Ray Bradbury – An American Original – Part 2 – The Short Stories

In the first part of this post, I’ve given a little background on how I became introduced to Ray Bradbury’s stories.  After detailing Dandelion Wine, I feel talking about his shorter works is the next order of business.  I own a collection of these called “The Stories of Ray Bradbury” which includes what Bradbury considered his best 100 short stories.  I went through these today and picked out my favorites.  I feel it’s necessary to qualify that statement.  There are more than a few of Bradbury’s best stories that have become components of the longer work Dandelion Wine.  Since I’ve already reviewed that work I’ve left these short stories out of this selection process.

Here are my selections for the best of the best in the same order as they appear in the book:

  1. The Crowd
  2. The Scythe
  3. The City
  4. There Was an Old Woman
  5. There Will Come Soft Rains
  6. The Veldt
  7. A Sound of Thunder
  8. Invisible Boy
  9. The Fog Horn
  10. Hail and Farewell
  11. The Great Wide World Over There
  12. Skeleton
  13. The Man Upstairs
  14. The Jar
  15. Touched with Fire
  16. The Town Where No One Got Off
  17. Boys! Grow Giant Mushrooms in Your Cellar!
  18. The One Who Waits

Now here’s the thing.  I could easily have added double this number.  Almost all the stories are good.  But these are the ones I especially like.  So, this selection probably says more about me than it does about Bradbury’s best of the best.  But that can be said about any critic’s choices.

An interesting fact I discovered after making this list is that there are at least three stories in this list which I don’t think have any SF&F content in them whatsoever.  They are just studies in human nature.  And yet they appear on this list.  Which I take to mean that Bradbury finds people interesting and knows how to make them interesting to his readers.  Now, that may not seem remarkable, but look at the people writing at the same time as Bradbury.  Let’s take Isaac Asimov.  If you read Asimov’s long or short fiction what you will find is that he is a purveyor of ideas.  But his characters, even his protagonists are ciphers.  There isn’t any emotional content worth mentioning.  And that even counts the scenes where the action is dependent on an emotional response from one of his characters.  He could just as well have been describing billiard balls ricocheting around a pool table.  You might even see the psychological logic of the emotional response but you won’t experience empathy or interest in the character as a human being because of it.  It’s just a plot device.

This was why Bradbury was different back then.  He wrote people in SF&F stories as if they actually were people.  Better writers back then were also doing this to some extent.  Heinlein’s characters displayed more individuality than the average and this is one of the reasons why he is still enjoyed.  But Bradbury brought this to a much higher level.

What else can be definitely said about Bradbury’s stories?  I would say that he almost exclusively deals in the foreground of the picture.  By that I mean that his subjects are almost always face to face.  If Arthur C. Clarke were describing a nuclear holocaust you would see it from orbit.  You would see the ballistic paths of the ICBMs and you would be at the top of the parabola when one missile starts to descend.  And you would see the individual nuclear ignitions across the face of the globe like some fireworks display.  That’s not Bradbury.  With him you’ll see the aftermath of a suburban home on the edge of the kill zone.  You’ll see the toaster in the kitchen and you’ll see the shadows of the family imprinted onto the side of the house facing the gamma ray flash.

Even when Bradbury does write a story of aliens invading earth you are not going to get War of the Worlds.  You’ll get that same suburban neighborhood with husbands and housewives and little Jimmy working on his hobby in the basement.

So now I’ve said a bunch of words about Bradbury’s short fiction.  If you’re looking for hard-core technical sf or even just plain old amusing space opera do not stop at Bradbury.  Move right along.  There’s none of that here.  But if you want to delve into the mysterious world within a world that is the human soul take a trip with him.  It might strike a resonant chord.  Or it might not.  Either way you’ll learn something.

Trump vs The Time Hag – Episode 1 – The Origin Story

Scene 1:  Deepest sublevel of the Pentagon; 3:30 a.m.

Vice President Pence (VPP) – Mr. President, thank you for keeping this a secret and I apologize for the late hour.

President Trump (PT) – Mike, what the hell is going on here?  I was in the middle of a very important tweet.  I superimposed Jim Acosta’s head on a walrus and he was looking really stupid.

VPP – Sorry Mr. President.  I’m sure that was really important but this is critical.

PT – Alright, now that I’m here, what gives?

VPP – In this top-secret military lab our top men have been perfecting a practical method for time travel.

PT – Hey that’s great Mike.  Now I can go back in time and make bets on sports games and get rich like Biff did in Back to the Future Part 2.

VPP – Actually Sir, going back in time and changing it is a very dangerous thing to do.  And it’s one of the reasons I called you here.

PT – I don’t get it.  I haven’t even done anything yet.  Why are you already giving me grief about it?

VPP – Actually it’s Hillary Clinton that’s the problem here.

PT – What does Crooked Hillary have to do with my time machine.

VPP – Your time machine?  Oh, never mind.  Let me explain.  Secretary Clinton found out about the project from Obama back when he was pillaging the United States of America.  After your election victory she has been looking for some way to thwart the election results and she selected the time machine as the last resort.  She plans to go back in time and change history in some way that will allow her to become the president.  In fact, she has already used the machine.

PT – Doesn’t this old hag ever quit?  So how do we stop her?

VPP – Mr. President, if you’ve read Heinlein’s “All You Zombies” or watched “Back to the Future” you know that tampering with the past can be catastrophic.

PT –  Yeah, yeah.  Like when Michael J. Fox starts disappearing from the polaroid photo of his family.  Which if you think about it doesn’t really make any sense.  Boy, that Spielberg really was a slacker.  So, I’m in danger of ceasing to exist.

VPP – Precisely.  We think Hillary will attempt to prevent you from being born by interfering in your parents’ lives.  In fact, we think she’s already succeeded.

PT – Well, then why am I still here?

VPP – Because this lab has an inertial time field associated with it that delays changes to the temporal fabric of the universe within a range of 5 miles and for a period of about two weeks.

PT – Good thing for me.

VPP – Ain’t it the truth.

PT – Okay, get me the DeLaurean or put me in the machine and send me back.  Will I be naked like the Terminator?

VPP – No Mr. President.

PT – Good.  Because despite his terrible work on The Apprentice, Schwarzenegger definitely looks better naked than I do at the moment.  I really have to lay off the pasta.

VPP – Mr. President we don’t have much time.  We’ve got to set up the machine and plan out the mission.  Hillary is wearing a controller that looks like a lady’s Rolex that allows her to move forward and back in time to whatever point in history she wants.  We will provide you with an equivalent controller in a men’s Rolex.

PT – I’d prefer a Trump Chronichron.  It looks like a Rolex but can be purchased at Macy’s for only $450.  It’s quite a deal.

VPP – I’m sorry Mr. President, there’s no time.

PT – That statement seems ironic under these circumstances.

VPP – I am aware.  Now in addition to allowing the wearer to time travel the watch allows us to keep track of the traveler.  For instance, we know that Hillary is currently in 5th Century B.C. Athens.  We will send you there first.  Your mission is to thwart any actions by Hillary and protect the outline of Western Civilization throughout our timeline.  Do you have any questions?

PT – Yes, can I bring guns?

VPP – No Mr. President, that would be extremely damaging to the thread of history.

PT – I figured you’d say that.  You know Mike, you really should learn how to live a little.

VPP – Sure.

PT – Alright, I’m ready.  Let her rip.

VPP – God speed Mr. President.  We’re all rooting for you.  None of us want Hillary for a boss.  She’s a lousy bitch.

Epilogue:

As you know if you’ve read “The Funeral Oration of Trumpicles” Donald was successful in defeating Hillary (or as she was called back then Clintoninus).  Stay tuned for the further adventures of Time-Traveler-Trump as he does battle in the day before yesterday to save tomorrow!

What Good Sci-Fi is Out There?

Sci-Fi movies have a long and checkered past. They run the gamut from such high concept films as 2001: A Space Odyssey to such dreck as Plan Nine from Outer Space. And in addition to quality these films vary by sub-genre. There are movies that concentrate on technology and how humans will adapt to it. This category includes such movies as I, Robot and The Martian. There are movies that are mostly about contacts with alien life of one form or another. This would include everything from War of the Worlds to Independence Day. Then there are movies that are basically monster movies like Alien and The Thing from Another World where the science fiction is just a vehicle to allow things to jump out at the protagonists from dark corners.
I will confess that I can enjoy almost any of these types of movies on any given day if given the chance. But it seems of late the quality of sci-fi is in decline. All kinds of money is being spent on special effects and the acting is really no worse than it’s been in the past. So what’s different?
First, I would say, is the quality of scripts. The words coming out of the characters mouths are getting less interesting. I have been assured that motion pictures are a visual medium in which dialogue is an ancillary dimension of the experience and entirely superfluous. That a good movie shows you not tells you. I disagree. Of course the visual is primary. But if the movie is about people then they need to talk to each other and if the dialogue is bad then the film is bad even if you blow up all the planets in the solar system in alphabetical order in vibrant Technicolor. Let me clarify one thing. I am not advocating for highly polished dramatic set pieces. Dialogue between a street dweller and a policeman can be good without breaking into Shakespeare. All I’m saying is the dialogue is either lame or non-existent in most sci-fi movies today.
Second, the majority of the protagonists are not particularly likeable. Once again let me qualify. I’m not saying I want the good guys to be boy scouts, far from it. But a flawed character can still be the character the audience identifies and empathizes with. As an example from detective fiction, think about Sam Spade. He’s cruel, selfish and violent. But there’s never any doubt whether we want him or his adversaries to come out on top. The characters now seem either evil or just ciphers.
And lastly, the stories that these movies are based on are usually not very substantial. Think of some of the great stories that have been written. Even restricting myself to one author, Heinlein, I could point out a dozen books and short stories that could be made into excellent films. Wouldn’t “The Moon is a Harsh Mistress” make a great movie? And how about “Farmer in the Sky”? And I think audiences would eat up “Have Spacesuit Will Travel.” The danger is that the studios would turn each movie into a franchise and we’d be subjected to hacks tacking sequels onto completed stories. I’ve heard “Starship Troopers” might be remade as a faithful interpretation of the book. That would be great. But I’m not holding my breath.
Now I’ve ranted against what I don’t like. Let me see if I can identify some that I do. Caveat, I haven’t gone out of my way looking for good sci-fi. But I’ve managed to bump into a lot that’s bad. And I’m leaving out all things Star Wars and Star Trek. I won’t even go there.
• “The Martian” was okay. Despite the fact that I despise Matt Damon he did a decent job and the story though far from brilliant was somewhat engaging and clever.
• The first installment of “The Matrix” was pretty good. Granted it’s almost twenty years old but being much older I will include it in recent.
• If I’m allowed to stretch apocalyptic films as science fiction I’ll point to the “Book of Eli.”
So that’s it. Maybe I’ve missed some. If anybody has any movies from the last twenty years that past muster, leave a comment. We can discuss.

More Anti-Asimov Ranting

So, in my last post about Asimov I decried his descent into collectivist propaganda (Foundation’s Edge).

I will continue my diatribe here and show how Asimov devolved from an anthropocentric viewpoint to a proponent of the hive mind.

In 1950 Asimov had a short story called Misbegotten Missionary.   In the story an exploratory mission from Earth visits a world named Saybrook’s Planet that is populated by communal creatures.  Although these creatures take on all the forms needed to make up an ecosystem (microbes, plants and animals) they are all part of one consciousness.  In addition, any one of these creatures has the ability to alter all creatures around it so that all their offspring will be communal creatures too.  The explorers took precautions to protect their ship from contamination by any biological contact.  But unbeknownst to them a solitary creature has stowed away on the ship and is waiting to reach Earth to begin the conversion process.  It somehow realizes that the earth creatures monitor bacteria and the mice that they have on board to detect contamination by an alien life form.  Because of this the creature refrains from altering any of the ship’s life forms to avoid tipping off the crew.  The creature is cryptic and disguises itself as a piece of wire in an electrical circuit on the ship.  By the kind of remarkable luck that only happens in fiction (or the 2016 presidential election) the wire that the creature is connected to is in the circuit to open the ship door.  So instead of converting earth to communalism he gets fried like a death row inmate in Florida.  The conclusion has the crew discover the bullet they dodged and everyone breaths a sigh of relief.

 

Apparently, Asimov was unhappy with this result.  So, 32 years later he corrected this mistake in the Foundation sequel, Foundation’s Edge.  Searching for a mysterious unseen hand in the Foundation universe he follows clues that lead to Sayshell (not Saybrook’s Planet) where he learns of the existence of Gaia, a communal intelligence that not only is composed of all the living things on the planet but also the inanimate components too.  Now of course, this reeks of James Lovelock’s trendy 1970’s theory, The Gaia Hypothesis, that Earth was one big super-organism that had become infected with the human virus (thus the Matrix, thus Al Gore).  Apparently, Asimov had bought into this theory and saw a harmonization (read Borgian assimilation) of humanity by the communal organism as the perfect solution.  And just to make sure no one thinks assimilation is soul extinguishing oblivion, he shows us a human component of the collective who is a cheerful woman who happens to like the protagonist.  So, you see, if you glue a smiley face onto the Borg it’s all good.  And just to make sure no connection to Saybrook’s Planet is possible, the protagonist in Foundation’s Edge is not forced into the hive but gets to choose whether humanity is melted into a collective consciousness with igneous rocks and hydrogen atoms.  You see it’s totally okay!

 

Asimov displays all the symptoms of the proto-sjw that he was.  He dislikes individualism.  He admires the hive.  He desires to remove choice from the currently free.  And he dislikes all this random doing what you want to do (except probably for himself of course).  And finally to hammer home the lesson that humans can’t be left to their own devices we find out that Earth is a radioactive corpse and the whole Gaia situation is a master plan put together by a super-intelligent robot to try to save humans from themselves.

 

So my question is, what the hell happened to this doofus?  And of course, the answer is he just followed the same trajectory as most of the progressives from the thirties who admired the Soviet Union before the Cold War.  Now, Heinlein started out in that camp too.  But when he changed wives and married a conservative he changed course and rejected the hive.  I remember in his novel Methusaleh’s Children Heinlein has a world where a race exists that also possesses a collective mind.  And the humans also had to make a choice.  If they remained they would be assimilated.  Only those who feared death remained.  Obviously, these collective races are the communists.  Heinlein rejected it.  Asimov finally embraced it, much to his detriment as a writer and a man.  But it did finally earn him a Hugo.  So apparently the Hugo had also made the transition by that time.

Heinlein: What’s the Deal with Him?

Heinlein Part 2 – The Juveniles

So, here we are five years into the Puppy Era and we all know what we don’t like.  We don’t want revolutionary intersectionalist gender studies diatribes disguised as SF&F message fiction.  Agreed.  But for the sake of reminding us what we do like I’ve decided to start dusting off the dinosaurs.  I’m going to reach back into the Pre-Cambrian Epoch and analyze some of the better fossils currently on display on my admittedly antediluvian book shelf.  First on the list Robert Anson Heinlein (aka the big enchilada).

Anyone who attempts to review Heinlein is in for trouble.  Everyone either loves or hates the man.  Some people actually are able to do both at the same time.  But few are lukewarm.  Full disclosure, I grew up on his juveniles.  I read “Red Planet,” “The Rolling Stones,” “Farmer in the Sky” and the rest of his kids books like some kind of junkie.  When I ran out of them I started trying out the rest of his peers.  As a kid I defined all other science fiction by how it stood next to the grand master. In my mind none of them measured up.  To my young eyes he was a literary god.

As time went on I came in contact with his novels and short stories for adults.  I read his future history stories and found that world interesting and to my optimistic mind plausible.  “The Green Hills of Earth,” “Methusaleh’s Children,” “The Moon is a Harsh Mistress” all confirmed my opinion that here was a great storyteller.  I was convinced that picking up something by RAH was a guaranteed good read.

As I grew I found that Heinlein was changing too.  His books became darker.  Starship Trooper although absolutely first rate Heinlein was a serious war story wrapped up in a philosophy lesson.  Farnham’s Freehold is just plain grim.  Glory Road is an interesting but puzzling work.  Heinlein was still enjoyable but he had moved away from the sunnier climes of the past and allowed the dystopian events of the Cold War to color his universe.  By the time of “Stranger in a Strange Land” we are in a new landscape.  RAH has abandoned simple stories and now approaches questions of religion, spitituality and sexuality that sometimes seem bizarre.  At this point I note that “heinleinian” qualities of the stories are still present but the world view has shifted.  It reflects the changes that had occurred between the United States of the nineteen forties and that of the nineteen sixties.  Interestingly these changes were actually forecast by Heinlein in his Future History timeline.  He predicted the nineteen sixties would be called “The Crazy Years.”  Was he ever right!

So , where are we?  Well, Heinlein , the Baby Boomers and I have all transitioned from the heroic, optimistic stories of the forties into the somewhat jaded, realistic stories of the sixties.  So far I’m still with him.  I still wait expectantly for the next big read from the king.  And then he published “I Will Fear No Evil” (IWFNE).  Holy Crap!  It’s over forty years since I read that disaster and even that much time hasn’t softened the feelings of outrage I feel whenever I think of the pain I experienced trying to plow through this awful pile of garbage.  When I finished it I was convinced that either Heinlein had died and a ghost writer was brought in to write this abomination or that he had ingested some really bad LSD and had completely lost his mind.  Either way, the world of guaranteed good Heinlein fiction was over.

In retrospect it turned out that the publication of this book coincided with a very serious health crisis in Heinlein’s life.  The book was published without the careful and time-consuming edits and rewrites that were RAH’s standard operating procedure for publication.  So it’s possible that Heinlein could have rewritten IWFNE and made it into a good book.  But I don’t think it’s true.  In addition to the awful writing exhibited in the book, the dystopian world portrayed, although frighteningly close to some aspects of modern life, is nothing that most people want to read about.

What I think went wrong with Heinlein was that he had extrapolated the trends he saw in his world and came up with a future that although uncomfortably accurate, wasn’t compatible with his audience’s tastes.  The science fiction readers of that time tended to be optimistic.  We wanted a future that was better than the world we lived in.

After the debacle of IWFNE there was a long hiatus before the next Heinlein book appeared.  In the mean-time I moved on to other authors.  Tolkien and his Middle Earth deeply interested me and other fantasy writers and works caught my attention.  By the time, Heinlein came out with Expanded Universe, I no longer thought much about his potential for providing me with good reading material.  Expanded Universe is a book that contains both short fiction works and non-fiction concerning politics, world events and practical philosophy.  It was full of interesting observations and insights into Heinlein and his world.  It managed to renew my interest in what RAH might have next in store.

At this point it was nineteen eighty.  These were optimistic times and an old-fashioned Heinlein story was exactly what would fit in.  His next novel was “The Number of the Beast.”  Essentially the book is sort of an elaborate insider’s joke.  It is full of allusions, puns and puzzles that relate to Heinlein, his works and his philosophy on writing and life.  It is not exactly a page turner.  Not being in a frame of mind to savor his meta-work I resigned myself to taking each Heinlein publication as an unknown quantity to be evaluated as found.  His following books were mostly a mixture of narrative and dispositive philosophical material.  An exception was the book Friday which was more or less a traditional story.  It tied into characters and ideas found in the short story Gulf.  It has several interesting characters and concepts.  In some ways, it is a throwback to his middle period.  But it does not match the optimistic energy of that time.  His description of the balkanized North American states produces in me a melancholy mood.  And the portrayal of inevitable catastrophe for Earth is bleak.  The prospect of survival on other planets sounds more like a retreat in the face of inevitable doom.

So, am I being fair to Heinlein?  Absolutely not.  The truth is that I started off reading books that RAH wrote for people of my age.  Then I read stories by him that were patterned after the material that mid-century editors felt were acceptable for the American audience of that time.  The criteria weren’t identical to the restrictions that existed for motion pictures under the Hays Code but there was definitely a less nihilistic feel to literature from that period than what came later.  Later on Heinlein felt less restricted in portraying the more negative aspects of his vision.  And it is also true that he had some quite controversial opinions on various subjects including sexuality.

Taking these factors into account, my disappointment with much of his later output was inevitable.  Some of that has to do with the disparity in age between us.  He was born more than fifty years before me and his life does not closely mirror mine.  I have often thought that it is time for me to re-read his later stories.  In all fairness, other than “I Will Fear No Evil,” I believe I will probably find all his other books quite enjoyable now that I no longer expect to get “The Moon is a Harsh Mistress” every time.

So, that is an outline of my collision with Robert Heinlein through several decades of reading him.  I will follow this up with further remarks on the various categories of Heinlein literature that I admire most.  But I will conclude this survey by stating that Robert A. Heinlein was the most important author during several decades of my formative years.  He is the Grand Master of Science Fiction.  Whether that is important or not I leave to the reader to decide.