illustrated portrait of American author Ray Bradbury

Ray Bradbury

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Ray Bradbury Short Fiction Analysis

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Ray Bradbury once said that he had not so much thought his way through life as he had done things and discovered what those things meant and who he was after the doing. This metamorphosis of experience under the aegis of memory also characterizes many of his stories, which are often transmogrifications of his personal experiences. He therefore used his stories as ways of hiding and finding himself, a self whose constant changes interested, amused, and sometimes frightened him. He believed that human beings are composed of time, and in many of his science-fiction stories, a frequent theme is the dialectic between the past and the future. For example, in several of his Martian stories, the invaders of the Red Planet have to come to terms with their transformation into Martians, since survival in an alien world necessitates the invader’s union with the invaded. Aggression and submission might represent the initial dialectic, but survival or death becomes the most determinative.

Even in stories where Bradbury’s characters and settings seem ordinary, this theme of metamorphosis is nevertheless present, because these stories often show ordinary people being transformed by extraordinary, sometimes bizarre situations. Sometimes Bradbury’s purpose is to point out the enlightening power of the abnormal; sometimes he wants to reveal the limitations of the everyday and ordinary. His best works are often wrenching indictments of the dangers of unrestrained scientific and technical progress, though his work also encourages the hope that humanity will deal creatively with the new worlds it seems driven to make. His characters are changed by their experiences, particularly when they encounter great evil beneath the surface of seemingly normal life, but in other stories Bradbury gives the reader a window through which to see the positive meaning of life (these stories, usually sentimental, are life-affirming, permitting readers to believe that human dreams can be fulfilled). By helping readers to imagine the unimaginable, he helps them to think about the unthinkable. He speaks of his tales as “idea fiction,” and he prefers to call himself a magical realist. He casts magic spells through his poetic words and highly imaginative visions, and because of this aura of enchantment, some critics have seen his chief subject as childhood or the child hidden in the adult unconscious.

A danger exists, however, in treating Bradbury as a writer of fantasy suitable only for adolescents. This may be true for some of his works, but many of his stories exhibit emotional depths and logical complexities that call for a sophisticated dialectic between the adult and his buried childhood. The difference between fantasy and reality is not strongly developed in the child, whose experience of the world is minimal. Bradbury often plays with this tension between fantasy and reality in dealing with his principal themes—the power of the past, the freedom of the present, and the temptations and traps of the future. In the world of Bradbury’s stories, fantasy becomes essential for a person existing in an increasingly technological era or with experiences that, like an iceberg, are nine-tenths buried below the surface. In these cases, the abilities to fantasize various alternatives or futures, and to choose the best among them, become necessary for survival.

Because of Bradbury’s woefully inadequate knowledge of science and the lack of verisimilitude in the technological gadgetry of his science-fiction stories, many aficionados of the genre do not consider him a genuine science-fiction writer. He agrees. His science-fiction settings are backgrounds for characters with social, religious, and moral dilemmas. Like fellow science-fiction writer Isaac Asimov, Bradbury believes that science fiction’s value lies in helping human beings to visualize and...

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solve future problems before they actually occur, but unlike Asimov, he has a deep suspicion of the machine and a great faith in the human heart’s capacity to perceive, do good, and create beauty. Because of this attitude, many critics view Bradbury as essentially a romantic. Since F. L. Lucas once counted 11,396 definitions of “romanticism,” however, perhaps Bradbury’s brand of romanticism should be more fully articulated. He has expressed an attraction for spontaneity of thought and action, and he actively cultivates his own unconscious. He believes deeply in the power of the imagination, and he accepts Blaise Pascal’s sentiment that the heart has reasons about which the reason knows nothing.

In making an assessment of Bradbury’s contribution to modern American literature, one must come to terms with the role he played in popularizing science fiction and making it critically respectable. Bradbury himself once stated that, for him, science fiction is “the most important literature in the history of the world,” since it tells the story of “civilization birthing itself.” He has also said that he considers himself not a science-fiction writer but an “idea writer,” someone who loves ideas and enjoys playing with them. Many of his science-fiction critics would concur in this characterization, since they have had problems categorizing this man who knows so little about science as a traditional science-fiction writer. When asked whether the Mariner mission’s revelations about the inhospitability of Mars to humankind had invalidated his stories about the planet, Bradbury responded that these discoveries in no way affected them, because he had been composing poetic myths, not scientific forecasts.

In addition to their lack of scientific verisimilitude, his stories have other weaknesses. Few of his characters are memorable, and most are simply vehicles for his ideas. He has said frankly that he devises characters to personify his ideas and that all of his characters—youths, astronauts, and grotesques—are, in some way, variations on himself. Other critics have noticed failures in Bradbury’s imaginative powers, particularly in his later stories. The settings and images that seemed fresh when first used in the early stories became stale as they continued to be used in the later ones. Disch complained that Bradbury’s sentimental attachments to his past themes “have made him nearly oblivious to new data from any source.”

Despite these criticisms, Bradbury’s stories possess great strengths. If his characters are made negligible by the burden of the ideas that they are forced to carry, these same ideas can open readers to his enchanting sense of wonder. These readers can be inspired by his enthusiasm for new experiences and new worlds. They may also be uplifted by the underlying optimism present even in his most pessimistic work and come to share his belief that human beings will overcome materialism, avarice, and obsession with power to achieve the expansion of what is best in the human spirit that has been his principal theme.

Dark Carnival

Many of these characteristics, along with Bradbury’s penchant for the grotesque and macabre, can be seen in his first collection of stories, Dark Carnival. August Derleth, a Wisconsin writer who had established Arkham House to publish stories of fantasy and horror for a limited audience, had read Bradbury’s stories in the pulp magazine Weird Tales, recognized their quality, and suggested that Bradbury collect them in a book. Dark Carnival was very successful with its specialized market, and its three thousand copies were quickly sold and soon become collectors’ items. The book’s title was aptly chosen, since the stories often deal with the dark and strange. Several stories make use, although in highly altered forms, of emotions and events in Bradbury’s own life. For example, “The Small Assassin” depicts an infant, terrified at finding himself in a hostile world, taking revenge on his parents. Bradbury uses this metamorphosis of a supposedly innocent newborn into an assassin to explore some of the feelings he had as a very young child.

Death is a motif that appears often in these tales, but unlike Poe, whom he admired, Bradbury uses the morbid not for its macabre fascination, as Poe did, but to shift readers onto a different level from which they can see reality in a new and enlightening way. In most of these tales, more happens in the imaginations of Bradbury’s characters than happens in their lives. He has the ability to reach down into the labyrinthine unconscious of his characters and pull out odd desires, strange dreams, and horrendous fears. For example, in “The Next in Line,” a story that grew out of his own experience on a trip to Guanajuato, northwest of Mexico City, a young American wife is simultaneously frightened and fascinated by the rows of propped-up mummified bodies in a Guanajuato catacomb. After her traumatic ordeal, she finds herself increasingly immobilized by her alienation from the death-haunted Mexican society and by her fear that her own body is a potential mummy. Another story, “Skeleton,” has a similar theme. A man is obsessed by the horrible bones that he carries within him, but when a strange creature crawls down his throat and consumes the bones that were the source of his obsession, he is transformed into a human jellyfish. These and other fantasies and horrors serve as exorcisms through which the devils of one’s unconscious are expelled. The best of these stories leave the reader cleansed and transformed, with an expanded consciousness and control of the fears that can make people prisoners of their own hidden emotions.

The Martian Chronicles

Some critics see the twenty-six stories collected in The Martian Chronicles as the beginning of the most prolific and productive phase of Bradbury’s career. Like Dark Carnival, this collection resulted from the suggestion of an editor, but in this case Bradbury added passages to link together his stories about Mars. These bridge passages help to interrelate the stories but they do not make them into a unified novel. This places The Martian Chronicles into a peculiar literary category—less than a novel but more than a collection of short stories. Despite difficulties in categorizing this book, it is commonly recognized as Bradbury’s most outstanding work. When it was first published, it was widely reviewed and read by people who did not ordinarily read science fiction. The poet Christopher Isherwood, for example, praised the book for its poetic language and its penetrating analysis of human beings forced to function on the frontier of an alien world. Within twenty years of its publication, The Martian Chronicles sold more than three million copies and was translated into more than thirty languages.

The Martian Chronicles is not totally unrelated to Dark Carnival, since Bradbury’s Mars is a fantasy world, a creation not of a highly trained scientific imagination but of a mythmaker and an explorer of the unconscious. Within the time frame of 1999 to 2026, Bradbury orders his stories to give the reader a sense of the coherent evolution of the settling of Mars by Earthlings. The early stories deal with the difficulties the emigrants from Earth have in establishing successful colonies on Mars. The fifteen stories of the middle section explore the rise and fall of these colonies. The stories in the final section are concerned with the possible renovation of the human race on Mars after an annihilative nuclear war on Earth.

In several of the stories in The Martian Chronicles, Bradbury is once again fascinated by the subject of death. Earthlings who make the mistake of trying to duplicate Earth’s culture on Mars meet difficulties and death. This theme is particularly clear in “The Third Expedition,” a story that was originally titled “Mars Is Heaven” and that deeply impressed the critic and writer Jorge Luis Borges. In “The Third Expedition,” Captain John Black and his crew constitute a third attempt by Earthlings to create a successful settlement on Mars, this time in a town that bears a striking resemblance to traditional midwestern American towns of the 1920’s. It turns out that the Martians have deceived the Earthlings by using telepathic powers to manufacture this counterfeit town in their receptive imaginations. Captain Black and his crew have such a deep desire to believe in what they think they see that they delude themselves into seeing what the Martians want them to see. This mass hypnosis produced by the Martians capitalizes on the crew’s self-delusion and on its members’ need to re-create their past. When each Earthling is securely locked within what he believes is his home, he is murdered by the Martians. Trapped by their past and unable to resist, they are destroyed. Illusion and reality, time and identity, change and stability are the themes that intertwine in Bradbury’s treatment of this story (one can understand why Borges liked it so much, since his own work dwells on the theme of the Other as an inextricable element in one’s own identity).

The Illustrated Man

Soon after The Martian Chronicles appeared, Bradbury published another book of interlinked stories, The Illustrated Man. Most of its eighteen stories had been published in various magazines between 1947 and 1951, but some had been written specifically for this book. The framing device, which is neither as consistent nor as unifying as the bridge passages in The Martian Chronicles, derives from tattoos that completely cover the skin of a running character. The tattoos, however, do not grow out of the personality of this character, as would be expected for a real tattooed man whose likes and dislikes would be represented in the permanent images he chooses to decorate his body. Instead, each tattoo embodies a Bradburian idea that comes alive in a particular story. The otherwise unrelated stories fall into several categories—tales of robots and space travel as well as stories of Mexicans and Martians. Four of the stories are set on Bradbury’s Mars, and two of these are closely related to The Martian Chronicles. Some of the stories have themes related to those initially developed in Dark Carnival. For example, like “The Small Assassin,” “The Veldt” concerns the revenge of children against their parents, this time in a futuristic setting. The children, who are obsessed with a room-filling television device that can depict scenes with three-dimensional realism, choose to watch an African veldt inhabited by lions gorging themselves on carcasses. The parents, who try to get their children to control their television addiction, end up as food for the lions. In this story, Bradbury makes use of a favorite theme—the blurred distinction between illusion and reality. Other stories in The Illustrated Man are animated by such social concerns as racism and with ethical and religious dilemmas derived from modern science and technology. For example, “The Fire Balloons” focuses on a religious missionary’s discovery that the only surviving Martians have metamorphosed from human forms to floating balls of blue flame (reminiscent of the fire balloons in Earth’s Fourth of July celebrations). After undergoing this transformation, these Martian flames are no longer capable of sin. Bradbury implies that a new planet means a new theology, the fall is reversible, and a state of innocence can be regained.

The Golden Apples of the Sun

Bradbury’s fourth collection, The Golden Apples of the Sun, used neither linking passages nor a frame narrative to interrelate the twenty-two stories. Instead, this book initiated the Bradburian potpourri of stories that would characterize most of his later collections: nostalgic, satiric, and humorous stories whose settings could be Mars, Mexico, or the Midwest and whose genre could be fantasy, science fiction, crime, or horror. He would use this variety of approach, setting, and genre to cast a revelatory light on aspects of modern life that conventional fiction was avoiding. Although the critical reception of The Golden Apples of the Sun was largely favorable, some critics found several of the stories disappointing and noted a falling-off from the high level of quality of The Martian Chronicles and The Illustrated Man. Despite the divided opinions, general agreement existed on the success of several of the stories, for example, “Sun and Shadow,” which was set in Mexico and which won both praise and awards. Another story, “The Fog Horn,” became the basis of a film, The Beast from Twenty Thousand Fathoms (1953). It is about a lonely dinosaur who is attracted by the sound of a fog horn, interpreting it as the mating call of a potential companion (he dies of a broken heart when he swims to shore and discovers his error). The story “A Sound of Thunder” develops a favorite Bradburian theme of the profound effect of the past on the future. It depicts what happens when a time traveler steps on a butterfly in the past and inadvertently changes the future (this will remind modern readers of the “butterfly effect” in chaos theory, in which the beating of a butterfly’s wings in a Brazilian rain forest may cause a tornado in Kansas via a long chain of cause and effect).

The October Country

The October Country, a collection that has as its core the stories of Dark Carnival along with four new stories, appeared appropriately in October of 1955. Bradbury described the country of the title as a place “whose people are autumn people, thinking only autumn thoughts” and whose steps “at night on the empty walks sound like rain.” In the light of the earlier success of Dark Carnival, it is surprising that several critics were not as kind to this collection as they had been to Bradbury’s earlier ones. For example, Carlos Baker, Ernest Hemingway’s biographer, predicted in his review that the only route that Bradbury’s writings could follow if he continued in the direction that he had chosen was down. Some critics did see him trying, in this and later collections, to develop new subjects, themes, and approaches. For them, his imagination was still nimble, his mind adventurous, and his heart sensitive. They also noticed his increased emphasis on social issues and his desire to treat the joyous side of human nature. For most critics, however, Bradbury’s later collections of stories were repetitive mixes of ideas, themes, and treatments that he had used many times before.

A Medicine for Melancholy

The problems sensed by these critics can be seen in the collection of twenty-two stories titled A Medicine for Melancholy. In addition to the expected stories of fantasy and science fiction, A Medicine for Melancholy includes tales from the lives of the Irish, Mexicans, and Mexican Americans. The title story explores the awakening womanhood of an eighteenth century London girl who is cured of melancholia by the visit of what she interprets as Saint Bosco but who is in reality a dustman. Two of the stories in this collection, “Icarus Montgolfier Wright” and “In a Season of Calm Weather,” led to films, and others, “A Fever Dream” for example, are reminiscent of films. In “A Fever Dream,” aliens invade Earth not externally but by taking over the minds and hearts of their Earth victims (the film analogue is the 1956 The Invasion of the Body Snatchers). Derivative, too, seems the story “All Summer in a Day,” about a group of children on cloud-enshrouded Venus who get to see the sun only once every seven years (the analogue here is Asimov’s classic story “Nightfall”).

The Machineries of Joy

In the 1960’s and 1970’s, Bradbury’s career entered a new phase characterized by a decreasing output of short stories and novels and an increasing output of plays and poetry. When he did bring out short-story collections, the majority of critics saw little suggesting artistic growth, though a minority actually preferred his new stories, interpreting them as examples of a mature writer whose stories had acquired humanity, depth, and polish. These latter critics are also the ones who were not attracted to his tales about corpses, vampires, and cemeteries and who preferred his new optimism and his emphasis on civil rights, religion, and morality. Many of the stories in The Machineries of Joy provide good examples of these new tendencies. There are still stories characteristic of the old Bradbury—a science-fiction tale in which the explorers of a new planet find themselves possessed by a resident intelligence, and a horror story in which raising giant mushrooms gets out of hand. Many of the stories, however, contain the epiphanic appearance of human warmth in unexpected situations. For example, in “Almost the End of the World,” when sunspots destroy television reception, a world addicted to this opiate of the mind and heart is forced to rediscover the forgotten joys of interpersonal communication.

I Sing the Body Electric!

Bradbury’s next collection, I Sing the Body Electric! also met with a mixed critical response. Academic critics and readers who had formed their taste for Bradbury on his early works found this potpourri of seventeen stories pretentious and a decline from his best science-fiction, fantasy, and horror stories. Some stories are slight—indeed, little more than anecdotes: In “The Women,” for example, a man experiences the sea as a woman and his wife as her rival. On the other hand, some critics found Bradbury’s new stories enthralling and insightful, with the unexpected—a robot Abraham Lincoln, Ernest Hemingway’s spirit, and an automated Martian city—confronting the reader at every turn of the page. The stories of I Sing the Body Electric! certainly contain some of Bradbury’s favorite themes—the dialectic between past and future, reality and illusion. For example, the title story concerns a robot grandmother ideally programmed to meet the needs of the children of a recently motherless family. This electrical grandmother embodies the past (she has all the sentiment humans conventionally associate with this figure) and the future (she is a rechargeable AC-DC Mark V model and can never die). Another story that deals with the presentness of the past is “Night Call, Collect.” In this tale, an old man alone on a deserted Mars receives a telephone call from himself when he was much younger (he has forgotten that he devised this plan many years earlier in order to assuage the loneliness of his old age). His young self battles with his old self, and as the old man dies, past, present, and future commingle in an odd but somehow enlightening amalgam.

Long After Midnight

Long After Midnight contained twenty-two stories, several of which had been written in the late 1940’s and early 1950’s but never anthologized. Some critics found the new stories aimless, uninspired, and self-indulgent, but others felt that many of them were poignant, sensitive, and touching. These latter critics thought that several of these stories represented Bradbury’s new grasp of the power of love to overcome evil and to make permanent valued moments from the past. A few of the stories broke new ground in terms of subject matter: “The Better Part of Wisdom” is a compassionate and restrained treatment of homosexuality and “Have I Got a Chocolate Bar for You!” deals gracefully with a relationship between a priest and a penitent.

The Stories of Ray Bradbury

In 1980, Bradbury selected one hundred stories from three decades of his work in The Stories of Ray Bradbury. Many reviewers treated this book’s publication as an opportunity to analyze Bradbury’s lifetime achievement as a short-story writer. Some found much to praise, comparing his body of work to Edgar Allan Poe’s, O. Henry’s, and Guy de Maupassant’s. Thomas M. Disch, however, in an influential essay in The New York Times Book Review, denigrated Bradbury’s stories as “schmaltzy” and “more often meretricious than not.” Unlike those critics who praised Bradbury’s early work and saw a decline in the quality of his later stories, Disch stated that early and late are “meaningless distinctions” in Bradbury’s output. He criticized Bradbury condescendingly as a child manqué, attributing his success to the fact that “like Peter Pan, he won’t grow up.”

The Toynbee Convector

To those who thought that Bradbury was using The Stories of Ray Bradbury to bid farewell to the form that had been his home for most of his life as a writer, another collection, The Toynbee Convector, showed that they were mistaken. As with his other late collections, this, too, contained the familiar blend of science fiction and gothic horror as well as sentimental tales of Ireland and Middle America, but it broke little new ground.

Quicker than the Eye

Most of the twenty-one stories in Quicker than the Eye are loaded with symbols and metaphors about look-alikes, death, doors that open to the unknown, revelations from the unconscious mind, and psychic connections to the past and future. Magicians always fascinated Bradbury. They pretend to do something, the audience blinks, and “quicker than the eye, silks fall out of a hat.” Bradbury performs magic with words, and stories “fall out” of his imagination.

In “Quicker than the Eye,” the narrator and his wife watch a magician saw a woman in half and make her disappear. Men in the audience laugh. Then, Miss Quick, a pickpocket, nimbly removes wallets and other personal items from ten unsuspecting male volunteers. Miss Quick particularly humiliates one volunteer, who looks exactly like the narrator, by stripping him “quicker than the eye.” The angry narrator identifies with his “double’s” vulnerability, but his wife laughs.

Several stories have themes of revenge and death. In “The Electrocution,” carnival worker Johnny straps Electra in the Death Chair, blindfolds her, and pulls the switch. Blue flames shoot from her body, and, with a sword, she touches and “connects” with a fascinated youth in the crowd. After Electra and her lover meet secretly, Johnny, in a jealous rage, beats him up. The next time he “electrocutes” Electra, he turns up the voltage and says, “You’re dead!” She replies, “Yes, I am.”

Some doors that open to the unknown are better left closed. The title “Dorian in Excelsus” is wordplay on the liturgical phrase Gloria in excelsis and refers to Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray (1890 serial, 1891 expanded). A handsome youth invites the aging, dissipated narrator to become a Friend of Dorian at a spa. Behind golden doors, the narrator discovers how Friends of Dorian shed age and become physically beautiful. To regain youth, he must wrestle in Dorian’s gym with hundreds of lustful men. Dorian is a “gelatinous, undulant jellyfish, the sponge of men’s depravity and guilt, a pustule, bacteria, priapic jelly.” He lives by breathing the sweaty stench of human passion and sin. The horrified narrator refuses Dorian’s offer and scratches him with a fingernail. Dorian screams as noxious gases escape, and he and his Friends die.

Psychic connections to the past and future are recurring themes in Quicker than the Eye. The title character in “That Woman on the Lawn” awakens a teenage boy with her crying. Her picture is in his family album. He directs her to an address down the street, and they agree to meet in three years; he is her future baby.


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