Amidst the witches’ sabbath that the news has become, a rather pleasant centennial has come and gone—that of the birth of Ray Bradbury. The late Mr. Bradbury is author of such novels as The Martian Chronicles and Something Wicked This Way Comes, numerous short stories, plays, and film and television scripts. It was my pleasure not only to be inspired by his work, but to have known him very slightly for about 37 years. Ray was a humanist in the best sense of the term; he loved mankind. He was delighted by virtue, disturbed by our vices, and gently amused at our follies. As a result, at times during his career he was accused of being a communist—and, in such works as his 1950 short story, “Way in the Middle of the Air,” he attacked Jim Crow pretty plainly. This was not, however, an exercise in party politics. It was, rather, a defense of the human spirit and imagination, something that Ray was keenly aware was and remains under attack.
Perhaps his most forceful political statement was his dystopian novel, Fahrenheit 451, named after the temperature at which book paper burns. In its pages, Ray foretold a future in which reading was simply illegal. This was a continuation of a theme he had broached in his earlier short story “Usher II.” Therein, a collector of fantasy, horror, and science fiction books, who had had his sizable library seized and destroyed on Earth, has gone to Mars with other colonists. On the freer frontier of the Red Planet, and with the help of an ex-actor in such movies (who was banned from his profession by the authorities), the collector describes what the “guardians of morality” had done back on Earth:
[Poe] and Lovecraft and Hawthorne and Ambrose Bierce and all the tales of terror and fantasy and horror and, for that matter, tales of the future were burned. Heartlessly. They passed a law. Oh, it started very small. In 1950 and ‘60 it was a grain of sand. They began by controlling books of cartoons and then detective books and, of course, films, one way or another, one group or another, political bias, religious prejudice, union pressure; there was always a minority afraid of something, and a great majority afraid of the dark, afraid of the future, afraid of the past, afraid of the present, afraid of themselves and shadows of themselves.
Orthodox. Faithful. Free.
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Sadly, while we have not colonized Mars, Ray accurately predicted the fate of at least one (so far) of the great authors he lists: H. P. Lovecraft. In today’s woke atmosphere, it was perhaps inevitable that Lovecraft’s genius would be summarily dismissed in the face of his racism, once fashionable but now rightly acknowledged as egregious. As long ago as 2015, this issue surfaced when the World Fantasy Award—an unflattering bust of Lovecraft—was changed to a tree in front of a full moon. At that time four decades old, the award had been given to outstanding genre writers and editors since the World Fantasy Convention’s inaugural meeting in Lovecraft’s hometown of Providence, Rhode Island. Both site and bust had been chosen in tribute to Lovecraft, who died in 1936, and who not only had done much to propagate the genre but had done much to launch the careers of such authors as Fritz Leiber, Robert Bloch, and August Derleth, inspiring countless more.
Beginning in 2014, however, an offensive was successfully launched against him due to his “racist” views, and his image was discarded the following year—much to the ire of his leading current biographer, S. T. Joshi, who not only exploded with anger at the decision, but returned his own two World Fantasy Awards while urging a boycott of the convention. It is significant that Joshi himself is of Indian descent—and is well aware of Lovecraft’s disdain for his own people. In the accompanying letter with the two returned busts, Joshi wrote: “I was deeply disappointed with the decision of the World Fantasy Convention to discard the bust of H. P. Lovecraft as the emblem of the World Fantasy Award. The decision seems to me a craven yielding to the worst sort of political correctness and an explicit acceptance of the crude, ignorant, and tendentious slanders against Lovecraft propagated by a small but noisy band of agitators.”
The same issue has just reared its ugly head this past July 30. On that date, in Wellington, New Zealand, the World Science Fiction Convention gave its 1945 Retrospective Hugo Awards to Lovecraft and noted science fiction author and editor John W. Campbell. George R. R. Martin, author of the Game of Thrones series, hosted the event. He praised both winners, as well as a number of other early genre figures. The woke among science fiction practitioners and fans erupted in righteous anger at Martin’s lauding of the pioneers of the genre. At the convention held the previous year, John W. Campbell Award for Best New Writer winner Jeannette Ng had virulently attacked Campbell; Martin should have known what lay in wait for him. On that occasion, Miss Ng declared: “Through [Campbell’s] editorial control of Astounding Science Fiction, he is responsible for setting a tone of science fiction that still haunts the genre to this day. Sterile. Male. White. Exalting in the ambitions of imperialists and colonizers, settlers and industrialists.” However much money and fame his work might have brought him, Martin is not immune to cancel culture.
Was Lovecraft a racist? He was indeed, in the manner of H. L. Mencken, H. G. Wells, and any number of noted scientificists of his day. As were they, he was also an atheist, and disliked all of the immigrants who, in his mind, were destroying the purity of Yankee New England: Italians, Poles, and my own French-Canadians (although his views of the last-named altered radically after visiting the Province of Quebec; one wonders what would have happened had he been able to journey to Poland and Italy). As with the change of his views regarding the French-Canadians, he was also amenable to altering his opinions and, according to those who knew him, never allowed them to affect his treatment of individuals. Indeed, despite his expressed anti-Semitism, he married a Jewish lady.
All of that aside, however—and despite the fact that I find his religious views abominable, as I do those of Mencken and Wells—it does not diminish either his intense talent nor his great literary achievement. Were I to discount him on the basis of his views, I should have to do so with the vast majority of writers in the English canon. But not too surprisingly, Bradbury had a handle on what is coming to fruition now decades ago. Asked in 1994 if he thought Fahrenheit 451 stood up well at that time, he replied: “It works even better because we have political correctness now. Political correctness is the real enemy these days. The black groups want to control our thinking and you can’t say certain things. The homosexual groups don’t want you to criticize them. It’s thought control and freedom of speech control.” Now, of course, it is being applied retroactively, and I shall not be surprised if his legacy too comes under attack.
The target of it all is not simply “the narrow, and regressive, point of view that has dominated sci-fi/fantasy books for half a century,” in the self-satisfied words of Esquire Magazine writer Gabrielle Bruney’s coverage of Martin’s New Zealand performance. (The article is unconsciously amusing to those of us aware of her magazine’s history.) No, it is an attack on the Western—indeed, the human—spirit and imagination. If Bradbury’s cited novel has held up well, so too has “Usher II”:
So they lined them up against a library wall one Sunday morning thirty years ago, in 1975; they lined them up, St. Nicholas and the Headless Horseman and Snow White and Rumpelstiltskin and Mother Goose—oh, what a wailing!—and shot them down, and burned the paper castles and the fairy frogs and old kings and the people who lived happily ever after (for of course it was a fact that nobody lived happily ever after!), and Once Upon a Time became No More! And they spread the ashes of the Phantom Rickshaw with the rubble of the Land of Oz; they filleted the bones of Glinda the Good and Ozma and shattered Polychrome in a spectroscope and served Jack Pumpkinhead with meringue at the Biologists’ Ball! The Beanstalk died in a bramble of red tape! Sleeping Beauty awoke at the kiss of a scientist and expired at the fatal puncture of his syringe. And they made Alice drink something from a bottle which reduced her to a size where she could no longer cry “Curiouser and curiouser,” and they gave the Looking Glass one hammer blow to smash it and every Red King and Oyster away!
Ray Bradbury loved what he did. He loved the craft of writing, novels, short stories, plays, and scripts. He also loved fandom—conventions, meeting his readers, the lot of it. Much as I miss him, I doubt he would be very happy to see his darker prophecies coming true.
[Photo credit: David Lepage/Wikimedia Commons]