As diligent readers of this blog will have noticed I love science fiction – although I am grateful for a good science fiction movie (a little like hearing jazz unexpectedly on a non jazz radio station!), I prefer SF in its written form – somehow my vision of Frank Herbert’s wonderful novel ‘Dune’ bears no resemblance at all to David Lynch’s strange interpretation and I have already written about the difference between The Lord of the Rings in print and the (mostly excellent) film versions! I started to read SF at a very early (and therefore very impressionable) age – as a family, our trips to seaside for the annual holiday were inevitably accompanied by the pile of paperbacks I insisted on talking with me. Everything from the sheer poetry of Ray Bradbury to the space operas of Robert Heinlein and the pulpy excesses of E.E. ‘Doc’ Smith (who reads the ‘Lensman’ stories now?). On one of those holidays in Wales a volume of H.P. Lovecraft’s short stories freaked me out so badly I threw the book away!
I was reminded of these adventures recently when I re – read one of Bradbury’s later Martian stories ‘The Lost City of Mars’, essentially a group of self satisfied and irritating travellers voyage along the last Martian canal (where a “wall – carooming glide of waters” has replaced the dust of centuries)) and discover a lost city where some of them find their just desserts and the others only just escape with their lives. It is, to use a modern expression, ‘a good read’ full of the customary Bradbury touches; “The wind that blew from the frontier town smelled of grease. An aluminium -toothed jukebox banged somewhere. A junkyard rusted beside the rocket port. Old newspapers danced alone on the windy tarmac”. Shortly after reading this story again I came across this remark by Neil Gaiman (another writer I admire immensely); “I do not read Ray Bradbury for moments of genre gratification. I read him for moments of pure Ray Bradbury – the way the words are assembled”. “Pure Ray Bradbury”, it would no doubt take a better writer than me to try to explain what that means; I read Bradbury in my early teens and I am still reading him now in my sixties. He may well have been gathered into eternity but he is still here in his words and those wonderful stories. That sense of wonder, and fear, the stories of the strange and unbelievable, the horror and the darkness, the joy and the glory – it is all there whether you start with ‘Fahrenheit 451’ or ‘The Martian Chronicles’. In a sense it is not a matter of where you start, it is where you let him take you that matters, and that is why I read science fiction, and some of those paperbacks are still with me, a little yellowed and repaired, yet brimming with a vital light, and where there is light, there is hope.
(Like all of Ray Bradbury’s stories ‘The Lost City of Mars’ has been anthologised many times, I have it in a collection called ‘I Sing The Body Electric’ (a phrase that pleasingly brings together the great poet Walt Whitman and the (equally great) jazz group Weather Report!). Neil Gaiman’s comment comes from his talk ‘The Pornography of Genre, or the Genre of Pornography’ which is included in his selected non – fiction ‘The View from the Cheap Seats’ published in 2016. I would recommend that book wholeheartedly, and his others, perhaps ‘Stardust’ or ‘Neverwhere’ and, of course ‘American Gods’ – go on – spoil yourself!).