Tag Archives: Ray Bradbury

How the rabbit ears died

Nothing ages faster than a vision of the future. Re-read A Clockwork Orange today and you’re reminded of the Cold War, Harold Macmillan, and B.F. Skinner. Re-watch 2001: A Space Odyssey and you wonder whatever happened to Pan-Am airlines. Re-read Fahrenheit 451 and you find yourself explaining the concept of rabbit ears. 

Yeah, rabbit ears. Fahrenheit 451 was part of the summer reading list Dances With Mermaids brought home from school, so I got her a copy along with The October Country. Since she more or less lives with earbuds pumping dubstep directly into her brain, I derived some small amusement from mentioning Ray Bradbury’s image of people walling themselves off from the world with tiny “seashells” jammed into their ears. Then I remembered the scene in which Montag notices that the only house in his neighborhood where people are laughing and talking to each other is the one without a television antenna on the roof. And I found myself explaining to this child of the digital age how TV was once delivered into the living room through a roof antenna that looked like a deranged Erector Set project, or a pair of rabbit ears on top of the TV set, and that television reception was often a very iffy thing, apt to dissolve into a blizzard of static if the rabbit ears were improperly adjusted, or if somebody stepped back from the television after tweaking the controls like a safecracker. Even the way you sat affected reception on certain days. No wonder cable caught on so fast. I didn’t know from tai chi when I was a kid, but later on I instantly understood its purpose — an ancient Chinese technique for improving television reception.

I rattled on about all this, even throwing in a mention of the Peanuts comic strip sequence in which Charlie Brown has Snoopy stand on his TV and move his ears to clear up the picture. Then I caught the distant look in her eye, the look of a teenager who knows that if she waits long enough, Daddy will run out of oxygen and she will be able to leap free of the Old School Time Machine Tour. I do go on sometimes.

I was thinking of showing her some episodes of The Outer Limits, but I wonder what she would make of the intro, and the idea of someone else controlling the sacred vertical and the sanctified horizontal. The course of one’s evening TV viewing used to hang on those two pegs.

Maybe I just won’t worry about it. One of those tempus fugit things.

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Ray Bradbury

If you could study the mind of any lifelong, dedicated reader, I bet you would find an early encounter with the stories of Ray Bradbury way back there in the intellectual DNA. Mention his name to a member of that happy clan and you’ll see a little spark in the eyes that suggests memories of winter landscapes briefly turned to summer by a rocket launch, stained glass windows with colors that reveal alternate universes, mechanized houses kept spotlessly clean for occupants who will never return, and foghorns visited by lonely dinosaurs. Ray Bradbury, who just died at 91, was a magician, and anyone who encountered him at the right age was forever marked.

I couldn’t imagine my crucial reading years without him. Talk about happy accidents! I came to his work by way of Francois Truffaut’s bungled film version of Fahrenheit 451, which was shown on television quite often while I was a boy obsessed with monsters and science fiction. (I can only imagine what Bradbury, a lifelong technophobe who despised TV, would have made of that connection.) After reading the novel I came across the story collection The October Country, and fell into Bradbury’s alternate universe, an idealized but not entirely benign small-town Midwest where the colors were a little brighter and the shadows a little darker. I snapped up other titles in short order: The Golden Apples of the Sun, The Martian Chronicles, The Illustrated Man, S Is For Space. Though the novels Dandelion Wine and Something Wicked This Way Comes have their admirers, I always  thought Bradbury (like Hemingway, a key influence) worked best in short forms. The magic was most effective in concentrated doses.

Bradbury lived a long happy life, with no shortage of admirers (some of whom probably startled him a bit), and he kept writing up to the end. Thanks to early praise from literary heavyweights, he spent his career outside the “Sci-Fi Guy” corral that penned in so many other writers. Bradbury himself preferred to call his work fantasy, but that didn’t keep him out of The Science Fiction Hall of Fame, and he was one of the first writers honored by The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction in its series of tribute issues.   

Appropriately for a writer, Bradbury penned his own best epitaph, in the 2005 collection Bradbury Speaks:

In my later years I have looked in the mirror each day and found a happy person staring back. Occasionally I wonder why I can be so happy. The answer is that every day of my life I’ve worked only for myself and for the joy that comes from writing and creating. The image in my mirror is not optimistic, but the result of optimal behavior.

ADDENDUM: President Obama pays tribute to Ray Bradbury.

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Friday finds

Duke University has a digital archive of over 100 travel diaries written by British and American women.

Elmore Leonard’s 10 rules for writing.

Not to be outdone, Ray Bradbury has 12.

George Orwell’s rules for making a perfect cup of tea.

The creator of Dracula died broke. There is also some dispute over what killed him.

Here’s an original way to reduce cognitive biases. And don’t we all want to reduce cognitive biases?

“I visited the Jenolon Caves in Australia, and in some of the caves they have self-guided tours where you pick up a headset and get descriptions of what you’re looking at. Since this is a big tourist destination they offer these in many languages. One of which is Klingon. I was startled when I saw that – I do wonder how many people choose to take the Klingon tour. But that has now become my ambition, to have the Dothraki language added to that, so we have equality with the damn Klingons.”

John Peel’s record collection, digitized. Starting with “A,” appropriately enough.

Behind the scenes at the auditions to find Sean Connery’s replacement as James Bond.

Now that a remake of Total Recall is about to open, look at some concept art from the time when David Cronenberg was set to direct the original film, before it ended up in Paul Verhoeven’s hands.

So — what would happen if you stuck your hand into the Large Hadron Collider? Well, you wouldn’t turn into Dr. Manhattan, that’s for sure.

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Friday finds

You think Stieg Larsson is hot stuff? You think Nordic Noir started with The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo? Meet Maj Sjowall, who with her partner Per Wahloo stood the field of crime fiction on its collective ear with their 10-novel cycle about Martin Beck and his colleagues (one named Larsson, curious coincidence) in the Stockholm National Homicide Department. The novels were police procedurals that stood comparison with Ed McBain. The series is probably best known in this country for the fourth novel, The Laughing Policeman, which was made into a pretty decent Walter Matthau flick, albeit with the setting changed from Stockholm to San Francisco.

Ten Things You Didn’t Know About Ray Bradbury. Well . . . not quite ten. I didn’t know Bradbury befriended Ernest Hemingway’s son. (I wonder what he thought of “The Wonderful Death of Dudley Stone?”) I also didn’t know he had turned down a shot at writing the script for The Birds. Considering Evan Hunter’s experience on that flick, Bradbury should probably thank his lucky stars he didn’t take the job.

Greetings from the Humungus! The LORD Humungus! The warrior of the wasteland! The ayatollah of rock and rollah!

Lance M. endorses this message, and so do I.

Edward Said meets Jean-Paul Sartre.

Graham Greene is fascinating all by himself, but it turns out his relatives were every bit as interesting.

Self-publish or perish: the new digital imperative.

I just realized that instead of having a gun rack in my car, I had three different swords in the back over the weekend. While I could claim I’m prepared for the zombie apocalypse, it probably signifies some weird sort of medievalist redneck.”

The writer who is always wrong.

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A paranoia palimpsest

During a YouTube safari in search of Icarus Montgolfier Wright, the 1962 short film based on Ray Bradbury’s poem of the same name, I found that another Bradbury piece, the post-apocalyptic vignette “There Will Come Soft Rains” from The Martian Chronicles, is a big favorite with animators.

For my money, the most striking is this 1984 production from Uzbekfilm:

In addition to being a pretty decent visualization, that Uzbekfilm production offers what you might call a paranoia palimpsest.

Bradbury’s story was written in the late Forties, when the Cold War’s chill was settling in and the postwar dread of nuclear war was in full noxious flower. A wave of novels and films about the aftermath of nuclear war was building: Arch Oboler’s Five would be released in 1951, a year after The Martian Chronicles was published, to be followed by (among many others) Pat Frank’s Alas, Babylon, Neville Shute’s On the Beach, Walter Miller’s A Canticle for Leibowitz, the 1951 nuclear warning film The Day the Earth Stood Still, the original Godzilla, and innumerable B-movies in which attractive actors and actresses would contend with rubber-suited mutants spawned by radiation.

Leave it to Ray Bradbury to find a unique angle on the post-apocalyptic theme, one that combines a lampoon of Fifties consumerism (the robot kitchen that wakes everyone up, feeds them and gets them out the door) with the gradually dawning realization that all human life has been wiped out. Bradbury characteristically links it all to poetry — in this case, Sara Teasdale’s 1920 work of the same name:

There will come soft rains and the smell of the ground,
And swallows circling with their shimmering sound;

And frogs in the pool singing at night,
And wild plum trees in tremulous white;

Robins will wear their feathery fire,
Whistling their whims on a low fence-wire;

And not one will know of the war, not one
Will care at last when it is done.

Not one would mind, neither bird nor tree,
If mankind perished utterly;

And Spring herself when she woke at dawn
Would scarcely know that we were gone.

“Would scarcely know that we were gone.” A perfect line for a story in which humanity is defined by its self-inflicted absence.

Flash forward to the early Eighties. Ronald Reagan is openly joking about nuking the Soviet Union, fantasies of space-based defense against missiles are floating in the air, and members of Reagan’s administration are offering daffy scenarios about how to survive nuclear devastation. In response, Jonathan Schell’s 1982 essay The Fate of the Earth essentially starts the nuclear freeze movement, and the television film The Day After counters Reagan’s happy talk with a gut-wrenching depiction of how a nuclear war would look from the civilian perspective.

Where Teasdale’s poem (and Bradbury’s Fifties era use of it) imagined mankind disappearing without causing much of a fuss, the Uzbekfilm production imagines much harsher consequences in keeping with its release in 1984 from the pre-perestroika Soviet Union. There’s even a glimpse of nuclear winter, a term Carl Sagan and others used as often as possible, though there is still some debate about such an effect. But the fears of the Fifties overlap with the fears of the Eighties quite comfortably.

Along with the Soviet film, I came across this undated student production, which compresses the story considerably but still gets the point across :

And this 2006 live-action production from Chris Rowe:

And I don’t want to leave out this short film based on “The Pedestrian,” which Bradbury wrote after being accosted by police while taking an evening stroll:

Meanwhile, I have yet to find Icarus Montgolfier Wright. Anybody know where I can score a copy?

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Golly gee, Mr. B

I’ve already explained the concept of a Bernstein moment. Maybe what occurred to me the other day on the train home should be called a Bradbury moment.

It’s all because I recently re-read Fahrenheit 451, Ray Bradbury’s novel about a future society in which books and reading are strictly forbidden, but the noisier forms of mass media are all but required. Bradbury’s chief target was television, then still becoming a household fixture when the novel was published in 1953, but his wrath also encompassed transistor radios, which he saw as creating a wall of noise to keep out the real world. Early in the book, the protagnist comes home and anticipates an empty evening with his vapid wife:

Without turning on the light he imagined how this room would look. His wife stretched on the bed, uncovered and cold, like a body displayed on the lid of a tomb, her eyes fixed to the ceiling by invisible threads of steel, immovable. And in her ears the little Seashells, the thimble radios tamped tight, and an electronic ocean of sound, of music and talk and music and talk coming in, coming in on the shore of her unsleeping mind. The room was indeed empty. Every night the waves came in and bore her off on their great tides of sound, floating her, wide-eyed, toward morning. There had been no night in the last two years that Mildred had not swum that sea, had not gladly gone down in it for the third time.  

Trouble is, I was listening to my iPod when this scene occurred to me. I wasn’t wearing Seashells, but imagine the sport Bradbury could have had with the spectacle of people marching down the street with earbuds trailing wires like tendrils from potatoes left too long in the bag.

Does this make me one of the bad guys, Mr. B? Do I get any credit for listening to Melvyn Bragg on my iPod?

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Hot type

fahrenheitI’ve been hearing rumors for years now about plans for a new film adaptation of Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451. Mystery Man on Film has read a copy of Frank Darabont’s script, and while he hasn’t yet posted the whole thing, his descriptions of some of the choicer bits make me hungry to see the movie get made right away.  

His post also sent me back to re-read the Bradbury novel, which I hadn’t opened in decades. It’s still great stuff, certainly Bradbury’s finest novel, and as Mystery Man points out, far more cinematic in its imagery than the inept 1966 movie version directed by Francois Truffaut. It’s also remarkably concise and intensely imagined — particularly when compared with Bradbury’s increasingly blowsy later work. 

I have to give the movie some props, if only because it’s the reason I started reading Bradbury in the first place. Truffaut’s film cropped up on TV fairly often, and as a young reader in non-bookish circumstances I was gripped by the idea of getting by in a society than bans reading and routinely destroys books. I think I was in the sixth grade when I first read Fahrenheit 451, drawn to it because I’d seen the movie so many times by then, and it led me to The October Country, The Illustrated Man, The Golden Apples of the Sun and the rest of Bradbury’s core titles. The funny thing is, even then I saw no attraction in becoming one of the Book People — how on earth could anyone decide on which single book to memorize and keep close?

Looking back, I think I was mainly held by the movie’s soundtrack, which was composed by Bernard Herrmann, whom Bradbury had recommended to Truffaut (not that Monsieur Auteur would have needed much encouragement to hire Alfred Hitchcock’s former right-hand man). Herrmann conceived a dreamy, mostly unfocused score that suggested a society held in a kind of permanent childhood by enforced illiteracy, yet still tormented by adult doubts and fear. It’s pretty much the only aspect of the film that still works, and it makes the final scene with the Book People one of the most rapturously beautiful sequences in film.      

For a while the rumor was that Mel Gibson wanted to play Guy Montag, the book-burning fireman who becomes consumed by the desire to read, but I think the role calls for someone like Viggo Mortensen who can suggest deep currents of thought beneath an impassive exterior. Either way, let somebody make the movie, soon. And meanwhile, you can re-read Bradbury’s novel — talk about a win-win scenario.

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A dime at a time

Ray Bradbury has always been a pretty poor interview subject, even more so as age advances. This talk with Bradbury at Truthdig has some interesting tidbits, assuming you have the patience to sift through all the random crankery. It certainly pointed me to areas I hadn’t known about: e.g., the story of how he wrote Fahrenheit 451 on a rental typewriter in the basement of UCLA’s Lawrence Clark Powell Library, pumping in dimes at regular intervals for nine days. And I never realized how big a debt Arnold Schwarzenegger owes to Bradbury.

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