Mars in apogee

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Ray Bradbury is the first Los Angeles writer many people read. He's also the first reasonably serious writer -- someone concerned with political and moral themes -- many encounter. His early science-fiction novels and story collections have drawn readers, especially intellectually ambitious teenage boys, for a half-century now. Many of these Bradbury fans become lifetime readers, moving into all kinds of weightier fare, from the darker, more complicated science fiction of William Gibson, Ursula K. Le Guin and Philip K. Dick to mainstream literary work without end. He's the ultimate gateway drug.

"Bradbury Stories: 100 of Bradbury's Most Celebrated Tales" is a new anthology of work selected and introduced by the author, one that does not overlap with an earlier collection from Alfred A. Knopf. First, the good news: The stories included here from "The Martian Chronicles" -- first printed in magazines in the late '40s and later published as a story cycle inspired by Sherwood Anderson's "Winesburg, Ohio" -- remain powerful, even at times rhapsodic. With their combination of lyricism and quiet gravity, these stories are so different in tone and effect from the rest of this volume that they could be the work of another author entirely. Perhaps they're best attributed to the writer Bradbury briefly became and perhaps could have remained. Here's the opening of "February, 1999: Ylla":

"They had a house of crystal pillars on the planet Mars by the edge of the empty sea, and every morning you could see Mrs. K eating the golden fruits that grew from the crystal walls, or cleaning the house with handfuls of magnetic dust which, taking all dirt with it, blew away on the hot wind."

The setting is so strange that it can take a while, as it does for the Earthmen who arrive and struggle with the planet's thin atmosphere, to adjust to the author's cadence and imagistic marvels. Here's the second sentence:

"Afternoons, when the fossil sea was warm and motionless, and the wine trees stood stiff in the yard, and the little distant Martian bone town was all enclosed, and no one drifted out their doors, you could see Mr. K himself in his room, reading from a metal book with raised hieroglyphs over which he brushed his hand, as one might play a harp."

This graceful, morally serious book marked not only the author's mainstream breakthrough -- thanks in part to a rave by Christopher Isherwood, who brought the kind of respectability to Bradbury that W.H. Auden would later bring J.R.R. Tolkien -- but a triumph for the science-fiction genre itself. Before long, Time magazine was hailing Bradbury as "the poet of the pulps," and suddenly science-fiction authors were appealing to a mainstream, sometimes even intellectual, readership.

"Bradbury Stories" includes five pieces from "Chronicles," which began a debate among science-fiction fans about whether the author was part of their club. Detractors called him an anti-science-fiction writer, since he was suspicious of technology and often seemed to lack interest in science altogether. The genre, in those days, prided itself on its "hard" nuts-and-bolts science and was more masculine and far less literary than it became in the late 1960s, when the "New Wave" writers of England and America brought psychology, feminism, liberalism and the social sciences into the mix.

Parochial debates like this are best left to the purists. What Bradbury does is often closer to a blend of Edgar Allan Poe and Aesop's fables than the now-forgotten authors of space operas: He creates myths, or metaphors, that express universal human truths by slightly displacing them. At their best, they're ambiguous, resonating equally into the past and the future.

The Martian stories, for all their high-tech settings, are rooted in the Bible and Nathaniel Hawthorne's Puritan allegories. With its pioneering Earthmen who discover a culture they can't understand and aim to recreate Old World lives, the book echoes backward to the conquistadors -- and L.A.'s Ohio-born settlers -- and forward to "Apocalypse Now."

In their way, "The Martian Chronicles" are nearly as good a guide to the history of Southern California as the histories of Kevin Starr. The final story in the "Chronicles," "The Million-Year Picnic," not collected here, may still be the truest and most poignant description of becoming a Californian. Of the stories collected here, Bradbury's combination of moral seriousness with understatement and irony works best in "June 2001: And the Moon Be Still as Bright," which takes its name in part from a poem of Byron's. After landing on Mars, years after several failed expeditions, one of the Earthmen gathers some wood and watches it burn.

"It wouldn't be right, the first night on Mars, to make a loud noise, to introduce a strange, silly bright thing like a stove. It would be a kind of imported blasphemy. There'd be time for that later; time to throw condensed-milk cans in the proud Martian canals; time for copies of the New York Times to blow and caper and rustle against the lone gray Martian sea bottoms; time for banana peels and picnic papers in the fluted, delicate ruins of the old Martian valley towns."

Bradbury may be the last visible survivor of the Midwestern Protestants who once dominated Los Angeles, the "folks" who made the city over as a sleepy Iowa village decades before the city re-imagined itself as a high-tech, Asia-facing, multicultural metropolis. Famous for writing of rockets while refusing to drive a car, Bradbury embodies a contradiction: He's associated with his stories of the future, but his values are nostalgic, yearning for, and calling from, the past.

Raymond Douglas Bradbury was born in Waukegan, Ill. He was weaned on comic books, magic shows, Jules Verne, circuses. In 1932 his father lost his job as a telephone lineman, and after two difficult years, the family moved to Los Angeles. Despite difficult high school years as a bespectacled dreamer, Bradbury loved the city. He became a serious autograph hound, walking miles to film lots to beg signatures from W.C. Fields and Burns and Allen. While still in high school he joined a science-fiction fan club and met writers including Robert Heinlein. He was soon editing his own fanzine, placing fantasy stories in pulp magazines and breaking into the "slicks." The 1950 publication of "Chronicles" was followed in short order by "The Illustrated Man," "The Golden Apples of the Sun" and "Fahrenheit 451," famously written at UCLA, where the author fed dimes into typewriters in the basement carrels.

By now, Bradbury was a success, a man who boasted of writing every single day, who was, as the author Tom Disch put it, "America's Official Science Fiction Writer, the one most likely to be trotted out on State occasions." He became a literary celebrity, often photographed in the turtlenecks, heavy glasses and floppy hair that gave him the look of the producer for a West Coast psychedelic band. He inspired movies and plays; a lunar crater was named for one of his book. But as a writer, he was losing his magic.

The pieces the author has collected in "Bradbury Stories" show a writer of sporadic gifts and limited curiosity. He doesn't seem to really know, or care, much about individual people. While some of the stories are strong, the volume reveals a deeply uneven writer who can't separate his most evocative, soulful work from what's flat and dashed off. The ones that don't connect are like little machines, built of premises that don't pan out, rigged for punch lines that don't punch, surprise endings that don't surprise. Because the stories are one-dimensional, lacking convincing characters or realized settings, they thud audibly when their machinery tires.

When Bradbury leaves Mars, he loses his bearing. The anthology includes Midwestern vignettes, apocalyptic but slight stories set in rural Mexico, mossy Irish tales and Gothic sketches. His 1953 trip to Ireland, to develop the script of " Moby-Dick" for John Huston, seems to have equipped Bradbury with material for endless stories, all offering permutations on steady rain, heavy drinking and driving fast. Some of the Illinois stuff reads like a Pepperidge Farm commercial.

A few of the volume's stories come from Bradbury's lifetime fascination with carnivals -- "seedy, fleabag things that live off the edges of people's lives" -- the best of which is "The Illustrated Man," a well-known tale that retains its power to chill.

The weaker stories often begin with a clever premise: An actor playing Hitler is really a Nazi, an alien is really Christ, kids are planning to take over the world. But the tales don't develop, and their characters serve only to drive the conceit. "The Pedestrian," for instance, is biographically interesting because it was inspired by the author being stopped by police while walking on Wilshire. The story envisions a world in which people don't walk and then fails to take it anywhere.

Some of the gee-whiz stories may be more appealing to children than adults, though the best Bradbury -- like much of Tolkien, J.K. Rowling, Isaac Asimov and H.G. Wells -- appeals equally to each, even if different generations hear the prose in different keys.

A few of the horror stories, some of which were collected in 1955's underrated "The October Country," fare better, as little gems of atmosphere and setting, though the characters are as flat as ever. Two of the best are the engaging tale of a writer who quits early, "The Wonderful Death of Dudley Stone," and the disturbing "The Dwarf," which echoes the Frankenstein legend.

In the introduction to "Bradbury Stories," the author describes the background of these pieces: "Writing, for me, is akin to breathing. It is not something I plan or schedule; it's something I just do. All the stories collected in this book seized on me at the strangest hours, compelling me to head for the typewriter and put them down on paper before they went away."

Bradbury has spoken elsewhere about how writing should be unconscious, Zen, like the opening of water flowers -- news that surely reassures struggling writers everywhere. But writing enduring work -- stories that can stand up in a collection 50 years after their penning -- has little in common with the rituals of a New Age retreat. Art that lasts -- whether "The Martian Chronicles" or the poems of Wallace Stevens -- comes from enormous labor and from unrelenting self-criticism. Bradbury seems to know this in his best stories, which are polished and fully realized. But the less successful writing collected here seems driven less by his earlier passion than by merely a "high concept."

Either way, this prose magician and elder statesman has found the common denominator between the Red Planet and Southern California. But he hasn't left us, like a major writer can, with a body of work that takes in all the world.

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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