FIFTEEN OR 20 YEARS AGO, high school and college English teachers seized upon the work of Ray Bradbury. Ah! they cried in unison. Here is a science fiction writer whose work is good ! Remarkably enough, however, the appeal of Bradbury's short stories has even survived the process of "required reading." Bradbury is that old thing: a mid-20th-century writer whose literary output has been almost entirely short stories. Of his so-called novels, Dandelion Wine and Something Wicked This Way Comes were cobbled together from short stories; Fahrenheit 451 was an unfortunate expansion of a fine novelette.
In recent years Bradbury seems to have contented himself with writing unprepossessing poetry and the odd article here and there. It takes a book like The Stories Of Ray Bradbury to remind us that in his writing career he has already given us a body of work comparable to Poe's, to O. Henry's, to de Maupassant's. What's more, rereading these hundred stories also causes me to wonder why the illusion continues, even among science fiction readers, that Ray Bradbury is or ever has been a science fiction writer.
True, his early stories first appeared in the pulps during the late 1940s. But that was not because they belonged there -- Bradbury was writing neither space opera nor nuts-and-bolts science fiction. In any reasonable world, the main stream of American letters would have seized instantly upon his work as a fresh voice, a new vision. Unfortunately, Bradbury began writing when the American short story establishment was already in the grip of the hardening of the arteries that would quickly lead to the paralysis we politely overlook today.
Ray Bradbury wrote about Mars, but even when he wrote the stories that later became The Martian Chronicles he knew that there never could be such a planet as he described. Rather he was setting his stories in the world of the dreams of a child growing up on Buck Rogers and John Carter. He was not writing science fiction. He was writing Ray Bradbury's childlike world:
It is a world of terrors, both named and nameless, that at once attract and repel.
It is a world of parents who are competent and kind, siblings who are eager to plunge into danger as long as you are close behind, tennis shoes that have miraculous powers.
It is a world where hope is the only possible philosophy, and is not disappointed.
Indeed, it is that very optimism, and not some imaginary genre, that sets off Bradbury's stories from most others. His ebullience borders on sentimentality, and if you do not read his stories in the correct frame of mind you are likely to detect cliche here and there, and mawkishness seeping through almost every tale.
For instance, the characters in "I Sing the Body Electric" are not particularly well-drawn. They are simply a boy and his siblings who have lost their mother. Their father arranges for them to choose a robot grandmother who is everything they want her to be. They become emotionally attached to the convincing fraud of an old lady. And then one day she, too, is "killed." This time, however, the machine they love can be resurrected easily -- the faith of the children is restored, for their loved one can never be taken from them now. And more: when they are old, she will be able to come back to them and care for them as they retreat into a second childhood.
Maudlin? Yes, if you read it with emotional detachment, analyzing as you go. But Bradbury's stories resist such a reading.
It is not the characters he expects you to identify with. Rather, he means to capture you in his own voice, expects you to see through his eyes. And his eyes see, not the cliche plot, but the whole meaning of the events; not the scenes or the individual people, but yourself and your own fears and your own family and the answer, at last, to the isolation that had seemed inevitable to you. In short, if you will let him, Bradbury will give you a much better childhood than you ever had. He will name all your nameless fears and bring them home and make you like them.
In the introduction to The Stories of Ray Bradbury , the author states his belief that he can clearly remember all the events of his infancy, even the moment of his birth, the doctor and scalpel at his circumcision. It is perhaps too tempting to use this to explain Bradbury's unique voice: Could he not be giving us stories that see the world as an infant sees it, with unindividuated parts that cannot be named, and yet with feelings that are inextricably linked with the events that swirl around him?
Bradbury's stories do not all succeed, of course. His tributes to Hemingway only work if you feel toward Papa as too many people feel toward Elvis. Some of his stories are little more than an idea -- what if the sea were a woman that coveted a man and regarded his wife as her rival? What if a dinosaur were still alive in the sea and thought a fog horn was a mating call? Other stories gush too much even for me.
But where he succeeds, where his voice and his subject matter and this particular reader find harmony, I find the stories have lived in me ever since that first reading:
The hilarious story, "Invisible Boy," which is the perfect expression of a parent's hopeless longing to possess a child forever.
"The Tombling Day," in which an old woman looks at the exhumed body of her old lover and learns that she is still young; another old woman in "There Was an Old Woman" who refuses to die and demands to have her body back.
The macabre group of people, always the same people, who endlessly gather at grisly accidents to partake of the pain and the death in "The Crowd."
A story of a dignified old couple who, through their sheer grace, forestall the ruin of their home in "The Terrible Conflagration up at the Place."
The monster choldren of "The Small Assassin" and "Tomorrow's Child."
And most of all, the story Bradbury chose to lead off the collection of his own favorites among his work: "The Night," which perhaps means so much to me because I'm just learning how much a parent is lost when a child is lost.
Indeed, that is Bradbury's magic: far more often than you will think possible, he will find the inexpressible things you most deeply know, and from then on the name of that thing will be his story. He will give you dandelion wine laced with wormwood, and you'll drink deep and regret that there are only a hundred draughts.