Some time ago, I wrote a post about Ray Bradbury’s story The Highway. I have since finished reading the collection of short stories it came in, The Illustrated Man (1999), and have a little more to say.
There are some timeless lessons to be learned from Ray Bradbury for wanna-be fiction writers. The way he approaches writing (according to the collection’s intro) rings very true and is excellent advice: writing comes from asking, ‘what if…?’ Then seeing what happens.
Though there is no doubt Ray Bradbury was a creative mind, in many ways ahead of his time I’m sure, and a talented writer, I found it hard to become fully absorbed in most of these stories. Despite his vivid imaginings of the future, he must have been a strong believer in the adage: the more things change, the more they stay the same.
The collection was published in the late 90s, but most of the stories were written and originally published in the late-40s/early-50s timeframe. As I referenced while reviewing The Highway, it shows. There were some basic rules of life, particularly around marriage, that Ray apparently didn’t expect would change even with the advent of rockets and sentient robots.
Take the story Marionettes, Inc. This tale opens with two men discussing the difficulties of their marriages. The protagonist basically hates his wife and always has. The other man claims to love his wife, but he finds her tendency to over express her affection insufferable. Because men are people and women are…women (a premise not explained, but assumed to be understood), rather than consider how to approach their wives to resolves the conflicts, the discussion leads to ethical verses unethical ways to deceive these inconvenient appendages.
How might one sneak out to have drinks with a buddy?
Sleeping powder = unethical.
Clone-like marionette to temporarily replace husband = ethical. What she doesn’t know can’t hurt her after all.
The idea that perhaps the man who never loved his wife should never have married her in the first place is briefly discussed and dismissed with reference to family embarrassment that was prevented by the union (appearances are more important than happiness, of course).
The idea of actually talking with one’s spouse about what’s making the marriage unhappy? Not even considered.
Leaving a relationship that has proven miserable for a decade? Parish the thought.
Thinking your wife might be able to tell the difference between you and a robot? Not of great concern.
I can’t decide if the wives have brain damage, or the husbands do.
All that said, Marionettes, Inc. has some good plot twists as well as the kind of ending that draws people to read Ray Bradbury and drives them nuts at the same time (in Ray’s defense, it turns out at least one of the wives may not be so superficial after all). It is a good story and was probably even better to its original audience, in a decade before women were considered fully-actualized human beings. But in a more modern plot, I think there would have to be some kind of black mail, abuse, or mental illness involved to justify such lengths being taken to deceive.
I also don’t think Ray Bradbury was oblivious the impact ‘the times’ had on his writing. In the intro (written in 1997) to the collection, he references the story The Other Foot, in which Colored people (he acknowledges, “that’s what they were called when I wrote The Other Foot in 1949”.) get to Mars before the Whites—what if?
Turns out, he couldn’t sell the story to the pre-civil-rights-movement American market—not because it isn’t a good, well-written story. He wound up giving it to a Paris-based magazine instead.
I’m sure this mark of time is an inevitable part of most writing, and I suspect it is most obvious in science fiction where authors are constantly trying to guess the complete unknown through the lens of our own lives, with no reliable frame of reference. Creative and timeless as any writer tries to be, it seems even the best sci fi will end up with elements that become comical if it persists long enough. Look at Back to the Future. According to its timeline, 2015 is the year of the flying car.
I consider this example proof such miscalculations don’t have to ruin a great story. Back to the Future is still one of the best trilogies ever (in my humble opinion). Even if I’m not watching it while eating a pizza from my food rehydrator, with kids buzzing by my window on hover boards.
As for my own writing, if anyone is reading it far enough into the future to notice my generational fingerprint, I’ll be thrilled. And I don’t need to know what gave me away.