Monday, 19 December 2011

By the Pricking of my Thumbs...

Something Wicked This Way Comes.  Ray Bradbury had me with this title, a quote from one of my favourite plays by the Bard.  I’ve always been fond of MacBeth and quote from it far more often than I probably should.
            How did I miss Mr. Bradbury during my youthful pursuit of science fiction?  I guess it’s a function of growing up on a farm, outside a rather small town.  My sources of reading material were sparse.  There was the school library (which actually contained a lot of lovely surprises), there were the book racks in the local stores and on occasional trips to larger centres, and there was the Edmonton Extension Library, a wonderfully haphazard source of ideas.  As a farm family, we were deemed eligible for the loan of boxes of reading material from the University of Alberta Library in their extension program.  My mother, as an adult, had the right to ask for certain titles, authors or subjects.  As a child, I was expected to take what entertainment the librarians were willing to send me, although I did make a few research petitions which they kindly granted.  It was a very exciting day when I was deemed old enough to choose my own reading material and I scrutinized the printed sheets of titles like a compulsive gambler studying the list of horses at the track.  I was finally able to move on from the diet of fairy tales, Greek mythology and children’s literature that someone else considered to appropriate for my age group.  I often wonder, actually, who the librarian was who considered some of these blood thirsty fairy tales (I didn’t get the politically correct nonsense published today) and gory Greek mythology (once again, not the sanitized versions) perfect reading material for a young farm girl.  I would love to be able to thank her.
            But, even with those lists to choose from, I was limited by what I already knew and what librarians thought to put on the lists.  I certainly got a liberal education but there were paths that I didn’t even know were there to be followed.  I remember being gobsmacked in my twenties when I discovered bird field guides—there were ways of learning which bird you had seen and they all had names!  The power of the book!
            Add to that the randomness of the book sellers of the sixties.  When you live in a conservative environment, science fiction is not likely to be valued and therefore is not well stocked in the stores.  It was so unlike our current world of online sales where a few keystrokes can find all kinds of enticing possibilities and the ones that are chosen can be mailed virtually anywhere.  Not to mention what’s available online.  This availability of information and ideas must be the next big thing to transform our society.
            I think this is something that Ray Bradbury and I could agree on if we were to meet for a coffee someday.  Ideas and the art forms that spread them are important.  One of the reasons that science fiction has been so successful is precisely because it has not been taken too seriously.  It’s been a way for one intelligent sector of society to communicate serious ideas to one another in the midst of a rather anti-intellectual society.  Look at Gene Roddenberry, hiding racial equality ideas in plain sight in Star Trek, where it could be claimed “it’s just fiction” if necessary.  And the bigots of the world can be convinced that art is unimportant and unthreatening, although we all know that it is great ideas, not hatred, that transform the world.
            I also think fondly of another of Bradbury’s novels, Fahrenheit 451, which celebrates the written word (and which I read just recently).  This book blew me away, acknowledging as it does the place of literature, art, music and the appreciation of nature as things to be pursued, cherished, remembered and protected.  Bradbury became a prophet to me, having created a society in which people surrounded themselves with giant television screens and watched incomprehensible reality shows which were programmed to insert their names at points in the script.  “The Family.”  Everyone was working to afford four such screens in order to surround themselves with unreality.  Don’t tell Hollywood—I think they’ve got us halfway there already!  But surely they can’t program us to prefer empty crap to real ideas?  Can they?
            Actually, if you judge the importance of a book by its impact on your life, Fahrenheit 451 came at just the right moment to influence one of my own choices, that to do without television.  When read in succession with George Orwell’s 1984 and Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, these three books can cause a person to stare suspiciously at her television!  However, I am comforted that since disconnecting my cable, no helpful comrade has shown up at my house to assist me to get reconnected!  It’s been four months now and I think I have escaped from the cultural brainwashing!
            SWTWC reiterates some of the key ideas in Fahrenheit—and adds humour and the ability to laugh to the arsenal of the good people of the world.  Laughter is the silver bullet that finally defeats the evil of the tale, although it is assisted along with way by literature and friendship.  The weapons of the intelligent, reasoning few against the torrent of intolerance, misinformation and mind-numbing tripe produced and marketed as entertainment, or worse, as news. 
            As long as people keep on reading, writing, producing and appreciating art, going to plays, hiking, studying nature and being interested in the sciences and most importantly, laughing, we are okay as a species.  We are demonstrating our humanness and the warmth of human connectedness to each other and to our wonderful world.  It gives me hope for the future.


  1. Hi Wanda

    You have chosen a couple of my favorite books by one of my favorite authors. I have to rate Fahrenheit 451 as one of my top five books and I really enjoyed Something Wicked, what child that has happily spend large blocks of time in a library would not. I am not surprised that you did not get as much exposure to Bradbury when reading Science Fiction. As the Wikipedia article about him points out, Bradbury himself considers Fahrenheit 451 his only science fiction book ( and the subject of an absolutely terrible movie adaptation, my opinion ) and the rest of his works fantasy. In the same article SF critic Damon Knight absolutely trashed Bradbury as a Science Fiction writer. But I think if you notice that Bradbury’s first book Dark Carnival was published by Arkham House (whose books are especially dear to me) a press that published mainly Weird Tales writers you realize that he did not like Heinlein or Asimov come out of a strict Science Fiction tradition. Weird Tales writers tended to write in many of the pulp magazine genres of the time including horror, heroic fantasy, detective stories and science fiction. Bradbury often set his stories in worlds that were only slightly different from our own where a harmless pedestrian was an object of fear, a television could stultify the masses (does sound like today doesn’t it) and a down at the heels lightning rod salesman could become a mysterious seer and memorize two small boys with all the eloquence of a TV evangelist. And then you add a carnival, what’s not to like. Also for me Bradbury writing exemplifies all that the best writing can offer, a wonderfully atmospheric prose capable of transporting a reader to another place so vividly that you are, for good or ill as he can be quite dark, in October Country.


  2. Guy,

    I have also read The Illustrated Man (partially because, I must confess, of a reference to it on the TV show Criminal Minds) and I have The Martian Chronicles in reserve for January. I have a hunch I'm not done thinking about Bradbury's work. I can't believe how rewarding it has been to read books that I've never considered before--I keep finding treasures!