Planetary Pariahs: Bradbury and the Influence of Edgar Allan Poe

Note: I’m going to repost some of my old essays/blog posts for posterity’s sake. It has been years since I’ve done this one but I’m still relatively proud of it, and my affection for both Ray Bradbury and Edgar Allan Poe remains the same.

Planetary Pariahs: Bradbury and the Influence of Edgar Allan Poe

I. “Bradbury is the Louis Armstrong of science fiction”

More than sixty years after publishing his first story and creating a career full of contradictions, Ray Bradbury has firmly cemented a reputation as an oddity of the American Letters. As part of the so-called Golden Age of science fiction in the 1940’s and 50’s, he achieved a fanatical following through his mass production of off-beat stories, spitting them up by the dozen for pulp magazines such as Amazing Stories, Weird Tales, and Imagination! He later gained mainstream celebrity for his brilliant novels, The Martian Chronicles and Fahrenheit 451. One novel is a pioneer-type tale about humans colonizing the planet Mars, the other a futuristic allegory warning against the dangers of censorship. Both of them are generally accepted as part of the SF canon. Aside from that stories had also appeared, in such highbrow publications as Harper’s Bazaar, Esquire, and Collier’s and he has been awarded both the National Medal of Arts and the O. Henry Memorial Award. He also earned lavish praise from more “literary” (as opposed to “pulpy”) writers such as Chistopher Isherwood and British writer Kingsley Amis. Is he then a hack, or a genius, a veritable master of the bizarre or simply a writer of childhood elegies? Not many have ridden this fence like he has, balancing between what Amis calls his “dime-a-dozen sensitivity” and literary respectability.

His reputation among SF circles is shifty as well. Despite being constantly mentioned in the same breath as other SF greats such as Asimov, Heinlein, and Clarke, many science fiction purists refuse to recognize Bradbury as a legitimate SF writer, and have criticized his stories’ “science,” with good reason. In Bradbury’s fiction, Venus skies are full of rain and not toxic ammonia, and improbable rocket ships scoop out burning pieces of the sun while the crew recites poetry.

Even his stories that are supposedly set in planets like Mars reek heavily of Americana–readers imagine Ohio with a pink sky rather than a hostile, alien world. Bradbury’s imagery is far removed from the exact scientific logic in the fiction of his contemporaries. Science for them is never poetic, never irrational, the fulcrum for their stories’ believability. Bradbury simply chucks it out of the window. Therein lies the presumption that perhaps Bradbury operates not by the logic and laws of typical SF writers but by an entirely different frequency altogether. Despite having rocket ships and time machines, his fiction is not in the tradition of Jules Verne or H.G. Wells, where the logistics of the story, however fictional, take precedence over imagery and symbolism.

Ray Bradbury’s body of work have much more in common with that of American Gothic writer Edgar Allan Poe.

I. “Bradbury is of the house of Poe.”

Beyond overt homages to Poe’s talent, Bradbury has also incorporated much of Poe’s style into his fiction. Foremost of this is Poe’s deft use of setting as an ingredient, not only to as the backdrop for his unforgettable characters, but also as a symbolism, a indication that there is something rotten just below the surface. From Prince Propero’s Gothic chambers (“The Masque of the Red Death”), the decaying House of Usher, and the catacombs of Montresor (“The Cask of Amontillado”), the setting acts as an additional character, oftentimes more memorable and quotable.

Bradbury’s greatest strength is his poetic sensibility as “existential fabulous.” Much like Poe, he relies heavily on atmosphere, often imbuing them with metaphor. The texture varies greatly however, employing nostalgia and dark foreboding with equal deftness. Oftentimes, Bradbury’s characters may not have any faces but readers always remember his settings. Seldom in science fiction words would you encounter passages such as these, more remarkable because Bradbury is describing a drive through lonely Martian roads.

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 the dark cave and voices crying and dirt dropping down upon hollow box lids, and rain…. That was how Time smelled and looked and sounded. (“The Martian Chronicles”)

In one of his most haunting short stories entitled “The Scythe,” a story about a farmer who has dominion over people’s death by cutting wheat, Bradbury successfully evokes the American Midwest in the time of the Great Depression through the imagery of vast rolling wheat fields contrasted with the mention of unemployment, starvation and dust. Roderick Usher’s ancestral home operates in the same way in Poe’s “The Fall of the House of Usher”, using a dilapidated house instead of wheat fields. Through carefully crafted images of “decayed trees…a pestilent and mystic vapor, dull, sluggish, faintly discernible and leaden-hued”, the deterioration of an entire family line become inevitable.

In fact, Bradbury’s themes, his use of setting to generate a tone of foreboding and disintegration, and romanticizing of death and decay seem to be heavily rooted in the Poeian tradition. Bradbury’s sense of suspense also contains shades of Poe. Being able to successfully sustain action and anticipation through intricate and sometimes convoluted sentences have always been the specialty of Edgar Allan Poe’s fiction.

Both Bradbury and Poe uses layer upon layer of imagery, often tactile, to achieve a slow-creeping, insidious kind of horror that is more than just shock value. Admittedly, both of them revel in the use of grotesque elements–Bradbury gravitates towards mummies and skeletons while Poe was latched on the concept of being buried alive–but unlike other writers who employ the same tricks, their images stay longer. They both value paranoia in their fiction. One of Poe’s most memorable characters kills a kindly old man because “one of his eyes resembled that of a vulture”. Bradbury, on the other hand, uses innocuous objects like a set of stairs, a jar filled with animal fetuses, and the carnival of your childhood and transforms them in the stuff of nightmares.

II. “Is Ray Bradbury a Luddite?”

This contradictory and often contentious relationship of his with science fiction and technology in general is the reason for much of flak he has received from the SF fans and fellow writers. Bradbury himself has written that he has been “criticized by many who observed that I was no writer of science fiction, I was a ‘people’ writer, and to hell with that!”. The perception, articulated here by Damon Knight writer and one of the first SF scholars:

“Although there is a large following among science fiction readers, there is at least an equally large contingent of people who cannot stomach his work at all; they say he has no respect for the medium; that he does not even trouble to make his scientific double-talk convincing; that–worst crime of all–he fears and distrusts science.”

Damon Knight, who although recognizes Bradbury’s talent, doesn’t really think much of him as a writer of science fiction. This reading of Bradbury, however, purely on the merits of his scientific know-how and the general logic of his stories seem to be a little to myopic. Most SF writers and readers accept that for science fiction to be called good must be “based on knowledgeable scientific extrapolation and cannot be inconsistent with known science” . But in a world where you need to upgrade your cellphone every other month, and the US military is supposedly developing “invisibility suits,” what is merely scientific extrapolation mere months ago is fast becoming obsolete. Good stories, not just SF ones, need something more substantial to hang on to. When Knight says that “Bradbury’s Mars, where it is not bare as a Chinese stage-setting, is a mass of inconsistency,” he is basically telling the truth. But claiming that “his imagination is mediocre” and that “he borrows nearly all his background and props, and distorts them badly” fails to take into account that other SF writers also employ these props, they are cliches by themselves, and only through skewing them a little does an SF writer’s literary gift manifest itself.

Realms of the science fiction today are fluid, with concepts such as drug-induced alternative realities, and genetic mutation as some of the trendiest themes. Writers like Philip K. Dick have successfully avoided this kind of censure from other SF folks, so why is Bradbury continually trapped in this controversy?

Knight was correct though in saying that instead of being born a century too late, Bradbury would have been a cast-away at any age. In fact, Edgar Allan Poe was too. Despite having a formidable reputation now, his almost sing-songy poems and his almost manic glee towards the grotesque made him the 19th Century equivalent of a pulp writer, always a notch below the likes of Hawthorne in terms of respectability. And perhaps writers of Bradbury and Poe’s vein need this kooky kind of reputation.

Bradbury’s name is recognizable to readers, even those who aren’t SF buffs. Half a century later and people still read his stories, still read his novels, the most formidable of which, reputation-wise is his literal “dime-novel” Fahrenheit 451. And Edgar Allan Poe, despite being known as merely the writer who writes “scary stories” was translated to French by no other than Charles Baudelaire and has had great influence to “Mallarme, Valery, and the Symbolists” and has been recurrent the poster-boy for American Gothic. Staying the consciousness of the people may be one of the benefits of their unique styles.

If staying power is the yardstick by which a writer’s style is deemed effective, then Poe and Bradbury pretty much has it won. Their works are admittedly uneven at times but these mutant parts construct unique literary creatures that are strangely attractive. Unafraid to seem like laughingstock, they didn’t conform their imagination to the prevailing norms of the time–whether the sedate literature of the 19th century or the exclusive requirements to become “SF enough”–but managed to blaze a trail of their own, the new writers all try to follow. They are the unique voices of their time; they are illusionists and they continue to dazzle us even now. “It is a great age to live in and, if need be, die in,” Bradbury says. “Any magician worth his salt would tell you the same”.

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