Tag Archives: Ray Bradbury

More dream makers (addendum to a previous review)

dreammakerspb1A while back I did a review of Charles Platt’s Dream Makers: Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers at Work, a collection of interviews he conducted with numerous famous authors. The particular item I was reviewing was a 1987 hardcover edition that was, I stated at the time, a merger of two previous paperback volumes by the same title. It turns out that description was not quite accurate, because I just picked up the first of those paperbacks — Dream Makers: the Uncommon People Who Write Science Fiction, published in 1980 — and found out that not all of the profiles made it into the later hardcover. It seems the hardcover edition took only about half of the profiles from each of the paperbacks, so anyone looking to get the maximum benefit would be well advised to seek out the original two volumes, rather than the later hardcover.

The 15 profiles that appear both here and in the hardcover are: Isaac Asimov, Thomas Disch, Kurt Vonnegut Jr., Frederik Pohl, Alfred Bester, Algis Budrys, Philip Jose Farmer, A.E. van Vogt, Philip K. Dick, Harlan Ellison, Ray Bradybury, Frank Herbert, Michael Moorcock, J.G. Ballard, and Brian Aldiss.

The 14 profiles appearing only in this first paperback edition are: Robert Sheckley, Hank Stine, Norman Spinrad, Samuel R. Delany, Barry Malzberg, Edward Bryant, C.M. Kornbluth (the interview was actually with his wife, since he died in 1958), Damon Knight, Kate Wilhelm, E.C. Tubb, Ian Watson, John Brunner, Gregory Benford, and Robert Silverberg.

I’m not going to delve into this and do any specific quoting; I’ll just say that everything in my previous review applies here as well. There’s a lot of good material here giving a glimpse into the lives and writing of some of the field’s top authors — lots of intriguing little tidbits of information here. I especially enjoyed the interviews with Norman Spinrad, Samuel Delany, and Robert Silverberg. On the other hand, there are some real downers in this bunch. Particularly depressing is Malzberg, who says he gets nothing from seeing his work in print and that he hates his career.

It’s also interesting to read what sf authors have to say about other sf authors. In some cases, the various authors included in this book have criticisms to level at each other, as well as at others. Two of these authors, for instance, state their belief that Heinlein is totally unreadable. And E.C. Tubb offers a strongly negative opinion of ANY new wave or “literary” writer, such as Delany (he calls Dhalgren a “monument of unreadability”). Some of these authors also share their criticism of the genre as a whole, or its fans.

I don’t know about you, but I find this kind of stuff fascinating, and I quickly zipped through the profiles here that were new to me. I can’t wait to find the second paperback volume to finish off Platt’s wonderful interview project.

Around the sf blogosphere 10/29/08

Let’s see what’s going on at other sf sites and blogs.

SFSignal’s latest Mind Meld asks, “Is science fiction responsible for the lack of public interest in space exploration?” The question comes up, of course, because of astronaut Buzz Aldrin’s cranky assertion of just such a relationship between the two. By far the best answer comes from J. Michael Straczynski:

The only thing wrong with Buzz Aldrin’s statement is that it’s not true.

Larry Niven also weighs in with a sensible opinion:

I do not agree. Without the dream, most people would never look up. Most city dwellers would see nothing even if they did. We need the science fiction shows and movies to keep the goal before our eyes–and not just for young people, but for us all.

Crotchety Old Fan takes up the question and comments about how it’s not sf’s fault at all; sf never lost the faith, people did. In his defense of science fiction, he makes the following observation that I’m rather fond of:

I can’t think of a single SF story that advocates for abandoning the future. Certainly there are stories that point out the dangers of venturing into the unknown; more stories that illustrate how the unknown can be perverted and turned to evil ends, even cautionary tales about exploring particular pathways – but every single one of them opens the door and steps through. None of them halt on the doorstep out of fear and trepidation.

Well said! It occurs to me that such a sentiment would have fit in nicely in the context of my recent posts (here, here, and here) about those naysayers who have been criticizing the darkness of science fiction. From the above comment, I get the idea COF might agree with me that those cautionary tales, dystopias, and the like are not something to hold against the genre, but rather are an asset, all part of the business of exploring the future.

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Meanwhile, Bill Ward has been showing a lot of appreciation for Ray Bradbury lately, calling him “a living treasure,” which he certainly is, no doubt about it. First, Bill shared this video of a long Bradbury lecture and interview that I mentioned a few months back. Then he took a look at Bradbury’s Zen and the Art of Writing. After that, just in time for Halloween, came Bill’s review of Something Wicked This Way Comes. And the most recent entry in this Bradbury-fest is a review of From the Dust Returned. That’s a lot of good posting about a great author, so if you’re a Bradbury fan, go check it out.

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The “All About Books” meme I posted recently was passed to me by Shannon at Books Worth Reading, and now I have done my part to spread it by infecting a couple of others. Both Bill Ward and Omphalos have taken this opportunity to tell us all about their thoughts and preferences about books.

The makers of our science fiction dreams

I just finished a fascinating book called Dream Makers: Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers At Work, by Charles Platt. It’s a book of author profiles based on interviews Platt (an editor and writer himself) conducted in the late 1970’s. The work was originally published in two paperbacks in the early 80’s; this 1987 hardcover volume is a “new and revised” merger of those two earlier editions. The authors covered are: Isaac Asimov, Jerry Pournelle, James Tiptree, Jr. (Alice Sheldon), L. Ron Hubbard, Algis Budrys, Harry Harrison, Brian Aldiss, J. G. Ballard, Michael Moorcock, Frederick Pohl, Theodore Sturgeon, Harlan Ellison, A. E. van Vogt, Philip K. Dick, Ray Bradbury, Philip Jose Farmer, Thomas Disch, Arthur C. Clarke, Frank Herbert, Fritz Leiber, Piers Anthony, Keith Laumer, Alfred Bester, Kurt Vonnegut, Jr., and Stephen King.

Platt’s introduction tells us something about his goals:

I started doing profiles of science-fiction authors (and other writers of imaginative literature) because I knew from personal experience that they could be just as interesting — sometimes, just as bizarre — as their own books. Also, I believed that the personality of the writer was relevant to his work. Most critics focus exclusively on the text itself, as if it might be “improper” to make deductions or inquiries about a writer’s life. To me, this is snobbish and arbitrary. We can appreciate their work more if we know more about them as people.

And I do know more about these authors as people, after reading these profiles. I learned a lot about these authors, about the way they live, the way they write, the things they’re passionate about, that made me appreciate many of them more (and a few of them less). Most of the material presented is direct quotation from the authors, with a minimum of Platt’s commentary. Which is fine, because Platt’s comments and questions are rather dull most of the time (with a few insightful opinions now and then). It’s the words of the writers themselves that really make this book shine. I’d like to share some of the more interesting quotes and tidbits of information I picked up from this book.

Alice Sheldon (James Tiptree, Jr.) and her husband both worked for the CIA in its early days, in relatively important positions (cool — a spy and a science fiction writer). Alice had a degree in psychology, and one of her comments was:

“Man does not change his behavior, he adapts to the results of it. That is, to me, the most grisly truth I learned from psychology.”

Harry Harrison shared his opinions about the corruption of sf awards, the lack of respect (and decent pay) for sf writers, and the dirty behavior of publishers and Hollywood. It all culminates in this recollection:

“Someone once sent me a clipping from some magazine, an interview with George Lucas, saying ‘I grew up reading science fiction, I really was a fan of science fiction, but I didn’t like things written by people like Heinlein or Bradbury, I thought Harry Harrison was my god, and I enjoyed everything he wrote.’ That kind of thing. I thought, ‘Well! Why the hell didn’t you write to me and have me do a god damned script for you, you know, if that’s what you feel, old son, I’d be very happy to come over and make some money from this rotten field.’ Oh there’s no justice in this field.”

Frederick Pohl is (or was back then) quite politically active; he also sometimes lectured/preached at churches (mostly Unitarian). But he was pessimistic about whether anyone really listened to him:

“I remember talking to a group in Chicago once and saying that the primary requisite for achieving a viable relationship between our society and the planet’s ecology was individual self-control. They stood up and cheered me. Then the next speaker said exactly the opposite and they stood up and cheered him too.”

A. E. van Vogt spent much of his interview babbling about Dianetics, est training, and other psycho-nonsense. He came across as a total crackpot, saying that psychology needed saving and he might be the one to save it. Mighty humble, that one.

Philip K. Dick talked about…. well, the kooky stuff PKD is so well known for. From much of what he said, his unfortunate mental problems are all too apparent. However, even with his problems, he came across as more modest, intelligent, and likable than van Vogt.

Frank Herbert was also an amateur scientist and inventor. He and an electronics engineer friend once tried to design their own new kind of computer. He also experimented with harnessing wind power and came up with some pretty cutting-edge designs.

Piers Anthony is a hyperactive tour-de-force. He talks fast, moves fast, works fast — fast and non-stop. And even though he has a very successful writing career, he lives humbly:

“I am not foolish about money at all. I don’t waste it, you don’t see me going off and buying Cadillacs, no you see me out there splitting wood, because we have a wood-burning stove, and solar-powered water heating, if the sun doesn’t shine we don’t bother with hot water, because I don’t like paying fuel bills. I’m a miser!”

Alfred Bester had one of the most fun profiles to read. Asked about his method of dealing with rejection letters, his answer was: “drink more!” Did you know Bester, while an editor for Holiday magazine, was responsible for talking Peter Benchley into turning what was then just a story into an entire novel — Jaws? When asked about retirement, he said:

“Retire? Yeah, I want to retire with my head in the typewriter. That’s my idea of retirement.”

One of the things I liked about Platt’s style was that he helped to give a feel for the authors by describing their homes (most of the interviews were in person), and particularly their work areas used for writing. There was quite a variety, from Ballard’s desk by a big window facing his back yard, to Anthony’s office barn, to Farmer’s windowless basement room with walls covered in erotic art.

There’s a lot more I could mention — this book is full of great stuff! And somehow, in some mysterious way, my “to read” list has grown longer. Funny how that happens all the time. :lol:

Banned SF&F: let’s celebrate Banned Books Week 2008!

It’s Banned Books Week (last week of September every year), an assertion of our freedom to read whatever we damn well please, led by the American Library Association for the last 27 years. Way to go, ALA, I’ll drink to that!

Let’s take a look at some of the science fiction and fantasy that has been challenged or banned by the small-minded censorship-loving prudes in the past, and their reasons for wanting it suppressed. I include fantasy just because so many demented dimwits out there criticize it for promoting “witchcraft” or “sorcery” (as if such things really existed), and that kind of irrational, muddle-headed nonsense annoys me to no end. (Much of this information comes from the ALA site, a great resource for learning about banned books).

1984 by George Orwell
Why: “pro-communist, explicit sexual matter.”

Brave New World by Aldous Huxley
Why: “promiscuous sex, language, moral content, negative activity, contempt for religion,” etc.

The Lord of the Rings by JRR Tolkien
Why: the Christ Community Church in Alamagordo, New Mexico had themselves a barbecue and threw LOTR on the fire because it’s “satanic.” Ok, everyone together…. ready…. start laughing…. NOW!

A Clockwork Orange by Anthony Burgess
Why: “objectionable language.”

Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury
Why: contains the phrase “God damn”
Wait…. someone wanted to ban a book which is ABOUT the ultimate banning of books? Is it possible for a human being to so completely lack any inkling of the concept of irony!?

Harry Potter series by J.K. Rowling
Why: witchcraft, satanism, the usual crap…. blah blah blah.

A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L’Engle
Why: contains witches and crystal balls, challenges religious beliefs (and we just can’t have that now, can we?).

The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood
Why: sex, language, etc.

Flowers for Algernon by Daniel Keyes
Why: sexuality.

His Dark Materials series by Philip Pullman
Why: critical of religion.

Cujo, Carrie, and The Dead Zone by Stephen King
Why: sex, violence.

So go on, open one of these books and enjoy it, and be free from the petty tyrants who want to control what you read because (a) they’re so uptight about sex and “bad” words, (b) they can’t distinguish between fantasy and reality, (c) they think their religious beliefs should be insulated from even the slightest criticism, whether real or imagined, or (d) some combination of the above.

Books won’t stay banned. They won’t burn. Ideas won’t go to jail. In the long run of history, the censor and the inquisitor have always lost. The only weapon against bad ideas is better ideas.
~Alfred Whitney Griswold, New York Times, 24 February 1959

Every burned book enlightens the world.
~Ralph Waldo Emerson

Bradbury burns it up: Fahrenheit 451

What can I say about one of the greatest pieces of literature of the 20th century that people haven’t already heard? I’m sure most people are familiar with this book, and even those who haven’t read it probably have a general idea of what it’s about. So without going into any great depth, I’ll just pass along a few of my thoughts after recently reading it for the first time (yes I know, I should have read it a long time ago… I’ve been a bad, bad sf fan…. ).

Science fiction has always had a lot to say about society, projecting current social trends and problems into the future to see where they might lead. And so there have been numerous works of sf pointing out how modern society is becoming increasingly more superficial. It seems to me that Fahrenheit 451 is the granddaddy of this type of socially critical sf — perhaps not in the sense of being the first example (I have no idea if it was) but in the sense of being the most potent work of its type. Bradbury manages to encapsulate, in this short novel, so much of the dumbing down of the modern world and how that world, and especially America, is becoming increasingly more and more shallow.

The most obvious symptom of that in the novel is the death of literature and the firemen whose purpose in life is the burning of books. But that’s only a specific instance of a wider anti-intellectual atmosphere. In Bradbury’s fictional society, not only is book possession a crime, but the very basic acts of thought, reflection, and discussion are deeply frowned upon. Houses are built without porches so people can’t sit there and leisurely mull things over. Curiosity and imagination are considered abnormal personality traits, as is any interest in nature, even the simple act of enjoying the rain or walking at night; these are the kinds of things that can get you sent to a psychiatrist. People are expected to get their all their enjoyment in life from artificial, manufactured entertainment. Bradbury anticipated the modern fascination with big-screen televisions, as well as the idiotic programming they deliver. The characters on the tv walls are considered “family” and are as real to people, or more so, than their real flesh and blood families. The whole society is geared for speed, so no one has time to stop and smell the roses, time to just stop and consider the world around them. Even driving slow is a crime, because it allows one too much opportunity for thinking. And going along with all this, society is dominated by a stifling sense of conformity, what Bradbury calls “the solid unmoving cattle of the majority.” Hardly anyone dares to be different, and those who do may end up in jail, or worse.

Unfortunately, much of what is contained in this novel has a basis in reality. Just consider the speed of modern (especially American) life, with people rushing everywhere, ready to run you off the road if you’re not a speed-demon like them. And then there’s the idiot box, which sucks up far more of our society’s time than reading these days. And consider the execrable fodder people sit there watching: soap operas, game shows, “reality” tv, air-headed comedies, and other assorted garbage. And, sadly, book burnings still occur from time to time.

It seems to me that Fahrenheit 451 could be the poster child for old sf that is still relevant today.

Another classic read and appreciated: The Martian Chronicles

I think I’ve been semi-subconsciously avoiding The Martian Chronicles for years and years, imagining somehow that I wouldn’t care for it. I’ve always been aware of its fame and reputation as one of “the” classic works in the field. But I’ve also long been aware of Bradbury’s reputation for throwing science and realism out the window and turning Mars into an almost fantasy setting. Then, too, there’s the fact that I’m usually not much of a fan of short stories. So I was prepared, and half expecting, to find this book not very appealing. But as I was reading this “book of stories pretending to be a novel” (Bradbury’s description), I was pleasantly surprised to find that I did, in fact, enjoy it very much.

I do admit, it took a little while to get in the right frame of mind to accept what Bradbury was offering here. But it quickly became apparent that this was not a rigorous depiction of a possible future, but rather a poetic and metaphorical setting for probing into human nature. And I can accept that, especially since that poetry and metaphor are used so charmingly. So, Bradbury doesn’t explain how humans can amazingly breathe Martian air, but he does tell us about humanity’s behavior in a new landscape. He doesn’t explain why any average Joe can fly a rocket with no training, but he does explore the reasons why people would want to get on a rocket and leave for a new world. He doesn’t give us any technical details behind the native Martians’ marvelous technology, but he does tell us about their spirit and the things they valued as a people.

It’s impossible not to notice the deep contrast Bradbury draws between humans and Martians. This is, of course, to show us ourselves both as we are and as we might wish to be. The Martians are generally a quiet, peaceful, thoughtful, philosophical people with refined yet simple tastes, living in harmony with their world. Humanity is presented as pretty much the complete opposite, and Bradbury seems pretty cynical about our species’ many shortcomings. The explorers and colonists who come to Mars are arrogant, obnoxious, self-centered, and disrespectful of the native culture. They come to the planet as despoilers, using native buildings for target practice and dropping their trash in the canals. Even more, when the humans bring along chicken pox that wipes out most of the remaining Martians, someone comments on how the “native problem” has been solved. Many times in these stories, one is reminded of the real history of colonial powers and the way they treated native peoples. The few human characters who object to this treatment of the planet and its natives are ignored, or killed, or otherwise disposed of (such as the rocket captain who it transferred to the outer solar system for 20 years so he can’t make trouble). This, too, rings true; those who point out our species’ flaws are often shunned or silenced by the majority who don’t want to hear the truth. And that reminds me, Bradbury has even more pointed remarks about majorities:

Who are we, anyway? The majority? Is that the answer? The majority is always holy, is it not? Always, always; just never wrong for one little insignificant tiny moment, is it? Never ever wrong in ten million years?

Another of the big themes is humanity’s self-destructive tendencies. In one of the earlier stories, someone comments on how “Earth men have a talent for ruining big, beautiful things.” By the end of the book, man have done exactly that on a vast scale, ruining the Earth itself in nuclear holocaust. One story, “There Will Come Soft Rains” (from the Sara Teasdale poem of the same name), is a very moving look at the aftereffects of annihilation. It’s about an automated house that continues going about its robotic functions (cleaning, cooking) even after everyone is dead; all the while, the only trace left of the family that lived there is their flash-shadows on an outside wall, recording the moment the bomb went off and they died. It’s one of the most touching stories in the whole collection.

Another nice story is “Night Meeting,” in which a human and a Martian meet one night in the desert. The human points out his town, but the Martian can’t see it; likewise, the Martian points out the city he was approaching, but the human can’t see it. They are totally unable to perceive each others’ realities. This is a great (although not very subtle) statement on how difficult it can be to see things from another person’s viewpoint.

There is a very interesting exchange in “The Fire Balloons.” Two of the first priests on Mars have an argument over where their efforts should be spent: on eradicating sin in humans or in the Martians. During the debate we have this question and reply:

“Can’t you recognize the human in the inhuman?”
“I’d rather recognize the inhuman in the human.”

This seems like a good description of what The Martian Chronicles is all about. I think Bradbury’s purpose was to explore both the human and the inhuman in the human — our good points and bad, our glories and our tragedies, our virtues and our evils. Although it does seem the evils receive a somewhat lengthier treatment.

From a stylistic perspective, there’s a lot of good stuff here: some beautiful descriptive passages, some wonderful metaphors, and a lovely use of language throughout. Bradbury is a highly skilled writer, and it shows on nearly every page.

My single criticism of the book is that Bradbury occasionally puts forth that tired old nonsense about science and religion needing each other, and about how we have lost our way by embracing the former too much and the latter not enough. He singles out Darwin and Freud specifically for disapproval, for some reason. Whatever, Ray. Everyone’s entitled to their own strange beliefs.

Overall, a very good read. I think I would have enjoyed this even more when I was a teenager, and wish I’d read it back then. Better late than never, though.