A little over a month ago our local high school announced its summer read for all students was Ray Bradbury's Fahrenheit 451, which I thought was not only a great selection but as good an opportunity to reread it myself with an eye toward recommending it here. Then last week Ray Bradbury died and that dredged up a whole bunch of memories of my first experiences with his work and so I'm shifting gears.
The short story anthology Twice 22 has a number of things going for it. First, it's a collection of Bradbury's short stories from the 1950s and 60s when he was pretty much in his stride and hitting them all out of the park. Second, when summer comes around I tend to find my attentions divided and short stories are easier to take in at once (as a side benefit, I end up reading more during the summer). Finally, specifically, this collection actually comprises the two Bradbury books I owned and read when I was in sixth grade – A Medicine for Melancholy and Golden Apples of the Sun – which combined is a pretty good place to start.
The thing about Bradbury, perhaps the most misunderstood thing about him that I suspect time will eventually correct, is that he isn't a writer of science fiction. True, he writes about space and life on mars and of a near-distant future (some of these stories take place in the early 2000s – imagine!) but the core of all these stories is the way Bradbury examines humanity. Doesn't matter whether he's writing about mail-order brides for colonists on another planet or telling of a love affair between a living dinosaur and a fog horn, in the end Bradbury's tales always leave a door open for the reader to explore their place within them.
In "The Dragon" as pair of knights on the moor prepare for battle with the fierce fire-breathing demon whose tracks they have carefully followed. Then, with a roar, it's upon them and they charge. Suddenly, and without a seconds hesitation, a pair of startled engineers are shocked at the aberration that seemed to attack their train. For a brief moment the question hangs in the air for the reader: was there a brief warp in time where the knights met a train, or was there an encounter with ghosts on the moor?
"The Wilderness" focuses on a pair of women nervous the night before setting out to the colonies on Mars where they will meet up with the men who will become their husbands. But as the story continues you realize that it could just as easily have been written about East Coast women setting out to meet up with the settlers in the American West. Or arranged brides about to set out overseas to The New World. And again, Bradbury has taken our fears of the future and shown us how they are like our fears in the past. Only the scenery changes.
For "The Gift," Bradbury takes the simple moment of Christmas into a ship in space where a boy for the first time will see space from space. It's his first trip, and the parents are fretting that they cannot give their son the much-promise tree and presents, but the father manages to find a darkened room with a larger portal to let the boy enter and stare out of while the secretly collected travelers sing traditional carols. Probably the best gift the boy could never have imagined, and in a lot of ways it was the gift that Bradbury gave to many who would grow up to create the space travel he himself dreamed of. Look around the Internet for Bradbury memorials from NASA engineers and scientists and you will see just how much influence his "gift" had on them all, much like that boy with his face pressed against the glass staring at the stars like "ten billion billion white and lovely candles..."
My younger self, when I first read these stories, was happy enough with the fantastic. In a lot of way these short stories – some barely a few pages – read like episodes from The Twilight Zone, all that's missing is Rod Serling pointing out the obvious at the end. But for all their future settings the stories were grounded in a very real sense of the now. If anything, these stories have more in common with another genre, horror, as Bradbury seems to like to poke around at the uncomfortable possibilities of what scares us. Or what might have scared us. But for all our collective fears, and some of Bradbury's own (Fahrenheit 451 was supposedly a criticism of television, not censorship) what remains are the very honest, earnest, and totally accessible human stories of a literary light who love to dream about the future.
Twice 22 (1966)
a collection of two previously published titles
(out of print, check your library)
A Medicine for Melancholy (1953) &
The Golden Apples of the Sun (1959)
Many of the tales in these collections (as well as Silver Apples of the Moon) have been collected into Bradbury Stories, and a similar Everyman Library edition called The Stories of Ray Bradbury, but honestly, any collection you can wrestle up – including these beat-up editions I had from the early 70s – will yield gold.
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