Ray Bradbury’s ‘Metal Book’

I fell in love with Ray Bradbury’s beautiful poetic prose and his sharp psychological and socialogical insight when I picked up Faranheit 451.  Although known as a science fiction writer, it seems to me that the alternate worlds he creates in order to render his discourse and express his love and fear for humanity are predominately settings/landscapes in which to explore his philosophies as another writer might use New York, Africa, a particular historical period. Having said that. science fiction creates the ultimate ‘what if’ scenario that allows writers like Bradbury and Margaret Atwood (who is seen to write both literary and science fiction) to extend the possible scenarios in which characters must grapple with challenging and unique psychological, physical and philosophical conundrums.

Now reading Bradbury’s Martian Chronicles, it is a delight to explore with him a series of scenarios that bring into focus questions about topics including the nature of reality, religious belief, cultural imperialism and self serving biases. Above all it is told convincingly but with a sense of wonder and as I have said with this gorgeous prose, particularly in the opening chapters, the scenes and emotions of which have already made a lasting impression. I’m purposely not discussing the subject matter apart from the fact that the book charts a series of expeditions from Earth to Mars but does it from the viewpoints of both the explorers and explored.

What particularly struck me is that the prose and manner of storytelling is absolutely modern, told in succinct bursts – each a short story in itself but informing the larger whole, the tale of what happened in humanity’s attempt to colonise Mars. But what is also remarkable is the prescience shown by Bradbury in a book that was published 60 years ago, in 1951. True the concerns are human and political ones, ever enduring down the ages and are absolutely relevant today.

But is was a specific prescient detail that stopped me in my tracks in the early pages of the book.  We move through a Martian house to a close up of it’s owner Mr K by himself in his room reading from a metal book. Immediately the Kindle sprang to mind! While the Kindle has E-ink to render it more apparently tactile, this one had ‘raised hieroglyphs over which he brushed his hand, as one might play a harp’. Bradbury goes on to describe that a voice sang stories as the fingers brushed over. Perhaps not an e-reader then but an audio book, extraordinary and other worldly but rooted in the physical. Still the initial impression of the ‘metal book’ displays the extent of Bradbury’s imagination, his prose and intelligence testimony to all the possibilities (both creative and destructive) of humanity.

Imagination and Reality

Go outside and eat a leaf, tear off your clothes and swim underwater, stick your fingers in mud, stand at the edge of a crevasse and feel yourself sway, in summer, autumn cram strawberries, raspberries, blackberries into your mouth, see the stain on your fingers, eat carrots whole from the ground, lie in a darkened room with your favourite song blaring, dance until you sweat from head to toe, in winter make angel patterns in the snow, feel frost in your teeth. Stand in wind, rain, sun, turning your face upward, outward.

When we read, we read in a dream. We make places in our minds, we create the vague outlines of characters, scenes. At present I am reading Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Unconsoled, a strange and at times infuriating book ‘almost certainly a masterpiece’ it says on the cover. It is written in the manner of a dream, those sequences that lead one to the next without satisfying resolution, companions are left in mid-event, journeys are endlessly impeded, truncated, thwarted and then distant places are suddenly in the same building. The main character is omniscient, as we are in a dream, we are in the dream, but we are the dream’s ineffectual creators. We try to do things and don’t quite succeed, although we are aware of an underlying plot thread, a narrative stream, a place where we want to be taken.

In dreams we might feel emotions strongly, wake up due to sorrow, ominous prescience or fear but the feeling of a dream is not like reality, the feeling I have spoken of of rain, air, mud, water, life. But when we write, we try to make things real, to evoke colours, characteristics, hair, lighting, mood but when we read, we read in that same sketched reality as a dream. We travel, this time following that unspoken narrative stream that the author has created, this impetus that we sense is underlying, that by convention we hold to exist. But is it convention or something more fundamentally and physiologically essential? Because when we dream we tell ourselves stories, and we know instinctively that it is a story shaped thing, a thing with a purpose, even if we never get there. So in fiction we make the shape of stories, we follow a forward momentum and like Ishisguro’s dream-like work we can subvert expectation, we can undo all the doing, we can draw places that are like reality but are never quite so, or we can undo reality by coming very close and then veering off into speculation or seeing the world through the eyes of a unique and original character who’s vision we struggle to comprehend.

As writers we are often closed off to the elements, often to interactions, we dwell more in the life of the mind. We try to evoke life while we watch the grass from inside the windows, hear children shout on the street like distant nostalgia. But we try to make paths through the soup of the subconscious, through the maze of memory, the endless byways of association, to make meaning out of the waterfall of human perception, culture, context, history.

And for readers read books become like half-remembered dreams. The successful ones ring true, this nodding resonance, we found a mirror for ourselves, be it old, cracked, mottled. We go out into the sun and in our subconscious we find an archetypal meadow which segues into a post apocalyptic town in which we are constantly searching. We sit in a chair in the summer sun and doze and dream of ourselves in the chair, the book fallen from our hands.