Speaking Volumes: Ray Bradbury, October Country

(Published in the Business Standard, a few days after Ray Bradbury’s death.)

In 1938, the pulp magazine Imagination! carried a story by a new and very young writer. Ray Bradbury, who died last week at the age of 91, was just 17 when he wrote Hollerbochen’s Dilemma, and neither he nor the title character survived this experience unscathed.

Hollerbochen was blown up. Bradbury discovered that when you’re writing for the pulps and your story stinks, readers will let you know. Bradbury survived. He even put Hollerbochen back together so that he could rescue the author, who was in this sequel held captive at his typewriter by legions of disappointed fans. For the next few years, Bradbury would continue to write terrible stories, until he started to write slightly less terrible stories. He ran a magazine of his own for a brief while—Futuria Fantastica, shortened to FuFa.

By the early 1940s, he had honed his craft; if pulp magazines like Weird Stories or Astounding Science Fiction gave him a sense of the technical tricks required, reading Steinbeck gave him a feel for the epic, which he would later use in the Martian Chronicles. He earned his place among the ABC of SF writers—Asimov, Bradbury and Clarke, shapers of imagination who were as influential as Heinlein or Philip K Dick.

The pulps are too easily dismissed today. Their lurid covers featured menacing aliens, improbable planets, space cowboys and the occasional wench of dazzling, interstellar comeliness. Many of the stories they carried were leftover werewolf trash or recycled tentacle terror. But as much as the New Yorker or Esquire, two US magazines that were also opening their doors to short story writers, pulps like Amazing or Weird Tales were excellent nurseries for a certain kind of writer. Bradbury wrote some of his best horror for pulps in the 1940s—many of these were later collected in October Country.

By the 1950s, his style had shifted, and many of the stories he wrote in the late 1940s and the early 1950s still carry resonance, especially for fellow writers. Junot Diaz found in Bradbury’s stories an echo of the experience of being an immigrant, a resident alien—Bradbury knew both kinds of alienation, the kind that came with having green tentacles, and the kind that came from being so different that you might as well have had green tentacles. His aliens were seldom repulsive (“dark they were and golden-eyed”, he writes of the Martians); Bradbury understood that just being different was enough to bring forth hostility.

For Neil Gaiman, who wrote a touching tribute on his blog, Bradbury’s realm of fantasy and alternate realities just beyond the human horizon opened up brave new worlds. (And sometimes, Bradbury’s world bleeds into Gaiman’s, or into Atwood’s, as though for a brief space, these very different writers occupied the same alien planet in a galaxy far, far away.)

The short story collections have an unusual quality, shared only by the very best science fiction and fantasy writers—from The Illustrated Man to The Martian Chronicles and The Golden Apples of the Sun, they have dated well. Some readers today know Bradbury for his love stories, or for his exuberant Irish stories.

Many know him by the science fiction of his early and middle years, where an eager hunter travels back in time to bag a dinosaur, and discovers the butterfly effect in action or where children manouevre a pair of adults into an early, eerie version of a virtual reality game with a very nasty ending. And many know him for Fahrenheit 451, the novella with its dark refrain and with its warnings of a world where burning books for the ideas that they carry is institutionalised: “Monday burn Millay, Wednesday Whitman, Friday Faulkner.”

In the same period, he wrote The Pedestrian, less well-known but equally terrifying in its vision of a time when men might be arrested simply because they don’t fit in, and because they make the police uneasy. “Business or profession?” the (robot) police car asks Leonard Mead. “I guess you’d call me a writer,” he says. “No profession,” said the police car, as if talking to itself.”

Bradbury wrote this in 1951, anticipating a time when writers wouldn’t be writing because television had taken over. “Magazines and books didn’t sell any more. Everything went on in the tomblike houses at night now, [Mead] thought, continuing his fancy. The tombs, ill-lit by television light, where the people sat like the dead, the gray or multicolored lights touching their faces, but never really touching them.”

After the soaring heights of the pulps, where he could take a reader to Mars and back, this was the grey reality he thought might lie ahead. But Bradbury’s dark future did and didn’t come true. The police states, the free expression debates, the iron rule of television, all of these happened; but the books didn’t die. It will always be October country, somewhere.





One response to “Speaking Volumes: Ray Bradbury, October Country”

  1. Priya -Tabula Rasa Avatar

    I like just about anything Gaiman writes on that blog, but I thought the tribute may have been a bit overdone. I have read a couple of books by Bradbury and a couple of short stories; the book I want to read by him is Dandelion Wine; have you read it?Was blog-hopping when I found this site! Good post!

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