Generally speaking, by taking the opinions of a cross-section of the public, that public's reaction to a specific condition or occurrence can be predicted with an amazing degree of accuracy. However as the world saw in 1948, this type of forecasting can still be widely off the mark since it fails to take into account the unpredictability of the individual when confronted with a mass problem. The unknown factor in any calculation is always the individual.
In present day science-fiction, there exists a nucleus of writers whose popularity rests acknowledgedly in their adherence to the creed that Man is not just a good Joe.... he is a paragon of all the virtues. His complement, the heroine, is the Fayre and Spotless Mayde of chivalric ballad: desirable (in a pure way, of course), beautiful and unattainable to any lesser mortal than the Galahad. Romantic Merritt, (R.I.P.), Swashbuckling Kuttner, Sentimentalist Brackett; these three can be cited as specialists in the style. If on occasion the hero's step falters on the straight and narrow path--it is because he has been bewitched. If the villain relaxes his evil works for a moment--it is because he has been overcome by the ineffable purity of the heroine.
Give them their due, these writers ring the changes on their themes with a masterly command of spellweaving, a fitting tribute to the long practice they have had. And the fan reads with a sense of awe at anything otherworldly but oh-so-true. Dope for the masses, in fact.
It therefore becomes obvious that any writer who attempts to depict people as they really are will burst upon the unsuspecting public with all the devastating impact of a Blockbuster on Mohne Da n.????? Hands are raised in pious horror: less frequently in unholy glee. Then come the condemnations: degrading; sadistic; second-rate E. A. Poe; long-haired precocity; even juvenile. From the other (or Radical) side come drools of delight such as fall????? upon Hemmingway, Steinbeck, and the early Caldwell.
What, then, can cause this sharp division of opinion (for there are no neutrals in this controversy) over a style? Since Margaret St Clair (alas) only seldom delights the reader with such a story, we can only consider the acknowledged master of the style, Ray Bradbury.
The mildest of his detractors say that he does not write science fiction. For the most part, that is true, if you must split hairs. For Bradbury uses the universe as a back-drop only, and space - travel is just the means by which his characters reach the scene of action--invariably Mars. What he does with them belongs to STF only in the preamble, the opening paragraph. From there on the tale becomes pure fiction, if there is such a thing. It is here that the escapist reader begins to complain.
Where the reader's complaint falls down is in the assumption that space-travel will somehow ennoble Man. That is the essence of his dislike of any Bradbury story.
For instance, in "Payment in Full", which aroused an inordinate amount of adverse comment, three humans on Mars witness the blow-up of Earth, leaving them the last men alive. Now any three men, finding themselves marooned on a raft without hope of rescue, could be expected to break down momentarily. What, then, would happen in the event propounded? The cosmic immensity of the disaster would surely be beyond acceptance at first. Then gradually, as the awfulness of their plight crept into consciousness, the utter loneliness of their future would produce a childishly vicious resentment of the happiness of the Martians. Cold logic, my masters. In this case, the long-term individual characteristics can be ignored in favour of the initial group reaction -- which is all Bradbury intended.
Few readers objected to "And the Moon be Still as Bright", because the definition of the characters is sharper in its extremeness. Spender remains an idealist to the very last; Briggs died as he lived -- a hard case. The awful irony of the story lies in the fact that Captain Wilder is the epitome of the average reader: vaguely aware that Spender's ideals are too perfect for civilized Man; vaguely nauseated by the brute that is Parkhill but unable to forsake the herd. The dream of being the first to return to Earth is too strong.
"Kaleidoscope", which I place unhesitatingly as Bradbury's best ever is a perfect cameo portrait of that viciousness I mentioned earlier. It ranks with the best short stories of all time. Here you have, again, a group of men who know they are going to die. Their last words echo through one man's radio as they regret their petty meannesses. "Is there anything I can do to make up for an empty and terrible life?"
So perish all of us when our time comes.
So Bradbury, you see, wants to make men look at themselves, put their own house in order before leaving to rearrange the Martian's palace with H&C in every bedroom. To have gained the insight that he has into the workings of the minds of men, he must have started with an all-pervading love for humanity in the mass as well as in the individual. To depict that working with neither malice, exaggeration, nor satire, he must have retained that love. Indeed, had he lost it, he might well have taken up the discarded lamp of Diogenes and walked the streets looking for an honest man.
Space travel must, of itself be at first a small venture--carried out by small groups. Now if those groups are not carefully chosen it will go ill for that world upon which they first set foot. It may go ill for this world, too, should those voyagers happen upon a race equal to, or superior than us in intelligence who may resent their coming and retaliate upon them and then upon us. If one man can be found in authority who will consider this point and act on it before the first manned space-craft leaves the earth, then Bradbury will not have written in vain.
In a field such as Science - Fiction, there are enormous possibilities for the true short - story writer--the man who, given a limited space, can fill it with a story having a beginning, an ending, and a middle; a story clear to the reader, with all the loose-ends tied in. This is the essence of the trade, that the reader cannot mistake the meaning of the writer; otherwise, if the ending can be interpreted in more ways than one the weaver of the tale has failed in his intention. He is, after all, the direct descendant of the Eastern Teller-of Tales -- an artist in his own right.
There is no short-story writer in the field of Science-Fiction who, when held up for comparison with his fellows, can produce such overwhelming evidence of his superiority as can Californian Ray Bradbury. Here is a man who has stirred up controversy on all sides by his insistence on realism and logic. Though he began by writing only for that closed circle known as Fandom, his writings have entered the far greater field of magazines of national - and even world - popularity. His material must, therefore, be 'way above average.
Fortunately for the analyst, Doubleday has published two volumes of stories by the Master: one concerned solely with Earth-Mars, the other a more general anthology. In the first the author appears as a crusader; in the secons as a teller of tales. In both, he offers imaginative food for thought; in neither is he boring. It is a rare crusader who is entertaining, but Bradbury manages this with superb ease.
In the first book--"The Martian Chronicles" we are offered a collection of short stories, each complete in itself when first printed, which have been edited to form a record of what might happen when Man first reaches the planet. To deal with each is beyond the scope of this writer in the space which can be allotted to him, but every tale--and its connecting paragragraphs - - bear the unmistakable stamp of Ray Bradbury. Each carries his thesis that any man, regardless of outward appearances, has weaknesses and strengths which will show themselves at times of stress--a fact known and used by even the most amateur psychologist, often with alarming results.
The book opens with two tales of sheer imagination, tales of Martians only, with Earth - men unseen, unspoken, but felt. Since Mars has for so long been considered the most likely of the planets to bear life-forms similar to ours, it is, at least, plausible to assume that such life could be comparable to ours in all ways, though possibly evolved to a greater extent in many.
Of "Way in the Middle of the Air" I, as an outlander, can say nothing: it deals with matters of which I have no knowledge.
The rest of the book bears the cool clear light of Bradbury's logic and the deep understanding he has of the human race. Where he is speculative, as in :Mars is Heaven", he is also realistic, following the thesis that Martians may be humans in most ways, and fearful of the effects of Earthmen upon their civilization. Where he deals with the effect upon ordinary men of awareness of being on an alien planet, millions of miles from earth his conclusions are impossible to refute -- always considering the character of the men he stipulates. And there lies both the weakness and the strength of Bradbury. He is assuming that the men who make the crews of the first space-ships will be ordinary men as we know them today. As a prophet he can possibly be proven wrong when the time comes: as a counsellor he is without fault.
This last, however, is purely personal speculation. The story unfolded in these chronicles is intended to set the reader thinking whether Earthmen must not alter their values before they set out across the skies. The characters delineated are real - you know them yourselves -- Spender, though a fanatic, exists; so does Captain Wilder, so does Sam, with his Hot-Dog stand. The boy who, confronted with a Martian, is unable to accept that simple fact (he is in a hurry for a date) lives down the street. When the world begins its last and most disastrous war, the people who go back to Earth to die with their fellows are ordinary people, who cannot bear the thought of having to live out their lives on this distant planet--they would have gone home to die in any case. And the great Exodus begins.
There were, of course, a few who preferred to remain on the red planet: three of them to be exact. The first two play out a brief comedy of being the last man and woman alive until he sees and hears how empty she is and decides on solitude. The other has, with his peculiar family, kept from all contacts, until Captain Wilder pays his second and last visit. The death of the man, Hathaway, allows Wilder to discover the truth of the strange family, and we are left with a vivid little cameo of them, knowing neither what they do nor why; doomed to an eternity which is meaningless to them.
Finally, we have a glimpse of the new Martians arriving on the deserted world. A man and his little family, an ordinary enough group, on whom the hope of the future must rest. They are no longer Earthmen, for Earth no longer exists, but Timothy, playing along with his father until his brothers can accustom themselves to the loneliness of Mars, before he goes off by himself to cry a while is the stuff of which world builders are made. We can hope that the second rocket arrives.
The Chronicles are of such towering merit that anything would be anti-climax that followed them. It is a pity, therefore, that Doubleday have followed them up so closely with "The Illustrated Man". Make no mistake about it, this new volume bears the imprint of Bradbury all through but it suffers one further disadvantage, the connecting link. In an effort to immitate as nearly as possible the serial construction of the Chronicles, the stories have been tied together too loosely by the title piece. A man's body is covered with tattooed representations of the future; these pictures come to life in the other tales, and in the epilogue. Unfortunately, this does not supply sufficient cohesion for a connecting link; had the stories been left to stand individually and the title piece kept in as one more short, the book would have carried more impact. Even as things stand they have the considerable merit of Bradbury's unexcelled imagination, but the presence (in the back of the reader's mind) of the tie-rod detracts from the force of the individual story.
To do the publishers justice, they have selected most of the best of the remaining Bradbury writings. The collection contains the story, "Kaleidoscope", which ranks with the best short stories of all time, regardless of theme. At a time such as this when the members of a rocket-ship crew are adrift in space with no hope of rescue the underlying character of a man becomes most clear, and Bradbury draws upon his great knowledge of humanity to make this story haunt the reader.
As they fall away from each other across the limitless void of space they feel first the vague acceptance and queer abstraction of mind that is their initial reaction to the disaster: it couldn't be happening to THEIR ship, to THEIR crew; to others, maybe, but never to them. As the truth sinks in and their helplessness becomes apparent, they feel a need to hit back at some-one to compensate for it, and all the concealed and half-concealed dislikes come to the surface at last. Hollis, over whose radio we hear them all, shows us what we are all made of -- a mixture of strengths and weaknesses, eternally trying to gain control of us. When it is too late to be of use, and they want to die with the thought that the others regard them as good fellows, they try a pitiful, lonely attempt at friendliness. "Is there anything I can do", thinks Hollis, "to make up for a terrible and empty life?" Ironically enough, there is: a child sees him as a falling star and happily makes a wish.
We get a bitter comedy of the adventures of the Martians who invaded Earth. There are two stories dealing with another of the author's favorite theses: the antagonism of children toward their parent. A sardonic twist is given the story of the man who decided to leave a robot replica of himself while he sought fresher fields. Father Peregrine finds Truth, while Captain Hart goes from world to world in search of The Man, who is always a step mahead--and always will be, till the seeker first finds humility.
It is in "The Rocket Man", "The Last Night of the World", and "The Rocket" that the author's love of the ordinary, unpublicized people comes to the reader most plainly. The rocket man is torn between love of family and the strange nostalgia that afflicts the space-traveller. He knows he is breaking his wife's heart and is wretched for it. She, in her love for him, never openly tries to hold him back, but still hopes to keep him, if only she could stop the stars from shining. Almost she succeeds, with the wonderful silver trap of a Thanksgiving Supper, but 'the blue stars of evening were there, and the red planet Mars was rising in the East'. On the next trip, his ship fell into the sun. 'And for a long while, the only days we went out to walk were the days when it was raining and there was no sun.'
While "The Last Night" is deliberately underwritten, and "The Rocket" comes close to sentimentality, they both have an extra acuteness of perception that puts them into the category of excellent reading. The wife leaves the water running in the bathroom, so she and her husband can hear it as they wait for the end. Bodoni is an arrant sentimentalist about his children -- and what Italian father is not?
I repeat, Doubleday has published most of the best of Bradbury's stories. It is a pity that the connecting link is so weak.
For a man with the consummate mastery of the short story that Bradbury has it is surprising how seldom he falls into mechanical slickness, though he does, occasionally, skim close to the edge--as in "The City". But, for the most part, he employs the technique which has served him best: given a set of circumstances, what will these three, four, or five men do, if there mental and physical attributes are such and such? Success at this method requires a better than average knowledge and understanding of the minds of men in the individual; this is what makes Bradbury the master of the short story which uses the scientific imagination to locate its action.
To date, I have only read one longer story by this writer-- "The Fireman" -- and this, as I read it, fell into three separate parts; it would, I think, have been better published that way. Since there may well have been other longer stories which I have been unfortunate enough to miss, I would be committing the unforgivable sin of arguing ahead of my data to base any definite statement on that particular example. The fact remains that for originality, imagination, and logical treatment, there is no writer in the realm of short-story fiction who can hold a candle to Ray Bradbury. In his writings there are no paragons of virtue who know instinctively the right and proper thing to do in the face of any disaster, no matter how cataclysmic; there are only human beings who vacillate in times of stress and grow vindictive when frustrated. No man, today, is so perfect that he can truthfully claim that he would not, under the same conditions, behave in any other way than did Hollis, or Captain Wilder, or Hitchcock, or Fiorello Bodoni.
The critical tributes printed on the back cover of "The Illustrated Man" talk of Bradbury's imagination, talent, and prose technique: they omit the obvious compassion he has for humanity, stemming from his understanding of his fellow-men. It is implicit in the subtle shading of his characters, so that no man appears all good or all bad, and the unexpected though logical weakness of the strong -- and stubborn strength of the weakling -- help to make the incidents of which he writes live more vividly in the mind of the reader. It is this, I think, which the reviewers refer to when they print their ravings over Bradbury's unique talents. For a logic which is as unvarying as that of Orwell in his monumental 1984, yet never so relentlessly grim in its wording; for the unusual ability that he has to make the reader stop and think before putting his stories aside; and for his gentle insistence upon holding up a mirror to modern man--when he could have used the bitter, twisted disillusionment of Juvenal, I contend that Bradbury deserves to take his place among the acknowledged masters of the writing craft -- if not in the leading position, in which I would, without hesitation, place him.
Data entry by Judy Bemis