Saturday, June 9, 2012
The Butterfly Effect
One of the leading stories this week concerned the passing of Ray Bradbury. This is noteworthy considering that in the 1940s Bradbury was to a great extent consigned to the pulp magazines. I’d wear a legacy such as that like a badge of honor now, but back then it was anything but. So-called “serious” or “literary” authors did not frequent those types of publications. Bradbury kept plugging away and by the mid-1960s his novels and short stories were being studied in university courses. If you wanted to break a friend into the science-fiction genre, you did so by steering him over to the paperback section of a drug store and thrusting FAHRENHEIT 451 (“Oh yeah, I’ve heard of that. Did he write that?”) or THE MARTIAN CHRONICLES or THE ILLUSTRATED MAN into their hands. Bradbury has seen his work go from pulps to hardcover to paperbacks to yes, e-books. News comes that there is going to be a huge roll-out of his work in digital form, sooner rather than later. A few things were available at the time of this death; a sticking point that had kept more from being available had nothing to do with adversity to the technology; Bradbury simply did not want the libraries to be bypassed. Indeed, word comes down that in accordance with The Man’s wishes e-book versions will be available for lending from your local library as well.
Most folks talk about FAHRENHEIT 451 when they mention Bradbury. I’m going to talk about four short stories that have stuck in my mind for over fifty years. Every time we get a gullywasher around here, when the rain pours and pours for more than a day or so, I think of “The Long Rain” a gem of Bradbury’s from 1950. First published in a wonderful little periodical titled Planet Stories, the tale deals with three earthmen who are stranded on Venus in the midst of the torrential rains which at that time everyone thought enveloped the planet. A classic. “The Small Assassin” is one of the darkest stories that Bradbury, or anyone, ever wrote. I missed its original publication in 1946 in the pages of Dime Mystery (love that title) by a few years but I am sure it caused a stir. Read this story about a baby who may or may not be homicidal and see what you think about toys left on the stairs and pretty things. “Way in the Middle of the Air” was published in Other Worlds in 1950 and became a part of the canon of The Martian Chronicles. It was social commentary disguised as science fiction, telling the tale of the day that all of the black folks left the country and emigrated to Mars, and the surprising reaction from some quarters. While I have never forgotten this story since the day that I read it, it, I had particular cause to recall it several years ago, during one of a series of visits to New Orleans. I was staying on the east side of the city at that time and, purely by happenstance, went for two days without seeing a Caucasian face. It briefly crossed my mind that perhaps all of the white folks had left the country and I had somehow missed the memo. The story was still so vivid in my mind, some forty-odd years on, that I expected to see the rocket departing when I looked up in the sky. The most haunting of Bradbury’s stories for me personally, however, remains 1952’s “The Sound of Thunder.” It has been heavily anthologized, but first appeared in Collier’s in 1952. I as a rule don’t care for time travel stories, but this one is quite different, a cautionary tale about the importance of following directions and staying on the path. The term “butterfly effect” was indirectly coined as a result of this story. If you haven’t read it, do so and see why.
Now it is your turn. What is your favorite Ray Bradbury novel, collection, or short story? Do you recall when you first read a Bradbury work? How did it affect you? And if you have never read any of Bradbury’s works, we’d like to know that, too.