Ray Bradbury: Hack or Literary Genius…?
Having had cause to re-read The Martian Chronicles by the late great Ray Bradbury last year (first published in 1950 btw), I was struck –and quietly amused– by his sheer indulgence when it came to description, the kind that any modern reader would immediately jump on as a classic case of ‘overwritten pomp’. Bradbury’s immense efforts to use every last descriptive verb he could can be seen in so many of his works, but none moreso in my opinion, than in The Martian Chronicles…
I’m not here to knock either Bradbury or his writing, but rather to take a look at how things have changed with regards to what is considered ‘good’ and perhaps ‘not so good’ writing. Maybe we need to return to the 1950s to understand why Bradbury and others of that ilk could and would get away with these extended monologues (“telling rather than showing” some might say), no doubt circumstances being what they were the many pulp magazines of the time –and publishers paying by the word– had more than a little to do with it. So here for your delight, are a couple of choice examples of Ray Bradbury… ahem… on fire… in a vain effort to wring every last cent/penny out of his publishers…
Regardless of the methods, need and knowhow, I’d like to present for your delectation, an extended selection of quotes direct from the book.
Ray Bradbury writing about the onset of lightning as Ylla watches her husband depart…
“It was coming nearer.
At any moment it might happen.
It was like those days when you heard a thunderstorm coming and there was the waiting silence and then the faintest pressure of the atmosphere as the climate blew over the land in shifts and shadows and vapours. And the change pressed at your ears and you were suspended in the waiting time of the coming storm. You began to tremble. The sky was stained and coloured; the clouds were thickened; the mountains took on an iron taint. The caged flowers blew with faint sighs of warning. You felt your hair stir softly. Somewhere in the house the voice-clock sang…
…And then the storm. The electric illumination, the engulfments of dark wash and sounding black fell down, shutting in, forever.
That’s how it was now. A storm gathered, yet the sky was clear. Lightning was expected, yet there was no cloud.”
Pages 17-8, HarperVoyager 2008, p/back
A while later, Bradbury writes about the dawning of a green morning on Mars, as Benjamin Driscoll awakes…
“It was a green morning.
As far as he could see, the trees were standing up against the sky. Not one tree, not two, not a dozen, but the thousands he had planted in seed and sprout. And not little trees, no, not saplings, not little tender shoots, but great trees, huge trees, trees as tall as ten men, green and green and huge and round and full, trees shimmering their metallic leaves, trees whispering, trees in a line over hills, lemon-trees, lime-trees, redwoods and mimosas and oaks and elms and aspen, cherry, maple, ash, apple, orange, eucalyptus, stung by a tumultuous rain, nourished by alien and magical soil and, even as he watched, throwing out new branches, popping open new buds.
‘Impossible!’ cried Mr Benjamin Driscoll.
But the valley and the morning were green.
And the air!
All about, like a moving current, a mountain river, came the new air, the oxygen blowing from the green trees. You could see it shimmer high in crystal billows. Oxygen, fresh, pure, green, cold oxygen turning the valley into a river delta. In a moment the town doors would flip wide, people would run through the new miracle of oxygen, sniffing, gusting in lungfuls of it, cheeks pinking with it, noses frozen with it, lungs revivified, hearts leaping, and worn bodies lifted into a dance.
Mr Benjamin Driscoll took one long deep drink of green water air and fainted.
Before he woke up again five thousand new trees had climbed up into the yellow sun.”
Pages 126-7, HarperVoyager 2008, p/back
Just a short while later, Bradbury starts on the smell, sound and look of time…
“There was a smell of Time in the air tonight. He smiled and turned the fancy in his mind. There was a thought. What did Time smell like? Like dust and clocks and people. And if you wondered what Time sounded like it sounded like water running in a dark cave and voices crying and dirt dropping down upon hollow box-lids, and rain. And, going further, what did Time look like? Time looked like snow dropping silently into a black room or it looked like a silent film in an ancient theatre, one hundred billion faces falling like those New Year balloons, down and down into nothing. That was how Time swelled and looked and sounded. And tonight — Tomás shoved a hand into the wind outside the truck — tonight you could almost touch Time.
He drove the truck between the hills of Time. His neck prickled and he sat up, watching ahead.”
Pages 132-3, HarperVoyager 2008, p/back
Just a few pages on, Bradbury has another go, this time with the stars as he describes the translucent transient meeting between Tomás and a Martian as they enjoy a face-off following their first encounter…
“The stars were white and sharp beyond the flesh of the Martian, and they were sewn into his flesh like scintillas swallowed into the thin, phosphorous membrane of a gelatinous sea fish. You could see stars flickering like violet eyes in the Martian’s stomach and chest, and through his wrists, like jewelry.
‘I can see through you!’ said Tomás.
‘And I through you!’ said the Martian, stepping back.”
Page 136, HarperVoyager 2008, p/back
Much later, Bradbury uses water as a way of describing a mass exodus of black people from the South (or ‘people of colour’ if you prefer – they are referred to as ‘niggers’ in the text), moving out and rushing towards the planet Mars using whatever means necessary…
“Far up the street the levee seemed to have broken. The black, warm waters descended and engulfed the town. Between the blazing white banks of the town stores, among the tree silences, a black tide flowed. Like a kind of summer molasses, it poured turgidly forth upon the cinnamon-dusty road. It surged slow, slow, and it was men and women and horses and barking dogs, and it was little boys and girls. And from the mouths of the people partaking of this tide came the sound of a river. A summer-day river going somewhere, murmuring and irrevocable. And in that slow, steady channel of darkness that cut across the white glare of day were touches of alert white, the eyes, the ivory eyes staring ahead, glancing aside, as the river, the long and endless river, took itself from old channels into a new one. From various and uncountable tributaries, in creeks and brooks of colour and motion, the parts of this river had joined, become one mother current, and flowed on. And brimming the swell were things carried by the river: grandfather clocks chiming, kitchen clocks ticking, caged hens screaming, babies wailing; and swimming among the thickened eddies were mules and; cats, and sudden excursions of burst mattress springs floating by, insane hair stuffing sticking out, and boxes and crates and pictures of dark grandfathers in oak frames — the river flowing it on while the men sat like nervous hounds on the hardware porch, too late to mend the levee, their hands empty.”
Pages 179-80, HarperVoyager 2008, p/back
Later still, Bradbury tackles the launching of a sand-ship, as Sam and Elma attempt to flee the Martians, and commits another cardinal sin frowned upon in the modern novel: readily apparent is the use of repetition to emphasise and re-emphasise his descriptive efforts…
“He shoved her in, jumped in behind her, and flapped the tiller, let the cobalt sail up to take the evening wind.
The stars were bright and the blue Martian ships were skimming across the whispering sands. At first his own ship would not move, then he remembered the sand anchor and yanked it in…
…The wind hurled the sand-ship keening over the dead sea-bottom, over long-buried crystals, past up-ended pillars, past deserted docks of marble and brass, past dead white chess cities, past purple foothills, into distance. The figures of the Martian ships receded and then began to pace Sam’s ship…
…He did not turn. He felt a cold wind blowing. He was afraid to turn. He felt something in the seat behind him, something as frail as your breath on a cold morning, something as blue as hickory-wood smoke at twilight, something like old white lace, something like a snowfall, something like the icy rime of winter on the brittle sedge.
There was a sound as of a thin plate of glass broken — laughter. Then silence. He turned.
The young woman sat at the tiller bench quietly. Her wrists were thin as icicles, her eyes as clear as the moon and as large, steady and white. The wind blew at her and, like an image on cold water, she rippled, silk standing out from her frail body in tatters of blue rain.
‘Go back,’ she said.
‘No.’ Sam was quivering, the fine, delicate fear-quivering of a hornet suspended in the air, undecided between fear and hate. ‘Get off my ship!’”
Pages 232-3, HarperVoyager 2008, p/back
A short while later, Sam fires a gun at the Martians he believes are hunting him down… and also appears to lose it completely by shooting at the scenery. And Bradbury returns to using crystals as a form of descriptive nuance.
“The gun went off.
In the sunlight, snow melts, crystals evaporate into a steam, into nothing. In the firelight, vapours dance and vanish. In the core of a volcano, fragile things burst and disappear. The girl, in the gunfire, in the heat, in the concussion, folded like a soft scarf, melted like a crystal figurine. What was left of her, ice, snowflake, smoke, blew away in the wind. The tiller seat was empty…
…They were passing a little white chess city, and in his frustration, in his rage, he sent six bullets crashing among the crystal towers. The city dissolved in a shower of ancient glass and splintered quartz. It fell away like carved soap, shattered. It was no more. He laughed and fired again, and one last tower, one last chess piece, took fire, ignited, and in blue flinders went up to the stars.”
Pages 234-5, HarperVoyager 2008, p/back
Sam’s Martian pursuers finally catch him up, and Bradbury once again milks it for all it’s worth…
“The blue phantom ships loomed up behind them, drawing steadily apace. He did not see them at first. He was only aware of a whistling and a high windy screaming, as of steel on sand, and it was the sound of the sharp razor prows of the sand ships preening the sea bottoms, their red pennants, blue pennants unfurled. In the blue light ships were blue dark images, masked men, men with silvery faces, men with blue stars for eyes, men with carved golden ears, men with tinfoil cheeks and ruby-studded lips, men with arms folded, men following him. Martian men.”
Pages 235-6, HarperVoyager 2008, p/back
As the book draws to a close, a father is talking to his son and burning away historic Earth documents, and Bradbury offers up a prophetic world-view of his own, metaphorically playing on the imagery afforded him by the flaming pyre…
“He dropped a leaf in the fire.
‘I’m burning a way of life, just like that way of life is being burned clean of Earth right now. Forgive me if I talk like a politician. I am, after all, a former state governor, and I was honest and they hated me for it. Life on Earth never settled down to doing anything very good. Science ran too far ahead of us too quickly, and the people got lost in a mechanical wilderness, like children making over pretty things, gadgets, helicopters, rockets; emphasizing the wrong items, emphasizing machines instead of how to run the machines. Wars got bigger and bigger and finally killed Earth. That’s what silent radio means. That’s what we ran away from.
‘We were lucky. There aren’t any more rockets left… Earth is gone… that way of life proved itself wrong and strangled itself with its own hands. You’re young. I’ll tell you this again every day until it sinks in.’
He paused to feed more papers into the fire…
…The fire leaped up to emphasize his talking. And then all the papers were gone except one. All the laws and beliefs of Earth were burnt into small, hot ashes which soon would be carried off in a wind.
Timothy looked at the last thing that Dad tossed in the fire. It was a map of the World, and it wrinkled and distorted itself hotly and went — flimpf — and was gone like a warm, black butterfly.”
Pages 302-3, HarperVoyager 2008, p/back
In summary? Whether he was a hack or a literary genius is something I leave others to debate, I only bring to your attention the changing face of writing as both form and function and leave you to judge how things have moved on since that time… 65+ years was ostensibly a lifetime ago…