Damon Knight, IN SEARCH OF WONDER 3/e

Damon Knight was perhaps the earliest knowledgeable critic of science fiction. He was a science fiction author himself, beginning in 1948, and is most famous for a couple early short stories, “Not with a Bang” (1950) and “To Serve Man” (1950), the latter made famous by its adaptation into a Twilight Zone episode. (Notable later stories included “Four in One” (1953), “The Country of the Kind” (1956), “Stranger Station” (1956), “Masks” (1968), and my favorite, “I See You” (1976).) He wrote novels too, though none quite as notable as his short fiction. Knight’s greatest impact on the science fiction field, aside from his critical work, was as an anthologist; he edited the earliest series of original anthologies, ORBIT, 21 volumes from 1966 to 1980, and produced several volumes of classic SF and fantasy stories, compiled at sfadb.com here.

Knight made his critical reputation in 1945 with an essay that assaulted the works of A.E. van Vogt, author of popular novels SLAN and THE WORLD OF NULL-A, by pointing out that they were badly written and incoherent, as he explained at length.

(We met van Vogt in the critical anthology OF WORLDS BEYOND, summarized here, where he described his kitchen-sink method of writing.)

Knight went on to establish, in 1952, a “credo” for his work, of which the third point is the most essential, quoted here in full rather than paraphrased:

  1. That ‘science fiction’ is a misnomer, but we might as well learn to live with it;
  2. That a publisher’s jacket blurb, and a review, are two different things;
  3. “That science fiction is a field of literature worth taking seriously, and that ordinary critical standards can be meaningfully applied to it: e.g., originality, sincerity, style, construction, logic, coherence, sanity, garden-variety grammar.”
  4. That a bad book hurts SF more than 10 bad notices.

This third point was controversial, because it declared that Knight was not writing magazine reviews like those common at the time, in which the reviewers generally liked pretty much everything. Knight was stating he had no problem calling out bad work. He wrote critical essays for various publications, throughout the 1950s and ’60s, and these essays formed the first edition of this book, with later editions adding some later items.

It wasn’t until I reread the book just now that I appreciated why that third point was so controversial, and why the magazine reviews of the time were so mild. It was this: there simply weren’t very many SF books published in those days. (Recall the counts presented by Anthony Boucher in Bretnor’s MODERN SF, discussed here; 20 or 30 books a year, total!) And because there weren’t very many, it would have been ill-mannered to criticize any of them, like criticizing a member of one’s own family, especially since there was no shortage of outside critics dismissing science fiction as sub-literary. Indeed, Knight immediately in this essay presents an example, a 1953 essay in Harper’s Bazaar by none other than Arthur Koestler, called “The Boredom of Fantasy.”

The majority of IN SEARCH OF WONDER’s 33 chapters consists of essays about particular books, demonstrating Knight’s impatience for bad writing and bad science, and also revealing why he admires, to one degree or another, the work of many authors—especially Heinlein, Sturgeon, Kornbluth, to some extent Asimov, Clarke, Blish, Pratt. His essay on van Vogt is included, as is one on Ray Bradbury, titled “When I Was in Kneepants,” whose thesis is that Bradbury doesn’t write SF at all, how his ‘imagination’ consists merely of borrowed backgrounds, how his one subject is childhood.

There are also occasional essays on other topics:

  • In this third edition, Chapter 1 is a brief autobiography (adapted from his 1975 essay in HELL’S CARTOGRAPHERS);
  • A piece about Charles Fort (who famously gathered historical accounts of odd events that could not be explained; Knight wrote a whole book about him);
  • A controversial essay on unconscious symbolism in SF, using James Blish’s “Common Time” as a primary example;
  • A history of the Milford and Clarion workshops;
  • And a chapter, cobbled together from three earlier sources, working toward a definition of SF, presenting a set of seven common themes and then rating the contents of the first volume of THE SCIENCE FICTION HALL OF FAME and a couple other anthologies against those themes. His conclusion: stories that include three or more of those themes are commonly considered SF, while stories with only two are considered borderline, and those with one or none are not considered SF.
  • Near the end, an essay about writing SF, expanded from his contribution to Robin Scott Wilson’s THOSE WHO CAN in 1973, in which he annotates his own story “Masks,” to illustrate how a theme is played out over the course of a short story.
  • And finally, the last chapter, oddly, titled “What Next?”, is mostly about the two “most successful” SF books of 1956, Frank Robinson’s THE POWER and Richard Matheson’s THE SHRINKING MAN, both of which Knight criticizes on conceptual grounds, concluding they are “anti-science fiction.” It’s oddly titled because even in the 1996 third edition, the book ends with a chapter mostly about 1956, though it does end with a 1966 coda attempting prediction: how the field would split into divisions: hard SF, science-fantasy, adventure SF, ‘gonzo’ SF (by Ellison, et al), and ‘literary’ SF (by Le Guin, Aldiss, Wolfe, and others). In this, we can appreciate now, Knight was pretty much right.

This last chapter illustrates an irritant of the entire book: how it’s a mish-mash of pieces originally written in the 1940s, the 1950s, into the 1960s, as late as the 1980s, rearranged by topic and then divided up thematically into chapters. But the perspective, as in the last chapter, sometimes shifts, jarringly, and occasionally you can’t be sure from when he is writing. A complex Acknowledgements section at the end of the book, describing how portions of this or that chapter were first published in this or that year, helps a bit. I think a better approach would have been to tag each chapter, or each portion of a chapter, with an unobtrusive but clarifying tag, a year in brackets, something like [1966:].

Here are some other points from the essays on particular books that especially struck me:

  • His chapter about “Classics” makes a generational remark about how, for example, older fans want to talk about Stanton A. Coblentz while everyone else is talking about Heinlein; how some fans say that, for example, no SF published later than 1935 is worth reading, while younger colleagues simply place the date still later. (I think it’s easy to imagine fans over subsequent decades making analogous remarks! Think of that 1960 book by Earl Kemp, WHO KILLED SCIENCE FICTION?)
  • A chapter about John W. Campbell identifies his reaction to the competition from Galaxy in the early ‘50s: he responded by allowing into Astounding mediocre writers, with ideas but not technique, and elsewhere insisted that SF wasn’t literature anyway. The result was that Astounding’s contents pages became full of people who published nowhere else, a trend that lasted into the Analog era. [I think this changed for a few years under Ben Bova’s editorship of Analog in the 1970s, but reverted to form under Stanley Schmidt’s editorship in the ‘80s and beyond. It was certainly an issue I noticed when I first discovered Analog around 1970, a couple years before Campbell died.]
  • On the other hand, Knight considered Campbell’s “Don A. Stuart” stories his greatest contributions to the genre.
  • Knight thought Jack Williamson’s THE HUMANOIDS an important work, but crippled by “excruciatingly bad” prose and plotting, a legacy of Williamson’s pulp origins.
  • Knight was unhappy with Asimov’s early novels, including the FOUNDATION books, since they were so clearly derived from history and so offered nothing new. Knight responds to Asimov’s defense of his “history repeats” thesis, in MODERN SCIENCE FICTION (again, see here, http://www.markrkelly.com/Blog/2018/01/19/sfnf-bretnor-modern-science-fiction/), by pointing out that Asimov’s examples of three parallel histories were actually the same historical process, just not quite simultaneous. Knight therefore welcomes THE CAVES OF STEEL, stories in THE MARTIAN WAY, and the novel THE END OF ETERNITY, though he suspects the last is a dying breed of cerebral SF novels.
  • He admires Kuttner and Moore, but mentions that the end of “Vintage Season” – one of those SF Hall of Fame classics, now – is awkwardly prolonged.
  • He admires the intellect and technique of James Blish, but can’t warm to any of Blish’s novels, especially EARTHMAN, COME HOME, which he thinks a kitchen sink story, with too much crammed in. He does admire two great stories in Blish’s collection GALACTIC CLUSTER: “Common Time” and “A Work of Art”.
  • He admires Charles Harness, whose works were recomplicated like the novels of A.E. van Vogt, but which made sense.
  • He admires the first two novels by Philip K. Dick, especially compared to Dick’s dozens of short stories in the early ‘50s, though not quite so much the third and fourth novels.
  • He considers Robert Sheckley to be like Ray Bradbury: an SF writer who knows nothing about science, and whose SF tropes are all borrowed.
  • In discussing works by Wyndham, Gunn, and others, Knight mentions that “evil” and “meaning” are opposite terms. I would dispute that; the universe has no inherent meaning, is it then evil? No. It just is.
  • Knight reviews PREFERRED RISK by Edson McCann, winner of a contest, without realizing (and not revised in later editions to recognize) that “Edson McCann” was actually Frederik Pohl and C.M. Kornbluth, who hastily wrote this novel since none of the submissions to the contest were good enough to give the award to! And so ironically Knight complains that PREFERRED RISK was too similar to Pohl & Kornbluth’s books THE SPACE MERCHANTS and GLADIATOR-AT-LAW. It was a legitimate reaction at the time, I suppose, and perhaps later editions left this initial reaction in place, as a sort of in-joke.

Finally, I can’t help but include some the Knight’s examples of bad writing and scientific ignorance, both to illustrate the kind of things that Knight took issue with, and to illustrate how bad some science fiction books of the ‘40s and ‘50s were, by contemporary standards.

He quotes samples of Van Vogt’s prose, on p68, from which I’ll reproduce just some short ones:

“His mind held nothing that could be related to physical structure. He hadn’t eaten, definitely and unequivocally.”

“His brain was turning rapidly in an illusion of spinning.”

“There was a drabness about his surroundings that permitted thought.”

From a book by Roger Lee Vernon (Chapter 23), bad science.

“In the early days numerous ships had been torn into ribbons by meteorites. Ships would fly into a bed of the rapidly moving objects and be filled with holes. Now the gravitation locator solved all such problems… This device spotting and accurately charted the course of every particle… when the object was still about three minutes away.”

Knight then describes how the ship is said to move at L7, seven times the speed of light, and then how a character claims that if an alien ship is more than 8000 miles away, it would be undetectable. These numbers don’t add up. (But they anticipate Lost In Space-style astronomy and physics.)

From a book by Austin Hall and Homer Eon Flint (Chapter 4):

“For years he had been battering down the skepticism that had bulwarked itself in the material.”

“There was a resemblance to Rhamda Avec that ran almost to counterpart.”

Knight says this about Hall, who wrote most of the book in question:

His knowledge of science, if he had any, is not discoverable in these pages. He used “ether,” “force” and “vibration” interchangeably. On p.85, a chemist refers to a stone’s thermal properties as “magnetism.” “Magnetic”—like “sequence,” “almost,” “intrinsic,” “incandescense” (sic) and “iridescense” (sic)—is a word Hall kept tossing in at random, hoping to hit something with it eventually. For example:

“She [a dog named Queen] caught him by the trouser-leg and drew him back. She crowded us away from the curtains. It was almost magnetic.” (P. 95)

In the chapter about Campbell, he describes a work by Nat Schachner in which a spaceship is described in terms of ocean liners, complete with the scrubbing of decks and swervings of courses and constant rocket fire to maintain a steady speed.

There are lots more. Part of the pleasure in reading this book, aside from admiring Knight’s critical acumen, is to read these many examples of bad writing and bad science, and to conclude that the genre really has improved greatly over the decades, and maybe some of those outside critics of the field, back then, who dismissed SF as sub-literary, were perhaps somewhat right.

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Ray Bradbury: FAREWELL SUMMER

FAREWELL SUMMER (2006) is a belated sequel to Ray Bradbury’s famous novel DANDELION WINE (1957), the book set in a fictionalized version of the town Bradbury grew up in, in Illinois, named in the books Green Town. (My post about DW is here.) The ‘novel’ DW was actually a composite novel that included numerous short stories RB wrote in the early 1950s and then assembled within a frame story about the 12-year-old Douglas Spaulding experiencing the summer of 1928, with his realizations of his being alive, and that he would someday die.

In the ‘core bibliography’ for Ray Bradbury that I posted here, you can see that FAREWELL SUMMER was one of the last books published in Bradbury’s life. It was one of a number of final books that RB issued beginning in the early 1990s, up until his death in 2012, books that mostly contained work he had written decades before and never sold.

(That these late books were published was, I think, perhaps, because at this same time in the early ‘90s, he made a deal with Avon Books to reissue five of his core books – TMC, TIM, TOC, DW, SWTWC – in new hardcover editions, and perhaps this deal involved publishing a couple new collections, namely QE and DB, as well. Later books were then published by William Morrow… I suspect a key editor was involved.)

Thus, the last half dozen of Bradbury’s short story collections, beginning with QUICKER THAN THE EYE in 1996, were mixtures of a few recently written and published stories (in magazines like Playboy and F&SF), with many more previously unpublished stories, which commentators at the time realized were ‘trunk’ stories, i.e. stories written years or decades earlier and tossed into a real or figurative truck after they’d made the rounds of potential buyers, but did not sell. Bradbury perhaps had hundreds of these; somewhere I read that he wrote at least one short story a week, and if he did that from the 1940s to the 1990s – or, since his pace curtailed in the ‘60s, then even from the 1940s to the 1960s — he must have produced 600 or 700 stories over that time; and the result we have in all his published collections, even including these later ones, is at best three hundred stories. So there are a lot still unaccounted for, in some trunk.

Not all writers work that way, but RB was an inspirational rather than a methodical writer, and in some of these later collections he appends afterwords in which he describes the circumstances that inspired this or that story, and how he would go home and bang out said story in a couple hours. It’s no wonder that all of them didn’t sell.

In the case of the present book, the backstory is even more interesting. Published in 2006, it was billed as the “eagerly anticipated sequel” to DANDELION WINE, though frankly I doubt anyone had been eagerly anticipating such a sequel, or knew that such a sequel might exist. Once it was published, though, it became third of a trio of Green Town books, along with DANDELION WINE and SOMETHING WICKED THIS WAY COMES, now all tagged as a series, at least by Amazon.

RB provides an afterword to this book, also, in which he explains where this book came from. In the mid 1950s (several years after the successes of THE MARTIAN CHRONICLES and THE ILLUSTRATED MAN)  he submitted a manuscript to his publisher, Doubleday, for the book that became DW. But that original manuscript was too long and his editor suggested cutting it. RB quotes his reply (p210 in FS): “ ‘Why don’t we published the first 90,000 words as a novel and keep the second part for some future year when you feel it is ready to be published.’ At the time, I called the full, primitive version The Blue Remembered Hills. The original title for what would become Dandelion Wine was Summer, Morning, Summer Night. Even all those years ago, I had a title ready for this unborn book: Farewell Summer.”

With DANDELION WINE such an entrenched classic, it’s difficult to imagine how the content of FAREWELL SUMMER could have been incorporated into it. That would have been a completely different book. As it came to be, DW has a perfect story arc, across one summer in the life of a 12-year-old. Yet even as a leftover, on its own, FS is a quite different, a rather oddly amazing and moving, book.

To begin with, it’s not a fix-up in the same way DW was. I’ve seen no evidence that parts of it were previously published in separate pieces, with just two possible exceptions.

First is a 6-page story called “Farewell Summer” that was included in the 1980 compilation of 100 Bradbury stories published by Knopf, with no previous publication credit. (The 1980 book was reissued by Everyman’s Library in 2010, the edition I have, in the photo above.) It describes the boy Douglas taking a nap and dreaming of a band playing outside, where all the players are his own family, and this band leads him down to the lake shore, and then onto a boat, which is pushed out onto the lake, leaving him alone… He wakes up, tells his Grandpa about it, and realizes the dream was a metaphor for death. This story is included in an early chapter of FS.

Second is a startling passage late in this book, FS, that describes Douglas’ awakening into puberty, very delicately described. Here it serves in the conclusion of the book, in the resolution of its war between the young and old, as part of a sort of passing of the torches, in the cycle of life. The precedent here is “Junior,” a story first published in THE TOYNBEE CONVECTOR (1988), about an 82-year-old man named Albert who discovers one morning his “Albert Jr.” has emerged, and isn’t going away. He calls three lady friends, with whom he’s had friendly non-committal relationships over the years, to come and admire it, realizing it will never happen again in ‘this life’. Yes, Ray Bradbury is talking about sex, he’s talking about male erections, and it’s startling, I admit, to discover this story, and the similar passages in FS, after a lifetime of thinking that Bradbury is all about the preeminence of innocent childhood and the dangers of adulthood. (As it turns out, there are a handful of other stories in RB’s oeuvre with similar concerns, which I’ll get to in later posts.)

Aside from these echoes of late-published fragments, the key issue about FAREWELL SUMMER is this: it’s a through-story, one that doesn’t involve asides about other characters in the way DW does, though it does alternate between two sets of characters. It’s set a year after the events of DW. It concerns a war between youngers and elders, progress vs. stability, and ends with Douglas Spaulding’s discovery of physical change. It’s a completely different theme and story arc than what we’ve lived with in DANDELION WINE for these 60 years; yet on its own terms, despite some awkwardness of plot, it’s quite affecting and moving. A secondary issue is, there’s even less fantasy content than in DW; the suggestion of ghosts fleeing a haunted house is about it.

The book is also fairly short, 205 pages of largish type, in 37 chapters with blank pages between many of them.

Here’s the rough summary of FAREWELL SUMMER. It begins on October 1st, the end of a lingering summer, when Douglas is almost 14 — so this is just one year after the summer described in DW. (It’s mentioned, p30.2, that Douglas is a C-minus student.)

Douglas and his friends run through the ravine, and pee on the creek bank, tracing out their names – another adult bit such as you never saw in DW – and vow war against the houses along the edge of the ravine occupied by old men, Braling and Quartermain. One of these old men actually says to them, “Get off the lawn!” The boys’ pranks with cap-pistols scares Braling to death. Quartermain and another old guy, Bleak, occupy the school board, and plan to change the rules to keep the kids off the streets.

The boys stage various attacks against the old men. They steal the old men’s chess pieces, as they play chess in the town square; they sabotage the town clock, thinking it somehow alive and controlling the march of time—here’s a quote, from p100:

There, in the shellac-smelling, paper-rustling rooms of Town Hall, the Board of Education slyly unmade destinies, pared calendars, devoured Saturdays in torrents of homework, instigated reprimands, tortures, and criminalities. Their dead hands pulled streets straighter, loosed rivers of asphalt over soft dirt to make roads harder, more confining, so that open country and freedom were pushed further and further away, so that one day, years from now, green hills would be a distant echo, so far off that it would take a lifetime of travel to reach the edge of the city and peer out at one lone small forest of dying trees.

Douglas’ grandpa intervenes and makes Douglas repent. Meanwhile, the old men have second thoughts. Quartermain realizes that Douglas is the grandson he should have had, and wonders what he can do for the boy to redeem his own life. He begins by staging a birthday party, in that famous Green Town ravine, which Douglas and his friends attend. And Douglas is struck by the sight of a girl, Lisabell:

He was suddenly conscious of the grass under his shoes. His throat was dry. His tongue filled his mouth.

Again, something we never saw in DW, or any other of RB’s famous books, where the worlds of childhood and adulthood were

Final scenes involve a haunted house, Lisabell showing up to kiss Douglas, and a bizarre “mystery tent” scene in which the old men – who apparently have medical backgrounds – put on display a series of jars full of odd shapes, like oysters, or seaweed, or small animals, but which Douglas and his friends realize are all babies, in various stages of life. Douglas is overwhelmed, by this blunt demonstration of the mysteries of human life, and his recognition that he is a part of it:

He took a deep breath of the hot summer-like air, and squeezed his eyes shut. He could still see the platforms and the tables and the glass jars filled with thick fluid, and in the fluid, suspended, strange bits of tissue, alien forms from far unknown territories. What could be a swamp water creature with half an eye and half a limb, he knew, was not. What could be a fragment of ghost, of a spiritual upchuck come out of a fogbound book in a night library, was not. What could be the stillborn discharge of a favorite dog was not. In his mind’s eye the things in the jars seemed to melt, from fluid to fluid, light to light. If you flicked your eyes from jar to jar, you could almost snap them to life, as if you were running bits of film over your eyeballs so that the tiny things became large and then larger, shaping themselves into figures, hands, palms, wrists, elbows, until finally, asleep, the last shape opened wide its dull, blue, lashless eyes and fixed you with its gaze that cried, Look! See! I am trapped here forever! What am I? What is the questions, what, what? Could it be, you there, below, outside looking in, could it be that I am … you?

(This seems to be another episode that might well have been published separately, though, again, I’ve seen no evidence of such.)

And so the war between olders and youngers simply deflates. Douglas is suddenly attuned to another whole level of existence. He notices girls. He visits the old man, Quartermain, asking what life is about. Quartermain prepares to answer, and the scene shifts to the situation similar to that in “Junior” – the old man Quartermain waking up in the night, aroused for the first time in years, feeling a second heartbeat. Saying farewell, a voice in reply saying goodbye.

And then in a matching passage, Douglas awakes at 3am, feeling something down where his legs join, and he speaks to it. “Where did you come from?” The voice replies: “A billion years past. A billion years yet to come”. Inside those glass jars, in a way. Every boy names us, the voice says; every man says that name ten thousand times in his life. “You have two hearts now. Feel the pulse. One in your chest. And one below. Yes?” p203.  Are we friends? “The best you ever had. For life.”

And then Summer’s finally over. Douglas goes to bed, little brother Tom worries about dying, Douglas comforts him, and Grandma sits downstairs and “named the season just now over and done and past.”

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Ray Bradbury: DANDELION WINE

DANDELION WINE (DW) is certainly Bradbury’s most personal book, because it is so clearly based on Bradbury’s own life as a boy in small-town Illinois. It was published in 1957 as a novel, not a short story collection, though actually it’s a hybrid, what SF critics call a ‘fix-up’ (http://www.sf-encyclopedia.com/entry/fixup), a book made up of previously published material, strung or stitched together often with added material. Since the book editions of DW do not identify the previous material, once again I’ll copy the TOC from Bill Contento’s Locus Index. (The * after some titles indicates no prior publication; a remarkable number of sections were previously published as short magazine pieces.)

Dandelion Wine Ray Bradbury (Doubleday, 1957, 281pp, hc)

Illumination · Ray Bradbury · ss The Reporter May 16 1957
Dandelion Wine · Ray Bradbury · ss Gourmet Jun 1953
Summer in the Air · Ray Bradbury · ss The Saturday Evening Post Feb 18 1956
The Season of Sitting · Ray Bradbury · vi Charm Aug 1951
The Night · Ray Bradbury · ss Weird Tales Jul 1946
The Lawns of Summer · Ray Bradbury · ss Nation’s Business Feb 1952
The Happiness Machine · Ray Bradbury · ss The Saturday Evening Post Sep 14 1957
Exorcism · Ray Bradbury · vi *
Season of Disbelief · Ray Bradbury · ss Collier’s Nov 25 1950
The Last, the Very Last · Ray Bradbury · ss The Reporter Jun 2 1955
The Green Machine · Ray Bradbury · ss Argosy (UK) Mar 1951
The Trolley · Ray Bradbury · ss Good Housekeeping Jul 1955
Statues · Ray Bradbury · ss *
Magic! · Ray Bradbury · ss *
The Window · Ray Bradbury · ss Collier’s Aug 5 1950
The Swan · Ray Bradbury · ss Cosmopolitan Sep 1954
The Whole Town’s Sleeping · Ray Bradbury · ss McCall’s Sep 1950
Good-By, Grandma · Ray Bradbury · ss The Saturday Evening Post May 25 1957
The Tarot Witch · Ray Bradbury · ss *
Green Wine for Dreaming · Ray Bradbury · ss *
Dinner at Dawn · Ray Bradbury · ss Everywoman’s Magazine Feb 1954, as “The Magical Kitchen” (?)

Bradbury had done something similar with THE MARTIAN CHRONICLES (1950; TMC), but that wasn’t presented as a novel, but as what I call a ‘linked-collection’ of related stories, listed in a table of contents at the front of the book. (Somewhat like Asimov’s I, ROBOT — the same year!) DW has no such TOC; there are page breaks between sections, but no titles. The TOC above shows that the material for this 1957 book was first published in the early 1950s — once RB’s reputation had been established by TMC. My guess is he was relaxing, or indulging, writing what he wanted to write rather than imitating what was popular, and managing to get into the ‘slick’ high-paying magazines, like Good Housekeeping and Saturday Evening Post. Only one of the items above was published in a genre magazine — that fifth item, in Weird Tales in 1946.

There’s a more significant issue with both this book and TMC, one I’d not recalled before embarking on this reread program: Bradbury wrote many more Green Town stories than those in DW; he wrote many more Mars stories than appeared in TMC. He wrote Green Town stories and Mars stories throughout his life. They were his go-to settings for the kinds of stories he liked to write, and there were only half a dozen different kinds of stories he liked to write — or perhaps, there were only half a dozen different settings that he used, over and over, for most of the stories he wrote.

Yet the stories written in any one setting were not consistent. Especially when TMC was assembled, RB and his editor Walter Bradbury at Doubleday (no relation) apparently chose from among RB’s published Mars stories those which were more-or-less consistent, and those which could be fitted into a framework of an overarching story. (Much as what we now call the Biblical “New Testament” was assembled in the 4th century by church officials who chose some ancient texts, those which were more or less consistent, and left out those which were not – and limited the ‘gospels’ to four, on numerological grounds!) So not only were some early Mars stories left out of TMC, but RB continued to use Mars as a setting for later stories, stories that were not necessarily consistent with the broad story arc established by TMC. The same is true for stories set in Green Town, and DW.

In the case of the Green Town stories, for example, those not incorporated into DW, he varied the protagonist’s name, his age, and his family situation. Some Green Town stories have an adult returning to his home town. Some don’t involve the boy Douglas at all, in any guise.

The key issue of DW is that it is almost entirely a realistic novel, with no science fiction and almost no fantasy, save one or two episodes. It’s Bradbury’s homage to his own Arcadia, his Eden, the perfect past that adulthood and progress threatened — that key theme of his entire career.

*

So: DANDELION WINE is about Douglas Spaulding, age 12, as he spends Summer of 1928 in this small Illinois town of Green Town, living with his family in a boarding house and next door to his grandparents’ house. The book opens and closes beautifully with Douglas looking out over the town from the fourth-floor cupola in his grandparents’ house, first at dawn, later at dusk, watching lights go on or off, and imagining himself as a conductor, cueing a performance.

The summer is bookended by two key moments in Douglas’ life: early on, while walking in the woods with his father and younger brother, Douglas has a sense of deep perception and realizes that he’s alive!, in a way he’d never realized before. Subsequently he keeps a notebook of “rituals” and “revelations” that he experiences throughout the summer. Then, near the end of the book, the counterpart realization occurs, as he’s witnessed people in town die, and even as he sees cowboys ‘killed’ in the movies and realizes what death actually means. His great-grandma does die, after saying, “I’m not really dying today. No person ever died that had a family. I’ll be around a long time.” (A sentiment echoed by the recent Pixar animated film Coco!) And so Douglas realizes, and tries to write down, “I, Douglas Spaulding, someday must…” but can’t finish it.

In between, much of the book describes incidents that do not involve Douglas. Grandpa harvests dandelions from the lawn and makes wine, for the family to sip throughout the next winter; a boarder offers to plant a type of grass that doesn’t need cutting, and suffers Grandpa’s wrath (a typical RB rant against ‘progress’); a man tries to invent a “happiness machine”; two little old ladies drive an electric car and worry they’ve killed a neighbor.

The ‘happiness machine’ episode involves a man obsessed with building a device to provide true happiness, that turns out to be a box that displays scenes and plays music from the most wonderful examples in existence. (It reminds me of the Edward G. Robinson death scene in the film Soylent Green, with scenes of gorgeous scenery and music by Beethoven.) But his machine malfunctions, and he concludes that true happiness is accepting what is stable, not transitory or easily forgotten, and that stability is looking at one’s household of wife and children, his family. It’s a typical RB statement of true verities.

Another incident is about an elderly woman, who saves every receipt and ticket stub, who is visited by children who can’t believe that she really was ever a girl, or even that she has a first name, and think her childhood photos were of someone else. At first disconcerted, the old woman comes to respond by admitting this is in some way true; and so she burns all the souvenirs of her past, and allows to the children that she was never pretty, or has a first name.

Another: a friend of Douglas’s, John Huff, announces his family is moving away to another town, and they’re leaving tonight. The boys play one last game of “statues,” during which John takes the opportunity to leave. And Douglas, heartbroken, decides he hates John Huff.

And there’s even a serial killer episode, concerning several elderly ladies who walk across the town’s ravine to see a movie, despite rumors of the “Lonely One,” who’s apparently killed a couple other women. Sure enough they find a woman, just murdered, and summon the police, but then attend their movie anyway. Later one of them, Lavinia, returns to her home, locks her door, and then realizes someone is inside the room with her— The end.

(This episode, “The Whole Town’s Sleeping,” was first published in 1950; in 1954 RB wrote a companion piece, told from the man’s POV, though the resolution is different than what’s [later! In 1957!] implied in DW. “At Midnight, in the Month of June” and the earlier story were both published in Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine in 1954; this other story was reprinted in The Toynbee Convector in 1988.)

There are one or two sections that do have some fantasy content. The most obvious is the section about Elmira Brown, who thinks she is the target of a neighbor, Clara Goodwater, whom she suspects is a witch, especially since Elmira’s postman husband Sam reports that Clara has ordered books about becoming a witch. Elmira has suffered many misfortunes, including general clumsiness, and has failed, time and time again, to become president of the Ladies Lodge. In the finale of this story, Elmira concocts a potion to counteract the witchcraft, but collapses on stage, upon which Clara repents – and pulls the pins out of her Elmira doll.

The second fantasy item concerns a “Tarot Witch” at a local carnival, which dispenses fortune cards. Doug and his brother Tom get a blank card, which they decode, via flame, to reveal a hidden lemon juice message, which is “secours” – “help”. The boys try to “rescue” her and are outwitted by the manager, who throws the Tarot Witch doll into the ravine.

And maybe there’s a bit of fantasy in a late episode in which Douglas falls into a fever, and the town junkman brings round some bottles of water, grandly described, which heal Douglas by morning.

*

It’s necessary at some point to discuss Bradbury’s prose style. It wasn’t consistent across all his works, but in the stories closest to his heart, his style was his most recognizably florid and breathless. And his characters typically speak as Bradbury writes — In this sense, if in no other, RB is like Rod Serling, who also wrote speeches for his characters in long paragraphs of prose utterly unlike the way actual people speak. RB’s style was more restrained in other tales, e.g. the Mars stories, but especially in the Green Town stories of DW, and in the other stories that responded to his personal experience – the Ireland and Mexico stories, the Hollywood stories – he orated, he expounded, as if bursting from within at the glory of the world and passion of his beliefs.

Here’s a typical passage (not searching for an extreme passage, just a typical one), near the beginning of DW, as Douglas, his dad, and his brother, wander in the woods:

And he was gesturing up through the trees above to show them how it was woven across the sky or how the sky was woven into the trees, he wasn’t sure which. But there it was, he smiled, and the weaving went on, green and blue, if you watched and saw the forest shift its humming loom. Dad stood comfortably saying this and that, the words easy in his mouth. He made it easier by laughing at his own declarations just so often. He liked to listen to the silence, he said, if silence could be listened to, for, he went on, in that silence you could hear wildflower pollen sifting down the bee-fried air, by God, the bee-fried air! Listen! The waterfall of birdsong beyond those trees!

This is pretty good – but a little of this goes a long way. You get used to it, and calibrate your reception of this prose to follow the story, sometimes despite what can seem excessive, even obscuring. At times this rapturous, poetic prose verges on the ungrammatical; you can read entire long paragraphs without quite understanding what is supposed to be going on. I’ll provide some of those examples in future posts.

Here’s another passage, about those water bottles that heal Douglas’ fever:

Derived from the atmosphere of the white Arctic in the spring of 1900, and mixed with the wind from the upper Hudson Valley in the month of April, 1910, and containing particles of dust seen shining in the sunset of one day in the meadows around Grinnell, Iowa, when a cool air rose to be captured from a lake and a little creek and a natural spring. Now the small print… Also containing molecules of vapor from menthol, lime, papaya, and watermelon and all other water-smelling, cool-savored fruits and trees like camphor and herbs like wintergreen and the breath of a rising wind from the Des Plaines River itself. Guaranteed most refreshing and cool. To be taken on summer nights when the heat passes ninety.

*

Finally, though: about this book, DANDELION WINE. As I mentioned earlier, I’m rereading some of my favorite sf/f authors, in part to revisit that golden age when I was 12, and in part to reconsider what I think science fiction means, what it’s about, after 50 years of reading it.

There’s no science fiction in DANDELION WINE – but there are stories that reveal Bradbury’s attitude about change, about technology. The “Happiness Machine” episode is one: the device is unnecessary and destructive, since true happiness lies in the verities of family. The “Green Machine” episode is another: two old ladies try out new technology, but it’s dangerous and uncontrollable. The “Lawns of Summer” episode suggests that the conveniences of technology (grass that doesn’t need cutting) aren’t worth the loss of traditions.

Bradbury famously said “I don’t try to describe the future. I try to prevent it.” (https://www.brainyquote.com/quotes/ray_bradbury_124755)

And so did Bradbury write science fiction? Or some illegitimate counterpart? (In those nonfiction anthologies from the 1950s that I blogged about late last year, Bradbury was noted as an exception to the general rule for how science fiction should be rigorously scientific.) Yes, he did. Bradbury, to this day, is recognized as a major science fiction author, and I don’t want to fall into the “No True Scotsman” fallacy of thinking that a recognized science fiction author didn’t really write science fiction, according to some private definition. Yes, Bradbury wrote science fiction, especially in THE MARTIAN CHRONICLES and FAHRENHEIT 451, as I’ll explore in future posts. And my job is to understand what science fiction really means, and is about (as opposed to fantasy), in a way that accounts for Ray Bradbury.

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One final tease: I’ve only realized during the past couple months of rereading Bradbury, that my own childhood, the places I grew up in, correspond rather remarkably to the three settings of RB’s key books: Mars, Suburbia, and Green Town. I need to post further family photos from my early life, the places I grew up, to justify this claim. Perhaps this is why, despite my relatively hard-nosed attitude about science fiction vs. fantasy, I still feel a deep affection for the works of Ray Bradbury.

*

Wait, one more tease: I’ll follow up on RB’s oddly remarkable sequel to DANDELION WINE, FAREWELL SUMMER, in a separate post.

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Ray Bradbury: Core Bibliography and Themes

Here’s a chronological list of principal Ray Bradbury titles I’ll be referring to in coming posts. For an exhaustive bibliography, see the Science Fiction Encyclopedia entry for Bradbury; but as thorough as the listings are in that reference, in cases like Bradbury there are so many small press items and alternately-titled versions that the basic set of books anyone might want to read (as opposed to collect) is obscured. Thus this compact version of a basic bookshelf of RB titles:

1947       Dark Carnival (DC)
1950       The Martian Chronicles (TMC)
1951       The Illustrated Man (TIM)
1953       The Golden Apples of the Sun (GAS)
1953       Fahrenheit 451 (F451)
1955       The October Country (TOC)
1957       Dandelion Wine (DW)
1959       A Medicine for Melancholy (MFM)
1962       Something Wicked This Way Comes (SWTWC)
1962       R Is for Rocket (R)
1964       The Machineries of Joy (MOJ)
1965       The Vintage Bradbury (V)
1966       S Is for Space (S)
1969       I Sing the Body Electric (ISBE)
1976       Long After Midnight (LAM)
1980       The Stories of Ray Bradbury (SRB)
1983       Dinosaur Tales (DT)
1985       Death Is a Lonely Business (DLB)
1988       The Toynbee Convector (TTC)
1990       A Graveyard for Lunatics (GFL)
1992       Green Shadows, White Whale (GSWW)
1996       Quicker Than the Eye (QE)
1998       Driving Blind (DB)
2001       From the Dust Returned (FDR)
2002       One More for the Road (OMR)
2003       Bradbury Stories: 100 of His Most Celebrated Tales (B100)
2003       Let’s All Kill Constance (LKC)
2004       The Cat’s Pajamas (CP)
2007       Now and Forever: Somewhere a Band is Playing & Leviathan ’99 (NF)
2006       Farewell Summer (FS)
2009       We’ll Always Have Paris (WAHP)
2010        A Pleasure to Burn (PTB)

Bradbury died in 2012. (Wikipedia).

Here’s how to break these down into manageable groups:

  • 1947: Earliest collection DC, only 3000 copies and hard to find; RB’s early, macabre stories
  • 1950-1957: The three essential RB books: TMC, F451, DW
  • 1955: TOC, sort of a revised version of DC of mostly early, macabre stories
  • 1951-1964: The other four early collections: TIM, GAS, MFM, MOJ
  • 1962: His one substantial fantasy novel: SWTWC
  • 1962-1966: Three collections mostly of stories from earlier books: R, V, S; plus the later DT (1983)
  • 1969-1988: Three middle period collections, mixes of current and older work: ISBE, LAM, TTC
  • 1992, 2001: Fixups of mostly much earlier material: GSWW, FDR
  • 1985-2003: Three Hollywood detective novels: DLB, GFL, LKC
  • 1980, 2003: Two huge compilations of 100 stories each, with no overlap: SRB; B100
  • 1996-2009: Six final collections with a few current stories and many ‘trunk’ stories: QE, DB, OMR, CP, NF, WAHP
  • 2006: Much-belated sequel to DW: FS
  • 2010: Collection of F451 stories: PTB

Furthermore, the vast majority of RB stories within all his collections fall into these thematic groups:

  • The early macabre stories, written in the mid-1940s
  • A small number of “Planet Stories” stories, inspired by the pulp magazines of the ‘40s
  • Mars stories, including those included in MC written in the late ‘40s, and quite a few written later
  • Green Town stories, including those in DW written in the early ‘50s, and quite a few written later
  • The suburban/urban stories, including “The Pedestrian” and F451
  • Mexico stories, inspired by RB’s vacations there
  • Ireland stories, inspired by RB’s six month stay there in 1953 while writing the screenplay for “Moby Dick”
  • A few Hollywood stories, based on RB’s involvement with film-making
  • A bunch of what I’ll call “hero-worship” or “author-worship” stories, about Picasso, Hemingway, Thomas Wolfe, Charles Dickens, and others, in a couple of which RB implies a status among them.

Moreover – there are overlaps! There is a Green Town story in MC; there are F451 stories in MC; and there’s a F451 prequel story set in Green Town.

There are also, of course, numerous singular stories that don’t fit into any of these groups – e.g. “A Sound of Thunder,” “Kaleidoscope,” “Zero Hour” (this one perhaps part of a group of evil children stories), “Hail and Farewell,” “And the Sailor, Home from the Sea.” And these, upon reflection, are among his best, most memorable works.

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Ray Bradbury: THE OCTOBER COUNTRY

Ray Bradbury’s THE OCTOBER COUNTRY (TOC) was published in 1955, part way through the publication of what I think are Bradbury’s three essential, classic books: THE MARTIAN CHRONICLES (abbreviated in future as TMC; first published 1950), FAHRENHEIT 451 (F451; 1953), and DANDELION WINE (DW; 1957). Many of the stories in TOC were published in Bradbury’s first book, DARK CARNIVAL, published in 1947 by Arkham House and never reprinted; after the successes of TMC and F451, THE OCTOBER COUNTRY revived many of the stories in the earlier book, revising them, while dropping some and adding others.

THE OCTOBER COUNTRY, in the absence of reprint editions of DARK CARNIVAL, remains the essential earliest Bradbury collection. It’s greatly enhanced by graphic illustrations for each story by Joseph Mugnaini, many of which can be found on the interwebs…see here.

The stories in this book include many of Bradbury’s earliest magazine publications. As I finish up this post, more than half-way through February, having begun to re/read Bradbury since the 2nd of January, I’ve read all of Bradbury collections (and story-cycle semi-novels) through THE TOYNBEE CONVECTOR (1988), more or less in chronological order. It’s worthwhile to have done this before writing these posts, because as you read your way through Bradbury’s career, you see how his focus and themes changed. In his earliest years, getting stories into print in the early 1940s, he was emulating the macabre, ‘weird’ tales that were published in the magazine Weird Tales — stories like “The Wind”, “The Crowd”, and “The Scythe” (all 1943) and “The Jar” (1944), while occasionally attempting the more action-focused, violent stories in a pulp magazine called Planet Stories, these including the very pulpish “Frost and Fire” (published there originally as “The Creatures That Time Forgot”), though not included in a Bradbury book until much later.

Yet as Bradbury’s career blossomed and flourished in the late ’40s and the 1950s, he abandoned simply emulating what other writers were doing, and increasingly based stories on his own experiences and background, through the 1950s and 1960s. Thus: the Green Town stories, based on his childhood in a rural Illinois town; the Mars stories, perhaps based on his family’s stays in Tucson while his father looked for work there, and perhaps by his stay in the LA suburb of Venice, with its actual canals, and by his reading of pulp SF stories in his youth; the urban, suburban, and Hollywood stories, based on his life when he settled in Los Angeles. There were other recurring settings: stories in Dublin (he spent 6 months in Ireland writing a screenplay for John Huston); stories in Mexico (where presumably he vacationed, while living in LA)…..

I have deliberately not investigated various nonfiction surveys of Bradbury’s work, preferring to record my own impressions first. But I do have Sam Weller’s THE BRADBURY CHRONICLES, Jerry Weist’s BRADBURY: AN ILLUSTRATED LIFE, and David Seed’s RAY BRADBURY (one of the University of Illinois’ series of author-themed studies), that I will peruse closely once I’ve finished my own reads of RB books, which will be shortly. (Since the focus of my grand re-reading project is on science fiction, I am disregarding for now SOMETHING WICKED THIS WAY COMES, THE HALLOWEEN TREE, and the later detective novels.)

*

So to commence with THE OCTOBER COUNTRY. For these and many following posts about RB’s books, I’m greatly indebted to William Contento’s “Locus Index to Science Fiction” (http://www.locusmag.com/index/), which, alas, has not been updated online in a decade. I have a 2012 CD-ROM edition of the complete index, which is invaluable for compiling listings of book editions, and their contents, cross-indexed by book title and story title. (The Internet Science Fiction Database, http://www.isfdb.org/, has much the same data, as well as a multitude of references to translations, but I prefer the tighter layouts of Bill’s db, and the source credits in TOCs like the one below.) Thus, for this book THE OCTOBER COUNTRY, Bill’s index shows this table of contents, with citations for original publications of each story:

The October Country Ray Bradbury (Ballantine, 1955, $3.50, 306pp, hc)

The Dwarf · ss Fantastic Jan/Feb 1954
The Next in Line · nv Dark Carnival, Arkham House: Sauk City, WI 1947
The Watchful Poker Chip of H. Matisse · ss Beyond Fantasy Fiction Mar 1954
Skeleton · ss Weird Tales Sep 1945
The Jar · ss Weird Tales Nov 1944
The Lake · ss Weird Tales May 1944
The Emissary · ss Dark Carnival, Arkham House: Sauk City, WI 1947
Touched with Fire · ss Maclean’s Jun 1 1954, as “Shopping for Death”
The Small Assassin · ss Dime Mystery Magazine Nov 1946
The Crowd · ss Weird Tales May 1943
Jack-in-the-Box · ss Dark Carnival, Arkham House: Sauk City, WI 1947
The Scythe · ss Weird Tales Jul 1943
Uncle Einar · ss Dark Carnival, Arkham House: Sauk City, WI 1947
The Wind · ss Weird Tales Mar 1943
The Man Upstairs · ss Harper’s Mar 1947
There Was an Old Woman · ss Weird Tales Jul 1944
The Cistern · ss Mademoiselle May 1947
Homecoming · ss Mademoiselle Oct 1946
The Wonderful Death of Dudley Stone · ss Charm Jul 1954

The value of these listings is that they reveal when the stories were originally published, and especially in RB’s later books, these TOCs show how the contents of those books mixed recently published stories with older stories, a trend and mix that would become more and more extreme as Bradbury’s career progressed. ISFDB (and Contento) both generate chronological lists of publications; ISFDB’s is here, through you have to scroll down a way to get to the short fiction.

I reread this book first, in my Bradbury reread plan in January 2018, and state first of all that while I read this book at age 15 or so, in about 1970, I had never reread it since, until now. So part of my interest in rereading it now was, how many of these stories would I remember, if any..?

The answer is: I remember quite a few, though not all, and ironically that the two stories that struck me especially on this rereading were stories I had *not* remembered.

The memorable stories included those one- or two-word-titled stories “The Crowd”, “The Wind”, “The Lake”, “The Dwarf”, and especially “The Scythe” (1943), a story about a destitute man and his family who realize the crop of wheat he is obliged to keep trimmed is keyed to the actual deaths of people around the world, including, eventually, the man’s own family, with a final gloss that alludes to the wars and atomic bombs of the mid-20th century. “The Crowd” (1943) is about the victim of an auto accident (such as were apparently very common, and deadly, in the 1940s) who realizes that in every accident, the same crowd of recognizable people gathers, with a coda about himself as a victim and becoming one of the watchers. “The Wind” (also 1943) is about an explorer of a Himalayan Valley of Wind who feels pursued all his life by howling winds, and succumbs to them. These stories are essentialist fantasy: the idea that human perceptions and protocols, fears and terrors, represent basic properties of the materialist universe.

*

The two stories that especially struck me were two I didn’t remember.

“The Jar” is a about a small town Louisiana man who visits a carnival and buys a weird thing in a jar, something like a jellyfish, and buys it to take home, with ulterior motives: “And I been reckoning how looked-up-to I’d be back down at Wilder’s Hollow if I brung home something like this to set on my shelf over the table. The folks would sure look up to me then, I bet.”

Indeed, the folks at home are impressed. But each of them sees something different in the contents of the jar. One remembers having to drown a kitten. Another sees the source of all life. Another recalls the swamp. One women recalls her child, lost in the swamp — could this thing be him??

The man’s itinerant wife reveals what it really is: junk, paper-mache, rubber. He doesn’t care, nor do his friends. Published in 1944, this story illustrates what we understand in 2018 as a mental bias: people see in things what they want to see: a baby; a brain; what they want to see, depending on their fears and desires.

*

And then there’s “Jack-in-the-Box,” a story first published back in that first collection DARK CARNIVAL in 1947. This is a fascinating closed-world tale, about a boy who lives in a house with his mother, and a Teacher on an upper floor, but with no experience of the outside world. Edwin has been told stories about Father, who built the house, aka ‘World’, and who was killed by beasts beyond the trees; Mother often calls him God. There is nothing beyond the trees but death, she tells him.

On his birthdays Edwin gets to explore previously forbidden doors in this vast house, and on one of these he ascends to an upper room and window and sees the outside world, beyond the trees that surround his house.

And then his mother dies, and his upstairs Teacher disappears, and he sort of figures things out. And then he runs outside, through the iron gate the surrounds his property, and discovers the real world, of streets and buildings and lampposts. The final scene is from the POV of a policeman, who sees this boy running around, laughing and crying, touching everything, and yelling, gloriously, “I’m dead! I’m dead!”.

My only quibble with this story is the recurrent metaphor of the “jack-in-the-box”, where Edwin has one that doesn’t work and throws it out the window. The story didn’t need it.

*

The most famous story here, I suppose, is “The Small Assassin,” about a woman who fears she is being murdered by her just-born child. The husband consults her doctor; she’s taken home; and one night he trips down the stairs, over a doll. And then Alice trips over the same doll — and dies. The father speculates with the doctor about whether some babies, perhaps one in a million, are born fully formed and intelligent, resentful of being thrust into the world? The father is the next victim, and the story ends with the doctor visiting the house, concluding this must be true, walking up to the baby’s nursery, and wielding… a scalpel.

I can’t help but think of the Twilight Zone episode “Living Doll,” that well-known episode with Telly Sevalas, in which a doll, not a baby, maneuvers the death of the insubordinate father. TZ’s Rod Serling had a reputation for adapting stories from previous sources, sometimes without credit, and I wonder, without any evidence, if that episode might have been inspired by this RB story.

*

Other notable stories:

“The Man Upstairs” (1947) is in retrospect a Green Town story that didn’t make into DW. As in the DW stories, the story is about 11-year-old Douglas, living a large with grandparents and boarders, and how one mysterious boarder, whom we realize is a vampire, is dispatched by Douglas using the same methods his grandmother uses to cut up and eviscerate chickens.

— A key observation from reading some 20 RB books in a row is this: that while RB published THE MARTIAN CHRONICLES and DANDELION WINE, in 1950 and 1957, about Mars and Green Town respectively, neither book contained all the relevant stories he’d written up to those dates, and RB continued to write both Mars and Green Town stories throughout his life. More about this in later posts.

“The Next in Line” (1947, an original in DARK CARNIVAL) is one of the earliest of RB’s Mexico stories, about an American couple visiting a Mexican town where the local graveyard is rented, and when families don’t pay the rent, the bodies are dug up and put into an underground chamber, upright leaning against the walls, as mummies. The story arc is about the tremulous wife, afraid of that chamber, worried about dying, and the story ends with the husband driving out of town, alone. The notion of Mexican towns and graveyards appears in a couple later RB stories.

“Skeleton” (1945) is another famous RB tale, about a hypochondriac man obsessed by the notion that that inside of him is… a skeleton! He’s freaked out by the notion. Some of it is visible — teeth! He repeatedly visits his doctor, then seeks out a ‘bone specialist,’ who comes to his apartment for a private treatment with gruesome results. (Also, there’s another casually mentioned car crash here, as he drives to Phoenix; in this case the protag survives.)

“The Dwarf” (1954) — the first story in the book, and non-fantastic, though a bit macabre, in that it concerns a ‘dwarf’ who attends a carnival every night specifically to look at himself in the distorting mirrors. And it’s about the carnival owner’s sadistic trick, and the reaction to that of his girlfriend. The unchallenged presumption is that dwarfs are horrible little people. Published in 1954.

“The Watchful Poker Chip of H. Matisse” is another 1954 story, about an American living in Paris whom the locals find fascinating just because he’s so… dull and ordinary. When he attempts to become more sophisticated, they lose interest in him. There are lots of now dated cultural references; one that’s still cute is “Does Existentialism Still Exist, or Is Kraft-Ebbing?”.

“Touched with Fire” (1954) recalls Shirley Jackson. It’s about two old men who follow people whom they perceive have a death wish, and try to intervene in their lives. A recurring note here is that the day is hot, nearing 92F, the time when murders happen, and the story ends with the implication their efforts, in this case, have been in vain.

“The Wonderful Death of Dudley Stone” (1954) is about the great writer who retired at age 30 never to write again, and the effort years later by one of his fans (a Mr. Douglas, a recurring name in RB stories) to find out why. The revelation involves a rival writer to Stone, and Stone’s willingness to give up writing forever lest he be murdered — though he had an ulterior motive as well. This is the first of a number of stories that invite comparison to Bradbury’s own life, as a writer or as a family man, which I suspect don’t reveal so much truth as they do the willingness of RB to entertain suppressed demons.

This book also has two of the earliest ‘Family’ stories, those about the weird collection of vampires and others who live in a huge House north of Chicago — “Uncle Einar” (1947) and “Homecoming” (1946), the first story about a gigantic man with wings, the latter about a family gathering that focuses on the one family member with no special talents, Timothy. RB later wove half a dozen of these stories into a semi-novel, in the same sense as DW, called FROM THE DUST RETURNED, published way out in 2001, and which I’ll consider in a future post. I suspect these earliest stories were RB’s attempts to mimic Weird Tales fiction, but since RB sort of merged them with a Green Town setting, and developed the theme of FRDR into his own one grand theme — which I’ll spell out later — he kept writing the occasional one, and eventually completed that book.

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Desert Trip: Stars and Planes

This Sunday evening I am concluding a weekend trip to the high desert of southern California, to an area where I grew up as a small child and subsequently spent many family weekends and subsequent summer weeks and weekends throughout my college and young adult years. I have a deep affinity for this place.

One goal of this weekend trip to the desert was to get outside at night and see the stars, in a way not possible from any urban area, not the LA area where I lived until three years ago, not the SF Bay Area where I live now. And so despite a few wispy lingering clouds over the desert today, and a chilling, building wind this evening, I drove out to the far north end of the valley, that valley, away from the town lights to the south (and city lights to the far southwest), and pulled off the road, turned off the car, turned off the lights, and stood outside, and despite the chill wind, at 49F, stood outside waiting for my eyes to adjust.

I saw Orion, mighty in the southern sky. Sirius below left; Gemini above left. Turn around: there’s the Big Dipper, its handle downward at the northern horizon, the north horizon where black land meets dark sky and merges. Above left, the W constellation of Cassiopeia. And sure enough, the band of the Milky Way, running through Cassiopeia, along through Auriga and across the sky to where the lingering cloudy fuzziness meets the inescapable glow of southern light.

I got out my binoculars. Yes, the Orion Nebula. Yes, the Pleiades, the Hyades. Turn around, there’s Mizar and Alcor, easily split.

I recalled a familiar paradox about viewing the sky in clear, dark conditions. It is that the more stars are visible, the less obvious are the traditional constellations, because their prominent stars are drowned out by the surrounding sea of only slightly less brighter stars, that are increasingly visible in a very clear, very dark sky. This is especially true in binoculars (not in telescopes, where you tend to focus very closely on specific stars or objects); the field of view in binoculars shows even more stars than you see with the naked eye, more stars than you knew were there, and implying even more if your light-gathering power were even greater. It’s seemingly never-ending; and it is.

And tonight I confirmed a memory from my high school and college years, when I spent several weeks every summer in this desert place, for seven summers in a row, reading science fiction books by day and and stargazing by night, sometimes sleeping outside on a chaise lounge, to be awake before dawn to see the early morning stars, with a telescope I no longer have. That is, that in this place, this valley, I saw planes flying overhead, northwest from LA (southwest of this valley) to points northeast. As I adjusted my telescope to find nebulae or double stars, always overhead were these moving points of light, these tiny constellations of lights from those planes, sometimes flashing, sometimes not, but all moving from southwest to the northeast. And this: on a quiet dark night — not like tonight, too noisy with wind — you could hear the *sound* of those planes, but always from a position in the sky some degrees behind where you saw the lights. By the time the sound traveled to the ground from their height, the visible planes had moved on.

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Ray Bradbury Reread, Introduction

In January 2018 I began a grand, systematic, plan to revisit the books by the core authors of science fiction. I’ve explored some of the books by these authors in recent years, and have posted reviews and comments about them on this blog – by Asimov, Heinlein, Clarke. Now I’m trying to be more systematic, and thorough, as if to visit them one more time, in the mildish golden age of my years, and document my mature thoughts on works that – by these authors at least – I first read as a teenager.

And so in January I sat down and revisited my shelves of books by Ray Bradbury. Bradbury was likely the earliest sf/f author I discovered, as a teenager, when I was age 13 or 14. It’s possible that what attracted me to his books was merely that a couple of them were available as Bantam Pathfinder editions, and as I described in this post, http://www.markrkelly.com/Blog/2016/06/30/15-ways-of-buying-a-book-part-1/, under Way #4; I had a predilection at that time for publisher brands, and bought many Bantam Pathfinder editions just because I liked that format. The Bradbury books in that format were DANDELION WINE and R IS FOR ROCKET.

In any event – I don’t remember the details after all these years – I liked those books by Bradbury sufficiently that I went out to find all other available Bradbury books at the local Pickwick, the mall chain store common at the time. Most of his books were available in Bantam paperbacks, and I bought all I could find, and read them in short order.

Over the decades, as I’ve moved through the fields of science fiction and fantasy, reading widely, I have not reread much Bradbury, except for THE MARTIAN CHRONICLES, every decade or so.

Now, in 2018, I’m rereading Bradbury in more or less order of book publication. I never had a copy of the 1947 DARK CARNIVAL, his first collection from Arkham House, but I’ve understood that his later collection THE OCTOBER COUNTRY, from Ballantine in 1955, retained many of those early stories, some of them revised, and even though that book postdates THE MARTIAN CHRONICLES (1950) and THE ILLUSTRATED MAN (1951) and even FAHRENHEIT 451 (1953), it’s the book I began my 2018 reread with.

The photo here is of my vintage paperback collection of Bradbury books I acquired in the 1960s and ‘70s, which were not always the editions I’ve read this past month.

Next post: THE OCTOBER COUNTRY.

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Trek Season 1 Rewatch, Introduction

In April 2017 I sat down, having planned for many years to do so, to systematically rewatch Star Trek, the original series, that ran from 1966 to 1969. I was 11 years old when the series debuted, and I saw most of the episodes when they were first broadcast (albeit in black and white), and the show had a great and lasting influence on me. When the show went into syndication (that is, reruns shown by local TV stations typically five nights a week) in 1969, I became obsessed with the show, catching up on episodes I’d missed, and compiling notes on each episode, e.g. the stardate(s), names of any guest crew members, names of planets, and so on, as my own personal concordance. I read James Blish’s adaptations and Stephen Whitfield’s THE MAKING OF STAR TREK over and over.

This obsession lasted only a few years; by the time I was in college, at UCLA, I’d discovered literary SF, both in magazines and books. While my fondness for Trek never wavered, it was no longer the focus of my attention. (For a more detailed account of my personal history… see this post: http://www.markrkelly.com/Blog/2017/04/03/about-to-re-watch-star-trek/)

And so decades later I decided to revisit the show, with an eye both nostalgic and critical. So I acquired the recent Blu-Ray set of 2009 remastered episodes put out by CBS. And I discovered the set of three books by Marc Cushman, THESE ARE THE VOYAGES, just published beginning in 2013, that document, in exhaustive detail, the history of the production of all three seasons of Trek. Furthermore, as a fan of musical scores, I was pleased to discover the exhaustive CD boxed set of the complete Trek music, from La La Lands, just released in 2013, as well as an earlier 1999 book by Jeff Bond, THE MUSIC OF STAR TREK. The Cushman books especially, and the CD set of Trek music, made this revisit of Trek’s episode far more rewarding than a revisit only five years ago would have been.

So in this revisit of Trek TOS, I’m writing detailed comments about each and every episode – so far, just of the first season. My comments run along several general themes:

  • Considering the episodes at face value, to what extent do they make sense, or not?
  • Considering my slightly dicey history of seeing the original series, mostly in syndication when I was a teenager, would there be scenes in the complete episodes that I would not recognize, because they had always been cut from the syndicated reruns that were the only versions I ever saw?
  • Considering Cushman’s books, what insights into the production process, especially how early drafts of the stories changed, or how the results were affected by post-production, might influence my understanding of the final episodes?
  • Considering James Blish’s ‘novelizations’ (or ‘episode short story adaptations’ to be more accurate), how do they reveal changes in stories from earlier scripts, or did Blish in some cases make improvements on the original scripts?
  • Considering what I call ‘intuitive physics’ (or ‘Trek physics’ and ‘Trek astronomy’), how did Trek’s portrayal of the physical and astronomical universe reveal the protocols of storytelling, or simply sloppiness by the producers and writers, in ways that betrayed actual scientific understanding? (The prime if almost trivial example being why the Enterprise makes a swooshing noise as it flies by, in the opening credits.)
  • Considering the era in which Trek was made, how did cultural values of the time, especially the roles of the sexes, and also the presence of physical violence, justify what we see in those episodes that would not be considered appropriate today?
  • Considering Trek’s music, with so many themes that became familiar without always identifying themselves to any particular episodes, how would study of the ultimate CD soundtrack set, and Jeff Bond’s book, inform understanding of how those themes were created and developed?
  • Considering the remastered episodes – in which the special effects of the 1960s were updated to the special effects of 2009 or so – would they truly be improvements, in the sense of correcting the astronomical and physics errors of the original productions?

Above is a photo showing my legacy Trek books by Blish, Whitfield, and Gerrold, with the new resources used for these posts. Here are links for the new resources:

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Link and Comments: Hollywood and Liberals

NYT: Neil Gross, Why Is Hollywood So Liberal?

Best guess:

There is, however, a third explanation worth pondering: that the emotional requirements of acting are conducive to progressive politics. “The overwhelmingly liberal orientation of actors,” Professor Ross has written, “can be partially understood as a byproduct of the demands of their craft. Playing a variety of characters, many of whom they did not necessarily like, fostered a sense of empathy and ability to understand issues and people outside their personal experience.”

Professor Ross suggests that empathy develops as actors gain experience on the job, but we can also speculate that empathetic people are more likely to become actors. Either way, is there any evidence that empathy correlates with liberal ideology?

Surveys show that liberals see themselves, anyway, as more empathetic and kindhearted than conservatives, a self-conception reinforced by political rhetoric. But in a recent paper, the psychologist Adam Waytz and his colleagues report a more nuanced finding: The main thing distinguishing liberals and conservatives in this regard isn’t how empathetic they are overall; rather, the key difference is how much empathy they feel for specific groups. Where conservatives empathize foremost with family members and country, liberals extend the bounds of empathy to include friends, the socially disadvantaged and citizens of the world, to whom they’d like government to lend a hand.

The circle of empathy is larger for liberals than for conservatives. Or rather, those for whom the circle of empathy expands beyond local family and tribe become characterized as liberals. Those for whom life is a zero-sum game between us and the world become characterized as conservatives.

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Links and Comments: Sports and Trump; Pinker and Gates; Tribal Allegiance and Actual Progress

NYT, 3Feb18: Trump’s Blood Sport Politics.

The writer recalls “”The Sporting Spirit,” an essay written by George Orwell in 1945 that sought to reckon with the rise of our modern athletic-industrial complex.”

For Orwell, the rise of sports was bound up with the rise of nationalism, both of them examples of “the lunatic modern habit of identifying oneself with large power units and seeing everything in terms of competitive prestige.”

But the current occupant of the Oval Office has given voice to a more primal, and frankly powerful, vision of sports, the same one Orwell identified seven decades ago: “Serious sport has nothing to do with fair play,” Orwell wrote. “It is bound up with hatred, jealousy, boastfulness, disregard of all rules and sadistic pleasure in violence.”

Mr. Trump is ruled by a lust for competitive prestige, which he achieves by bragging and stoking feuds. Like no other president before him, he has abandoned the Jeffersonian ideal of compromise in favor of the zero-sum game. For him to win, the other side must lose.

The president, naturally, continues to exploit this tendency. He uses the news media to sow discord, to inflame warring cultural and racial factions in a manner designed to steadily erode the common good.

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NYT, Jan. 11th: Social Media Is Making Us Dumber. Here’s Exhibit A.

In which a clip of a speech by Steven Pinker is misrepresented (by the right) to make it look like he endorses alt-right beliefs. The incident

highlights a disturbing, worsening tendency in social media in which tribal allegiances are replacing shared empirical understandings of the world. Or maybe “subtribal” is the more precise, fitting term to use here. It’s one thing to say that left and right disagree on simple facts about the world — this sort of informational Balkanization has been going on for a while and long predates Twitter. What social media is doing is slicing the salami thinner and thinner, as it were, making it harder even for people who are otherwise in general ideological agreement to agree on basic facts about news events.

Whereas,

It would be impossible for a reasonable person to watch the eight-minute video and come away thinking Mr. Pinker’s point is to praise the alt-right rather than to make a psychological argument about political correctness, alt-right recruitment and how to better fight that movement’s bigoted ideas.

Conclusion:

It’s getting harder and harder to talk about anything controversial online without every single utterance of an opinion immediately being caricatured by opportunistic outrage-mongers, at which point everyone, afraid to be caught exposed in the skirmish that’s about to break out, rushes for the safety of their ideological battlements, where they can safely scream out their righteousness in unison. In this case: “Steven Pinker said the alt-right is good! But the alt-right is bad! We must defend this principle!”

This is making us dumber.

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And then on Jan. 27th, The Mind Meld of Bill Gates and Steven Pinker.

Gates, who runs a blog mostly about books he’s read, made Pinker’s The Better Angels of Our Nature a bestseller when he tweeted about it last May. Here Gates and Pinker talk about the latter’s new book, Enlightenment Now. Here’s Gates’ blog post about the book: My new favorite book of all time.

I’m all for more reason, science, and humanism, but what I found most interesting were the 15 chapters exploring each measure of progress. Pinker is at his best when he analyzes historic trends and uses data to put the past into context. I was already familiar with a lot of the information he shares—especially about health and energy—but he understands each subject so deeply that he’s able to articulate his case in a way that feels fresh and new.

Pinker also tackles the disconnect between actual progress and the perception of progress—something I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about. People all over the world are living longer, healthier, and happier lives, so why do so many think things are getting worse? Why do we gloss over positive news stories and fixate on the negative ones? He does a good job explaining why we’re drawn to pessimism and how that instinct influences our approach to the world, although I wish he went more in depth about the psychology (especially since he’s a psychologist by training). The late Hans Rosling explains this more fully in his excellent new book Factfulness, which I plan to review soon.

The world is getting better, even if it doesn’t always feel that way. I’m glad we have brilliant thinkers like Steven Pinker to help us see the big picture. Enlightenment Now is not only the best book Pinker’s ever written. It’s my new favorite book of all time.

I’ll catch up here with my summary of Better Angels in the next week or so.

Posted in Conservative Resistance, Culture, Social Progress, Steven Pinker | Leave a comment