– Arnab Chakraborty
It is possible that Ray Bradbury only ever used one theme, and one character, in all his fiction. The theme would be what he would label the ‘fabulous mulch’1, much of which was Edgar Allan Poe’s contribution to Literature, and the character would be a child struggling in the face of something that does not sit right in the child’s universe. The ‘fabulous mulch’ is largely an assortment of images borrowed unabashedly from a long, rich tradition of specifically Gothic and mythological archetypes and symbols, and the child is largely the lens through which these symbols are examined. It is another matter entirely that the child appears to us in varying guises of toddler, adolescent and adult. It is entirely possible that every one of his protagonists stand for a justification of the continued existence of child in woman and man, even when he or she is actively reacting against it.
It is also possible that Bradbury wrote only Gothic fiction disguised as either science fiction, science fantasy, or horror. This can be argued for if we take into account what is usually considered to be one of the classical staples of Gothic fiction: the introduction of an anomaly inside a closed, somewhat secure environment; the investigation of said anomaly by a protagonist who is either narrator, or who shares in the ignorance of the narrator; and finally, the shock and revulsion that results from the protagonist’s realization of the truth behind such an anomaly. To invoke the title of this seminar, there are several permutations and combinations that are possible when such a structure is introduced within the mega-text of science fiction. The proper use of such a structure, however, becomes a slightly different and more complicated exercise when used alongside the conventions of science fiction because, one, such conventions are primarily obsessed with change, and two, the tension induced by both works on two levels. The first level is that of the reality as represented in the science fiction story, and the second is the reality that is in truth an exaggerated or atrophied reflection of our present insecurities.
Such a view assumes that science fiction is entirely separate from Gothic fiction in its emotional spectrum. It is not in the scope of this paper to debate this assumption. We will therefore proceed with an examination of Bradbury’s short fiction using the hypothesis that science fiction, as well as Gothic fiction, could both be modes as well as clearly defined genres in themselves. We are interested, in the context of this paper, in the unique mode of Bradbury’s fiction, where both science fiction and Gothic horror coexist without invading, as it were, each others’ sacred territory, and lending it a plurality not usually approached from inside, or outside genre.
We can view Gothic horror as an amalgam of two specific events: first, there are the images and sounds associated with Gothic literature. These may include haunted houses, unexplained sightings, sudden noises, unkempt asylums, and so on. Some of these still hold relevance, and some have either faded away, or regained renewed importance by becoming transformed into different variations of the same theme. The second aspect of Gothic horror does not have anything to do with its suggested visual and aural components, but in the qualities of emotion it elicits in the reader, or viewer, whichever the case might be. These qualities include, but are not limited to, a change in the perception of our immediate physical reality, allowing for what is called the uncanny. Depending on how the viewer anticipates, acknowledges and appropriates such a perception, the resultant affect will either be sublime, or grotesque.
Joseph Addison’s remark that the sublime was an ‘agreeable kind of horror’2 is most apt in the context of science fiction, whose intention is not to horrify per se, but that might be one of its unintended consequences. Both the sublime and the grotesque are expansions of our perceived sensory and conceptual horizons, but while in case of the sublime, such an expansion is deemed pleasing in how it allows the subject to at once imbibe a little, or all of himself within such a paradigm. If he fails to do so, he can at least approach the purging quality of a terror without threat. In case of the grotesque, however, the subject failing to reconcile himself to such a change objectifies it in the form of an object or a person which forms a locus of everything the person deems detestable in the new world. It becomes that much easier to vilify it, or banish it from one’s mind.
Let us consider two of Bradbury’s stories and test such a hypothesis against them. In choosing these stories, I have not been arbitrary. Since I have included ‘Futurity’ in the title of this paper, I have sought out stories which deal with three of the seven beauties that Istvan Csicnery Jr. lays down in his seminal critical work, The Seven Beauties of Science Fiction, namely ‘imaginary science’, ‘future history’, and the conflation of the science fictional sublime and the grotesque as essentially two sides of the same coin.
In Bradbury’s ‘The Veldt’, we have an instance of all three. In it, we find two parents at odds with a Nursery which senses what the children desire consciously or otherwise, and projects such desires as simulations. Throughout the story, it is evident that the children have begun treating the Nursery as their surrogate parent, and wish the demise of their real parents, through repeated lifelike visuals of an African veldt with lions. This ultimately is implied in the end, when the parents die in the Nursery itself, victims of such an intended simulation.
The titular veldt is a geographic space, and so is the Nursery. It is in the same way a space, I argue, as is a haunted mansion, or a graveyard. It contains within itself a set of closely interlinked potentialities, arranged like dominoes. In a Gothic story, each reveal, and every successive event triggers a reader awareness of such potentiality, regardless of whether they manifest or not. This underlying structure can have several props. I argue that while these ‘props’, as it were, might disappear or cease to be effective, the classical integrity of such a domino effect is what engenders the creation of more such props and conventions. The Nursery is such a new convention, and a space of potentiality. It is explained away near the end of the story by the psychologist, who acts as the voice of reason. But such an explanation is no detriment to what has already been implied near the beginning: that the parents are looking at the Nursery from the other side of the mirror, and the children quite another, and in such a qualitative distinction, the threat cannot be wished away with a reasonable explanation. It is science fiction gratuitously borrowing from Gothic fiction’s central guiding philosophies, in an ironic twist risking an oxymoron.
It is significant here that the children have very clearly molded themselves to suit the Nursery. To them it is a notable departure from their daily routine, which itself, in a future setting, is regimented, and automated, to the point of rendering human intervention absolutely unnecessary. But here too, there are clues inside the story which point to the fact that while the central novum, or fictional innovation here is that of a society which has no need for ‘work’ as we know it, it also has not been able to shed a few of the staples of Gothic fiction: the corridors light up as they walk through them; machines whirr to life. All these events take place with the humans scarcely noticing, in a subtle perversion of the original framework, wherein sudden, unexplained phenomena and inanimate objects showing signs of motion are all taken for granted, and have been essentially normalized. This suggests, at the beginning of the story, that human beings have evolved, psychologically, past the point of being susceptible to such uncanny sensation. However, the Nursery, which itself is yet another variation of that classic Gothic staple, that one room in the mansion that you are never supposed to enter, unravels such complacent attitudes, and instead strongly suggests that such insecurities have not only never disappeared, they have been repressed via an imposed utopian ideology. It belies the fact that is time and again one of science fiction’s primary themes: that utopian endeavor often serves ulterior, often sinister agendas.
If we are to briefly look at ‘The Third Expedition’, we will find a similar structure. Again, Mars serves as a space of apparently unbridled utopian potential. Embittered spacemen reach Mars to find their scenic hometown laid out in pleasant anticipation of their arrival. Family members greet them in a setting that evokes a strong sense of mid-western American nostalgia. However, the protagonist soon realizes that they are doppelgangers who lull them into a false sense of security before murdering them. These doppelgangers are Jungian shadow selves, who could be said to be acting against the seemingly noble Frontier ideology being promulgated on Mars. They could be interpreted to be manifestations of guilt on the part of the grand mission undertaken by Earthmen to ‘explore’ Mars. If the Jungian shadow is a locus of everything the humans detest amongst themselves and choose to disguise, as in ‘The Veldt’, via the complacent mode of nostalgia, it is a grotesque manifestation. Admittedly, it is difficult to arrive at an explanation for this which might vouch for why it might also be a sublime manifestation, but one might very well venture and suggest that there are several instances in the SF megatext where the prospect of duplication of self, or emulation of self, is perhaps a positive development. The entire edifice of Science Fiction is structured around transformation and metamorphosis, and thus it is a positive end in that the Frontier legend meets an untimely end. The tone of the story is sympathetic towards the astronauts, but in a sequence which constantly challenges nostalgia with horrific denouements, such a view, I argue, should not be taken for granted in a reading of Bradbury.
The conflation of the sublime and the grotesque in these two representative instances of Bradbury’s craft then allow for a bipartite agreement between two apparently unique modes. And it achieves this primarily through the use of striking imagery: the Nursery in case of ‘The Veldt’, and Mars in case of ‘The Third Expedition’. The images are the locii of such a conflation. They are considerably visual in their appeal, to the extent that notable science fiction critic Damon Knight would go on to say, somewhat disparagingly, that:
Why Bradbury’s world-line and that of the animated cartoon have never intersected, I do not know… but clearly, Bradbury is writing for no other medium. The gaudy colors and plush textures, the dream-swift or dreamslow motion, the sudden dartings into unsuspected depths of perspective, or contrariwise, the ballooning of a face into the foreground—these are all distinctive techniques of the animated cartoon, and Bradbury uses them all. 3
For a genre, or mode, that prides itself with a frequent examination of what Kant would call the mathematical sublime, that is, the struggle of the mind to accommodate notions of infinity in a finite, modest world view and generate a certain amount of awe in the failure to do the same, such criticism is not unexpected. There is but a smattering of the mathematical sublime, as opposed to the dynamic sublime, in Bradbury’s fiction. The estrangement is less cognitive and more enamored with finding the gaps in what is already familiar. However, while Bradbury’s precursor is more Hawthorne than Wells, more inward looking than out, he preached caution when it came to the future and technological advancement, without reducing the multiplicity of the text. This, I hope my paper has demonstrated with some amount of success.
1 Sam Weller, “Ray Bradbury, The Art of Fiction No. 203”, The Paris Review, Spring, 2010, 18th November, 2014, <http://www.theparisreview.org/interviews/6012/the-art-of-fiction-no-203-ray-bradbury>
2 Joseph Addison, Remarks on Several Parts of Italy, Etc., in the Years 1701, 1702, 1703, (London: J. Tonson, 1745), 261.
3 Damon Knight, “When I Was in Kneepants: Ray Bradbury”, in Bloom’s Modern Critical Views: Ray Bradbury, ed. Harold Bloom, (New York: Chelsea House, 2001), 6.
Addison, Joseph. Remarks on Several Parts of Italy, Etc., in the Years 1701, 1702, 1703. London: J. Tonson, 1745.
Bloom, Harold, ed. Bloom’s Modern Critical Views: Ray Bradbury. New York: Chelsea House, 2001.
Bradbury, Ray. The Illustrated Man. New York: Simon and Schuster, 2012.
—————-. The Martian Chronicles. New York: Simon and Schuster, 2012.
Csicsery-Ronay, Jr, Istvan. The Seven Beauties of Science Fiction. Connecticut: Wesleyan University Press, 2008.
Weller, Sam. “Ray Bradbury, The Art of Fiction No. 203”. The Paris Review, Spring, 2010. <http://www.theparisreview.org/interviews/6012/the-art-of-fiction-no-203-ray-bradbury> Accessed 18th November, 2014.