos,is uncannily prophetic.

As a sunny Californian,Bradbury could not have the gloomy gravitas of the New York literary crowd. More seriously,he refused to recant his science-fiction credentials and this damned him forever in the eyes of the critics.

He will have his revenge,of course. Long centuries from now,when you,me,everyone who has read this is dead,some child on Mars will leaf through the Chronicles and amaze at a history of the future.

The writer scripts the ‘Hyderabad Graphic Novel’,

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