Right off the bat, let’s get something straight. Ray Bradbury is our greatest living short story writer. Hands down, bar none. If you’re one of those readers who thinks that all Mr. Bradbury does is “that weirdo science fiction stuff”, then you are passing up some seriously excellent writing that not only entertains, but also amazes.
I first became hooked 20-odd years ago reading a copy of I Sing the Body Electric (the title story of which I found out later to be a Twilight Zone episode) during a school bus ride from Atlanta to Daytona Beach. While everyone around me was looking forward to sand, water and sun, I was drifting in an otherworldly place where fantasy, imagination, a little science, and pure magic lived, courtesy of Ray Bradbury.
Mr. Bradbury can conjure up, in just a few deceptively throwaway sentences, more meaning and insight than most other authors could provide in many, many pages. Don’t believe me? Try this little tidbit from The Laurel and Hardy Alpha Centauri Farewell Tour:
“. . . Observe caterpillars and butterflies. Unrelated? Yet they are one. And what of Life itself, on Earth? How could dead rock, in primal sweats, hit by lightning, come alive? How could electric storms cause life to stir and know itself? Dunno, the scientists say. It just happened. Boy, some science!”
In those few words, Mr. Bradbury says more than any 10 scholastic tomes on evolution.
Now that we’ve established my biases, let’s talk about the stories. Mr. Bradbury never has been a “hard” science fiction writer. He takes “science fiction” topics like time machines, flying saucers, aliens and the like to create stories that discuss, in a manner that only he can, the human condition. This collection is no different. In “Quid Pro Quo”, our protagonist builds a time machine to go back and convince a gifted writer not to waste his gifts. No discussion of the physics or mathematics of the time machine, just the fact of its existence and away we go. The same goes for “The F. Scott/Tolstoy/Ahab Accumulator”. No scientific mumbo-jumbo about time travel, just the premise of its existence and off Mr. Bradbury goes into his own inimitable wonderland.
Read also, if you will, about Charles Douglas, one of four friends who promised on their very first day of school to meet at the same spot 50 years later. Ponder the situation of a nameless man and woman, who in the midst of an adulterous affair, decide to return to their respective spouses and confess all — or do they? Sympathize with the man who can’t bring himself to remove the one thing from his life reminding him of his son lost in a war and providing hope that the son might someday return.
Hardly “weirdo science fiction stuff”, is it? No, this is basic, everyday life, which somehow becomes art in Mr. Bradbury’s hands. Out of a few well-placed words, he creates whole worlds in which his characters live out their existence.
A couple of years back when he suffered a stroke, I was really worried that we’d never hear from Ray Bradbury again. However, based on the stories in this book (only seven of which have been previously published, 18 are brand-new) and a recent interview I saw on C-SPAN, it’s apparent Mr. Bradbury has hardly slowed at all.
Live on, sir, and weave your magic spells for years to come.