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Entries in Ray Bradbury (3)


Ray Bradbury (1920-2012)

Ray Bradbury, the voice of America's pastIn one Facebook post concerning Bradbury’s death, someone commented that this event heralded the end of an era.  Others responded, agreeing or disagreeing, depending on how they interpreted the statement.  I didn’t comment one way or the other, but what struck me, however, was the fact that they saw Bradbury as someone BIG, someone defining, not simply a science fiction and fantasy writer.  With that sentiment, I agree wholeheartedly.  The way I see it, when we lost Ray Bradbury, we lost a part of America.

In several works, Bradbury wrote about small town America.  Several academics and book reviewers have written about this extensively, but really, you don’t have to do much more than look at some of his iconic works.  In “Mars is Heaven” (“The Third Expedition” in The Martian Chronicles), earth’s explorers find themselves in a mid-western town rather than the vast red wastes of Mars.  In Fahrenheit 451, he eulogizes what he considered “front porch society,” the meeting place where one would go to relax and chat, not just with your own family, but those next door and across the street.  Yes, this visionary and master of science fiction never let his eye stray too far off of the past.  He definitely kept small town America in the mind of his readers even while they were surrounded by the expanding, ever-quickening pace of the future.

The key element here, of course, is not mere nostalgia.  If you crave nostalgia, you can watch Andy Griffith reruns.  What we are shown through Bradbury’s works is the essential need of communication.  In Fahrenheit 451, people no longer meet to talk to one another; instead, they were immersed in the soap operatic lives presented by the wall screens.  People no longer read.  Books, of course, are a crucial form of communication.  They communicate ideas through the pages, the ideas stir something in us, and ideally, we communicate a response in words or deeds to those around us.  In his short story “The Pedestrian,” we see a similar fate.  The protagonist walks the streets alone.  He is a writer in a world without readers.  People stay home glued to their TVs, gray and ghostlike shadows huddling in the darkness.  Lifeless.  The city has become a graveyard.   In “The Veldt,” children immerse themselves into a virtual world.  As a result, they lose the ability to communicate and interact with their family.  These stories have become eerily real today as teens rather play video games or use some form of social media rather than talk face-to-face with one another.  In a world filled with 3D-CGI, Michael Bay explosions, and Halo, the past, sadly, isn’t so important.  There’s only the Now, only instant, selfish gratification blasting past at near light speeds.  

While the beauty and eloquence of Bradbury’s language echoes the images he created and the ideas he held true, the strength and legacy of Bradbury’s work resides, not in anything profound or visionary, but in all things simple and sincere: a community not afraid to communicate.  His writing gave voice to that part of America.  Now, that voice is silent.

Rest in peace.


Con (A Tale of DragonCon Past)

I didn’t exactly lie.  I just let them believe what they wanted to believe. 

So, according to my esteemed colleagues, I missed work that Thursday and Friday (years and years ago) to drive all the way to Atlanta, GA, to meet the great American writer Ray Bradbury.

Sure Bradbury wrote science fiction, sure he wrote fantasy, sure he wrote horror – but that didn’t matter.  You see, Bradbury had reached that iconic status where he was actually taught in classrooms.  Pick up sophomore or junior high school textbook, and you will more than likely find a Bradbury story.  In the mainstream American mind, he had made it.  Never mind that he was good.  He was important.  He was a success.

So off I went.

Maybe I should have explained it more thoroughly.  Maybe.  I just couldn’t quite imagine something called Dragon*Con to be the ivory tower affair they did.    Don’t get me wrong – I have enjoyed and admired Bradbury’s work since, well, high school I guess, but I had made arrangements to attend the con well before he was announced as one of the guests of honor.  When folks asked why I was driving approximately eight hundred miles there and back, however, Bradbury’s name seemed to satisfy their curiosity.  I suppose he made the trip legitimate in their eyes, especially for a high school English teacher.

Dragon*Con is a what you would call a science fiction convention – a con in fanboy lingo –  but it is so much more.  It is annual gathering of the best and the brightest among the science fiction, fantasy, and horror community.  The guest list spans across every form of media: print, film, music, internet, games.  If it’s genre related, chances are it’s there somewhere.  Me and Craig, a friend and fellow fanboy since high school, went every year and have rubbed elbows with the likes of David Prowse (who was the man inside Darth Vader’s suit in Star Wars), Brinke Stevens (who screamed mightily in films like Nightmare Sisters and Slave Girls from Beyond Infinity), Stan “the Man” Lee (who created Marvel Comics, along with the Fantastic Four, Spider-Man, and such), and Jefferson Starship (yeah, the rock band, who were actually nominated for a science fiction award for their first album, Blows Against the Empire). 

Don’t get me wrong, I was thrilled Bradbury was coming this year.  Giddy as a fanboy could be.  He was scheduled to head a special seminar that Saturday, which was to be followed by a special autograph session, so I carefully packed away my copy of The Martian Chronicles.  The smooth, worn cover flaked slightly around the edges, and the well-read pages had browned somewhat.  I could have gotten a better copy, sure, but we had a history together.  I can fondly remember sneaking it into English classes when we were supposed to be reading whatever it was we were supposed to be reading.  I’m pretty sure the teacher knew, too, but she never confiscated it.  I think she was just happy to see somebody actually reading.

Saturday arrived.  To kill time, Craig and I wandered around the dealer’s room, amazed by some of the things we saw.  It was just like out of the pages of a monster magazine or comic book.  We counted ten brooding vampires, nine different anime characters, eight barbarians, seven “dark” fairies, six flocks of Goths, five demonic beings, four aliens, three musketeers, two mad scientists, and one thing that we couldn’t quite classify.  The fans that didn’t dress up usually wore dark colors and/or t-shirts advertising their favorite TV show or movie or displaying some saying that they, at least, found amusing.

Overall, it was a festive occasion.

The dealer’s room was quite nice.  It was like being in a maze of memories you could buy, sell, or trade.  Every book, toy, and game I had ever owned or had ever wanted to own was right there.  I laughed, I cringed, I spent much cash.

Overall, it was a festive occasion.

For me anyway.

Unfortunately, Craig’s fanboyness was not up to par.  He started to crack under the pressure of all the fandom and general weirdness surrounding us.

“Freaks,” he shouted from the balcony overlooking the dealer’s room where we had perched to patiently await the coming of Bradbury.  “Freaks.  You’re all freaks!”

I guess the proper analogy to fully illustrate the irony of Craig’s sudden declaration lies in the 1956 Vincent Price film The Last Man on Earth.  In that film (based on the even better Richard Matheson novel I am Legend), a plague transforms the human race into vampires.  The Price character stakes vampires during the day and struggles to survive by night.  Among the vampire community, however, Price has become the monster, and in the final agonizing scene, he dies shouting, “Freaks!  You’re all freaks!” oblivious to the obvious irony.  I, therefore, did not point out that our pocket-tees and blue jeans were as subtle as the first gross and gooey mutating appearance of the Thing in Carpenter’s classic remake.

Anyway, that’s when I saw him down in the dealer’s room.

The orange Hawaiian shirt flashing from beneath his striped polyester jacket was the first thing I noticed.  Then the bright, white pants.  How odd, I thought, odd being a relative term, of course.  Then I saw the man wearing it: sixtyish, balding, thick glasses, ear-to-ear grin.  It was him!  The one and the only.  That’s right, I was staring down upon the grandeur and greatness that was Forrest J Ackerman.

Forrey was, is, and will be the archetypal fanboy.  He has the largest science fiction, fantasy, and horror collection in the world.  People travel from all over the world to visit and tour his home.  Filmmakers have asked him to do cameos in their works, he has edited and published some of the biggest genre names, Bradbury included, and he created and published one of the most famous and influential genre magazines ever:  Famous Monsters of Filmland.

I had read Famous Monsters as a teenager in my insulated hometown to find out all kinds of neat stuff about sf, fantasy, and horror films.  My friends and I loved it, couldn’t get enough of it, but most importantly, most adults hated.  I remember my ENG III teacher peering over her winged-tipped glasses while confiscating copies and chastising us for being “rude, crude, and socially unrefined.”

I don’t know how conscious I was of the connections ticking off in my mind at the moment, but I did realize I was standing in a hall full of people staring at a strangely dressed old man like a teenage girl gawking over a rock star.  But I didn’t care – it was Forrest J Ackerman!  Craig and I even followed him for a while.  I think we tried every way possible to convince ourselves it wasn’t him, but the truth could not be denied.  Here, indeed, was the man, the myth, the legend.

We finally managed to calm down enough to introduce ourselves.  I honestly couldn’t tell you what I had imagined talking to the Ackerman would be like back in high school, but I’m sure it met every expectation then went way beyond them.  Basically, he was a lot like any fan.  The three of us spent the entire afternoon wandering around the dealer’s room looking around and talking fan stuff.  And he could come up with some of the greatest – worst? – puns I’d ever heard.  

He had a story to tell about any old toy he touched.  Just by watching him, you knew he was seeing everything he told you; it was almost like out of a story, like he had the power to actually look back in time to when science fiction had just begun to flourish.  He told us how it was more vibrant back then, more alive.  Yeah, the stories weren’t scientifically accurate and the films didn’t have the best special effects, but the stories were – well, there’s no better way to say it – good.  Writers didn’t need brooding heroes that weren’t heroic, and filmmakers didn’t need CGI to create gianormous explosions.  The stories were good.  They made fans want to know what happened next; they had genuine emotion.  I had gotten a glimpse of it by watching the old movies and reading the classics, but here was a man – THE man – who had lived it, even helped shape it.  Fandom would not be what it is today without him.  Science fiction and fantasy would not be what it is today without him.

I missed Bradbury that con, so in honor of Mr. Ackerman, I guess I should say that’s my con-fession.

I heard Bradbury’s panel was great.  He delighted and dazzled the audience.  I watched highlights on the souvenir video I got.  I didn’t get my copy of The Martian Chronicles signed either.  Much to the astonishment of my colleagues, I wasn’t disappointed.  And they didn’t seem to care too much about Forrest Ackerman either.  The kids in my junior English class got a big kick out of it, though.   

Of course, they were all rude, crude, and socially unrefined. 


Fantastic Voyage: Terry Bisson’s Voyage to the Red Planet

Terry Bisson’s Planet of Mystery (PS Publishing 2008) transports readers to Venus, not the lifeless planet we know, but one filled with strangeness and, well, mystery. The novella harkens back to the days of pulp planetary romances, but it’s not the first time Bisson has left mother earth, and hopefully no the last. Anyone who has read Planet of Mystery, or who is just discovering this wonderful and insightful author, may want to check out his novel about the red planet.

In Voyage to the Red Planet (Avon, 1991), Terry Bisson rediscovers the Mars of Edgar Rice Burroughs and Ray Bradbury. He describes the red planet as an ancient, dying world filled with beauty, awe, and mystery, a place where man can uncover the truth about himself and his place in the cosmos. There’s only one problem: grand revelations aren’t very profitable.

The novel is set in the near future when America is finally recovering from the Grand Depression thanks to giant corporations that have bought all of the national parks and government agencies.

Just prior to all the financial woes, NASA scrapped the first manned mission to Mars. Twenty years later, the mission is given the green light – by Hollywood. A roguish producer wants to make the first film on Mars, not about Mars, but set on Mars. To that end, he “acquires” a moth-balled ship, the Mary Poppins, and hires the two original pilots who trained under the joint NASA-Soviet venture, a top cinematographer, and some “pure-bred” actors.

While the Hollywood crew tackles the important task of filming, Bass (the pilot) and Jeffries (the doctor who developed a serum for bear-like hibernation that can have some interesting side effects) stumble across ancient ruins and evidence that their arrival has been anticipated. Both men are stunned by their discovery and must decide what’s to be done with it. They know that if they tell anyone in America, the discovery will be exploited for every cent it can possibly generate. On the other hand, to keep it to themselves means years of waiting with little hope, if any, that the discovery will be used to further man’s knowledge.

Bisson’s novel is remarkable on many levels. The characters are real and motivated by real concerns. Man is shown at his best (moved by compassion) and his worst (compelled by greed), and the story is an exciting, adventurous romp that pays tribute to the glorious pulp fantasies of the past. At the same time, it is a biting satire about commercialism in America, and while the novel is filled with many humorous scenes, the laughter is often cut short. In this land where theme parks and sports arenas have become nothing more than gigantic billboards, Voyage to the Red Planet doesn’t seem too fantastic.