August 22, 2011


The books we simply won’t allow you to borrow.

The Golden Apples of the Sun
by Ray Bradbury
192 pages, Earthlight

Misery Guts: Pat Black

There are some writers who entertain you, and some who sustain you. Ray Bradbury is one of the few who can do both.

The Golden Apples of the Sun showcases some of Uncle Ray's best, and best-known, work. The first story, "The Fog Horn", has long been a favourite of anthologies over the years, and encapsulates the magic of Bradbury's storytelling.

It’s the tale of a mysterious sea creature that menaces a lighthouse, and the two men keeping watch inside. With its lowing monster and the romantic setting, it obviously has its fabulous elements. But on top of that we have a smattering of science, which examines how a dinosaur might survive through to modern times, and just how it could return to the surface without popping like a balloon.

But underpinning all of this is a twist - or rather, an epiphany – which shows that the creature isn't some simple B-movie creature lusting for destruction (ironically, it would become one in the Hollywood adaptation, The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms), but is in fact responding to the fog horn thanks to a condition most of us will understand: loneliness.

“A Sound of Thunder” is another story that just screams, “classic, classic, classic” at you. Bradbury must have known as he was turning it out that he had something amazing on his hands. This is the one with time-travellers going back in time to hunt dinosaurs in the Cretacious Period. We've got a terrific monster moment as a Tyrannosaurus Rex attacks the shooting party, but that creature's fate is of far less consequence that that of a much smaller, much more delicate one.

“The Flying Machine” sees a Chinese mandarin in the distant past spotting the soaring figure of a man who has managed to make a primitive aeroplane out of paper. We share the inventor's joy and glee at his innovation; the mandarin doesn't. This provides a brutal understanding of how technology has been driven by the demands of warfare throughout history. But there’s a cute caveat; progress takes its inspiration from the things of nature, and as such, can't be halted by tyrants.

I could go on. Those tales are the pick of the bunch, but even the less than stellar ones have interesting themes. Bradbury’s happy in any kind of genre, which makes him a far harder writer to pin down than many imagine. He has been labelled a sci-fi author, and many of his books do look at the preoccupations of the times they were written in: the era of the Cold War and the space race, when technological wonders and terrors fired many an imagination and opened up the possibilities of the very heavens.

But Bradbury - who in fact describes himself as a fantasy author - is always much more interested in people and what they feel, not cold technology. He is no Arthur C Clarke (although they both share a similar sense of wonder and possibility). That's why he is often quite sneeringly dismissed by fans of harder sci-fi. Bradbury was never concerned over-much by the science behind his rocket ships or how we would physically go about propelling humans towards the stars, but he is tickled by the idea of rocket exhausts fuelling Indian summers in the depth of winter.

But there’s no doubt the famously technophobic Bradbury - never drove a car, doesn't like computers – is a visionary. In "The Murderer" he foresees a future where people not only can't avoid technology and its concomitant deluge of consumerism and advertising, but are in fact imprisoned by it. Those of us who experience post-traumatic stress if separated from their smart phones for a day will appreciate this one, possibly as they read it on their Kindles.

It's hard to nail down what's great about Ray Bradbury. Perhaps it's his home-spun style, whether his stories take place on Mars or in the age of the dinosaurs. He can write about the fantastic taking place in the everyday. But he can also put the everyday back into the fantastic. It's a symptom of a mighty, freewheeling imagination, happy to detail the things of real life as much as it enjoys a splash in the pool of possibility.

But for me, it boils down to the heart of the man – open, child-like (but never childish), curious and sympathetic. I guess I never forgot that poor sea monster in “The Fog Horn”, and I hold out a small hope that maybe it found what it was looking for, in the deep.

Ray Bradbury's still around, thank god. It's right that we should celebrate him as one of the all-time greats, and never miss an opportunity to do so. And while there are more comprehensive Bradbury short story compilations out there - I would recommend Everyman's hardback Collected Stories - this book is a perfect representation of what the man is all about.

It doesn't take up a lot of space on a bookshelf, but you'd be painfully aware of the gap if it was gone.

And that's why you're not borrowing this book from me, thank you very much.

No comments:

Post a Comment