The Mechanical Hound slept but did not sleep, lived but did not live in its gently humming, gently vibrating, softly illuminated kennel back in a dark corner of the firehouse. The dim light of one in the morning, the moonlight from the open sky framed through the great window, touched here and there on the brass and the copper and the steel of the faintly trembling beast. Light flickered on bits of ruby glass and on sensitive capillary hairs in the nylon-brushed nostrils of the creature that quivered gently, its eight legs spidered under it on rubber-padded paws.
- From 'Fahrenheit 451'.
In this post-Cyberpunk, pre-Singularity world, it's easy to think of Ray Bradbury as one of the Old Wave. He was there at what we like to think of as the Golden Age of Science Fiction, along with Asimov, Gernsback, E.E. (Doc) Smith and Jack Williamson. He was a product of the Silent Movie age, of Conan Doyle's Lost World and Burroughs' John Carter of Mars. He has become known as a purveyor of purple prose, the kind of breathless, adjective-filled passages that H. P. Lovecraft was notorious for using. What most readers consider as his seminal works were written in the Fifties, so is he relevant any more? Or are we just wearing our Diesel Punk Nostalgia Filter goggles?
Although a full analysis of Bradbury's work would take an entire book, I would just mention – in this brief article – on the stories that had central characters who were children. Something Wicked This Way Comes, Dandelion Wine, The Halloween Tree, and dozens of short stories had child protagonists. Bradbury's colorful, hyperbole-filled writing style, with sentences that seemed to run on forever, was designed to reflect the wonder a child feels when they look at the world- which is why so many of Bradbury's books appeal to Middle Grade readers. A lot of his work is semi-autobiographical, but portrayed in a Magical Realist style that makes early 20th-Century America seem as remote and exotic as the surface of Mars.
But it wasn't all just rockets, Martians and dinosaurs to appeal to the kids. One of Bradbury's central themes was 'innocence' – the innocence that kept children in a reality different to adults, that enabled them to see life with such awe. This innocence, however, could be extremely dangerous. In 'Zero Hour', an unknown alien race launches an invasion of Earth by appealing to children, and in 'The Veldt,' a family's son and daughter are possessed by the disturbingly realistic VR playthings in their futuristic house. In 'The Small Assassin', even a baby can become a remorseless, amoral killer.
That was the point Bradbury was trying to make. Children look at reality and fantasy, good and evil, in a way different to us – and that can sometimes pose a direct threat to our adult existence.
The theme of Innocence was there in his adult protagonists, too. 'Fahrenheit 451' has become a classic work of dystopian SF, right up there with Nineteen Eighty-Four, Brave New World and A Clockwork Orange. The central character, Montag, lives in a world where reading is illegal and books are publicly burned by 'Firemen'. Anyone who seems eccentric and non-conformist is arrested by the Firemen or hunted down by the Mechanical Hound they use as a robotic weapon. Montag is himself a Fireman who becomes gradually obsessed with the books he is charged with burning. Driven by urges he can't explain, he conceals books to secretly read at home, and after the inevitable discovery, becomes a wanted fugitive.
Montag (and the girl, Clarisse, who sets him on the path) is another example of Innocence. It might seem clichéd and laughable to imagine a man ranting about the joys of poetry, but to Montag, it's a matter of life and death. Poetry really does make him weep because it makes him realize how much the world has lost. The world that Montag lives in eerily foreshadows our own. The public put little ear-buds called 'seashells' in their ears to have pop music and radio shows with them everywhere they go, and their living rooms are dominated with giant flat-screen TVs on every wall. Montag's wife, Mildred, is obsessed with the celebrities from the TV shows and even calls them 'her real family'.
In this world, it's Innocence that wakes Montag up, and gets him out of the living death that life has become.
I could go on and on about The Martian Chronicles and his screenplays for Moby Dick and It Came from Outer Space, his murder mysteries, his recent novels, but you don't need me to gush on about them. Go and read them.
Before someone burns them and gives you a wall-size TV and a smartphone instead.
J P Catton.