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Ray Bradbury, BACH, and Stanislaw Lem

June 6, 2012

Sad news today – Ray Bradbury died Tuesday night.  The news is a bit lost in the mashup of popular culture (the headline at the Virginian-Pilot says “Author Ray Bradbury dies; Miley Cyrus engaged.”)  By coincidence, this week’s issue of the New Yorker has a brief biographical essay about how Bradbury became interested in writing:

When I was seven or eight years old, I began to read the science-fiction magazines that were brought by guests into my grandparents’ boarding house, in Waukegan, Illinois. Those were the years when Hugo Gernsback was publishing Amazing Stories, with vivid, appallingly imaginative cover paintings that fed my hungry imagination. Soon after, the creative beast in me grew when Buck Rogers appeared, in 1928, and I think I went a trifle mad that autumn. It’s the only way to describe the intensity with which I devoured the stories. You rarely have such fevers later in life that fill your entire day with emotion.

When I look back now, I realize what a trial I must have been to my friends and relatives. It was one frenzy after one elation after one enthusiasm after one hysteria after another. I was always yelling and running somewhere, because I was afraid life was going to be over that very afternoon.

My next madness happened in 1931, when Harold Foster’s first series of Sunday color panels based on Edgar Rice Burroughs’s “Tarzan” appeared, and I simultaneously discovered, next door at my uncle Bion’s house, the “John Carter of Mars” books. I know that “The Martian Chronicles” would never have happened if Burroughs hadn’t had an impact on my life at that time.

I memorized all of “John Carter” and “Tarzan,” and sat on my grandparents’ front lawn repeating the stories to anyone who would sit and listen. I would go out to that lawn on summer nights and reach up to the red light of Mars and say, “Take me home!” I yearned to fly away and land there in the strange dusts that blew over dead-sea bottoms toward the ancient cities.

While I remained earthbound, I would time-travel, listening to the grownups, who on warm nights gathered outside on the lawns and porches to talk and reminisce. At the end of the Fourth of July, after the uncles had their cigars and philosophical discussions, and the aunts, nephews, and cousins had their ice-cream cones or lemonade, and we’d exhausted all the fireworks, it was the special time, the sad time, the time of beauty. It was the time of the fire balloons.

Even at that age, I was beginning to perceive the endings of things, like this lovely paper light. I had already lost my grandfather, who went away for good when I was five. I remember him so well: the two of us on the lawn in front of the porch, with twenty relatives for an audience, and the paper balloon held between us for a final moment, filled with warm exhalations, ready to go.

I’d helped my grandpa carry the box in which lay, like a gossamer spirit, the paper-tissue ghost of a fire balloon waiting to be breathed into, filled, and set adrift toward the midnight sky. My grandfather was the high priest and I his altar boy. I helped take the red-white-and-blue tissue out of the box and watched as Grandpa lit a little cup of dry straw that hung beneath it. Once the fire got going, the balloon whispered itself fat with the hot air rising inside.

But I could not let it go. It was so beautiful, with the light and shadows dancing inside. Only when Grandpa gave me a look, and a gentle nod of his head, did I at last let the balloon drift free, up past the porch, illuminating the faces of my family. It floated up above the apple trees, over the beginning-to-sleep town, and across the night among the stars.

We stood watching it for at least ten minutes, until we could no longer see it. By then, tears were streaming down my face, and Grandpa, not looking at me, would at last clear his throat and shuffle his feet. The relatives would begin to go into the house or around the lawn to their houses, leaving me to brush the tears away with fingers sulfured by the firecrackers. Late that night, I dreamed the fire balloon came back and drifted by my window.

Twenty-five years later, I wrote “The Fire Balloons,” a story in which a number of priests fly off to Mars looking for creatures of good will. It is my tribute to those summers when my grandfather was alive. One of the priests was like my grandpa, whom I put on Mars to see the lovely balloons again, but this time they were Martians, all fired and bright, adrift above a dead sea.

Bradbury was a member of the BACH quartet of writers (Ray Bradbury, Isaac Asimov, Arthur Clarke, and Robert Heinlein) often credited with making science fiction mainstream.  But in today’s New York Times obituary, a fifth name is added: Stanislaw Lem.

By many estimations Mr. Bradbury was the writer most responsible for bringing modern science fiction into the literary mainstream. His name would appear near the top of any list of major science-fiction writers of the 20th century, beside those of Isaac Asimov, Arthur C. Clarke, Robert A. Heinlein and the Polish author Stanislaw Lem. His books have been taught in schools and colleges, where many a reader has been introduced to them decades after they first appeared. Many have said his stories fired their own imaginations.


The inclusion of Stanislaw Lem is a bit controversial though – controversial since Stanislaw Lem was first offered an honorary membership in the Science Fiction Writers of America, and then had it revoked after Lem wrote an unflattering article about the society.  While it is a bit a digression, I’d like to reprint Lem’s critique and wonder how Bradbury felt when he read it.

Lem’s article first appeared in Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, was translated in the Atlas World Press Review (August 1975), and then reprinted in the journal Science Fiction Studies 4:2:

Looking Down on Science Fiction:  A Novelist’s Choice for the World’s Worst Writing

by Stanislaw Lem

Some 500 authors who share membership in the Science Fiction Writers of America (SFWA) annually publish some 100,000 pages of fantasy in books and magazines. They can count on some 200,000 steady readers, scattered across the globe from New Zealand to Europe and Canada. These sci-fi fans—known as “fandom” — are not only great book buyers; they also publish specialty magazines known as “fanzines” which are published in limited editions of fifty to 500 copies. The pages of these periodicals warrant the attention of sociologists, for they carry a high proportion of letters to the editor which suggest that fandom is largely made up of frustrated individuals estranged from society.

Together with the authors, they constitute a kind of Anti-Establishment challenging the hegemony of “normal” literature, derisively or enviously referred to as the “mainstream.
They have, however, taken on some of the trappings of the mainstream literature, including science fiction prizes—the Nebula, awarded by authors, and the Hugo, voted by readers. The books so honored can count on sharply increased sales.

Just as the “normal” literary world has its congresses and PEN Club conferences, sci-fi also has its conventions. Since the prize-winning books are very bad, the conventions are largely devoted to costume dances, parties, and mutual flattery. The whole phenomenon would not be worth further discussion were it not that sci-fi appears to have been elevated to a level of both kitsch and mystification that make it a force to be reckoned with. By kitsch I mean a literary form that claims to be a mythology of technological civilization while in fact it is simply bad writing tacked together with wooden dialogue.

Kitsch is promise without delivery, drivel in the form of an intimate, self-satisfied ego trip. And while kitsch is the artistic ballast of sci-fi, mystification is the stuff of its intellectual pretensions. Science fiction tackles sociological, anthropological, and philosophical problems, insofar as it does not avoid them entirely, on an elementary level, in the form of adventure.

For years I suffered from the optimistic delusion that I had now plowed through enough of the bad books to get at the truly great ones. I wrote “critiques” in the “fanzines,” on the naive assumption that I could alert readers to how awful the writing was, how hackneyed were its stereotypes, and how many opportunities are missed by the authors of this art form. As a result, judging by the fans’ irate responses in letters columns, I have become something of a pariah.

Actually, my efforts were wasted since the readers are fans of science fiction and not literature; the very things they cherish are the ones most likely to make me ill. My actions were hopeless because the value judgments I was rendering were based on the worth of literary achievement unknown to the fans. Someone who had not read War and Peace might presume that Margaret Mitchell’s Gone with the Wind is the definitive work on war and peace. Hence it would be impossible to make clear to him in theoretical terms that this was not the case. Similarly someone who has never loved might assume that the acme of this experience is in genital contact. The analogy is reasonable since most science fiction is to authentic scientific, philosophical, or theological knowledge as pornography is to love.

To me pornography is not evocative of erotic stimulation but of gynecology and anatomy, which I once studied. Similarly science fiction does not convey to me the fate of man trapped in his own devices but rather removes itself from human concerns through deceptive ballyhoo. I have nothing against entertainment, even if it is nonsense. But idiocy that passes itself off as Faustian mythology is a cultural cancer.

A year ago I was voted an honorary membership in SFWA. I accepted the honor because I had not given up on working toward reform from within. Now I wonder why I ever bothered trying. Possibly because to this day the phenomenon of science fiction fascinates me. After all, the Americans are not stupid, nor could the market affect all of them with opportunism. That said, I am amazed at a situation for which no word but “terrible” will do.

Today science fiction is even taught in American universities, virtually without criticism. I can sympathize with irrational yearnings in the lap of an all-too-rational civilization. I can justify the anti-scientific attitude of both the culture and the counter culture that make possible a sort of escapism. I can even see the need for fantasy in a world that has lost much of its faith. But I simply cannot understand why scientific fantasy should be anti-scientific — why it should spawn the most patent foolishness and find the greatest response among those who understand it least.

In search of answers to these questions I read the SFWA bulletins. Poul Anderson, a noted sci-fi author, gives his colleagues some advice in the latest issue: “Think of Heinlein’s warning—we are competing for our readers’ beer money.” He goes on to write that unless we clear away every barrier that would block the reader’s understanding and pleasure he’ll say “to hell with it” and head for the corner bar. Robert Heinlein, an author of the older generation, is a legendary figure, a classical sci-fi writer who lives on in “fandom” through anecdotes about him and dedications to him of bibliographies and monographs.

We Europeans shouldn’t smile too smugly at this. We had better admit that in a sense Heinlein and Anderson are right, especially when we consider that the corner bar now also has a television set that shows, among other things, football games. Which of us literati, Shakespeare included, could hold a candle to a championship game? In this light the question is no longer to choose this book or that, but books vs. bar. And if that is the choice then we are all beaten.

Of course one could justify Anderson’s thesis in sociological terms; put simply, sci-fi readers are neither snobs, experts, intellectuals, bookworms, nor sophisticates. They are part of the mass culture market, a portion of which is captured by sci-fi along with beer and championship games. Put this way, one can either accept or reject the thesis. How can space, the silent, endless void that Pascal so feared, survive as a literary theme and prevail victorious in a contest with beer? It can’t unless it is painted over and propped up as some sort of ludicrous imitation. Only an artificial cosmos can compete with beer.

If in the past all authors had accepted the suggestions of the two Americans, we would have no literature worth mentioning. We would have none of the literary heritage of which we are so proud if every author worried about publishers, critics, censors, readers, public opinion, sales potential, and the like. My rebuttal to Anderson’s thesis, then, is that marketing prospects or official approval or similar concerns have no business intruding in that narrow gap between the author’s eyes and the blank piece of paper. That the muse cannot be pursued over a bottle of beer goes without saying. In short, honest literature can never conform to external pressures or exigencies. To do so would be its death.

Finally, the history of literature shows that authors rarely had an easy time of it. There is nothing in the equation of literary worth that permits us to discount an author’s creation—so much for trash, so much for lies, so much for nonsense—simply because he has a wife and children. Of course it is embarrassing to learn that publishers still pay 2 cents a word—the same as in 1946—while books have doubled in price during the same period, along with the salaries of editors, printers, and all others on the production end with the exception of the authors. These data I gathered from the SFWA Bulletins. Unfortunately a bad standard of living is no excuse for bad literature.


I wonder if Ray Bradbury took a position on this matter at the time (mid-seventies).  Most of those involved with this matter chose to keep their names anonymous – one significant exception was Ursula Le Guin, who strongly supported continued membership for Lem.

Indeed, I think that Ray Bradbury lived a bit of a double-life in this regard – as he reports in his biographical essay above, he loved popular science fiction – from the “John Carter of Mars” stories on.  On the other hand, in his writing, Bradbury was clearly aiming for something that went beyond entertainment and instead aspired to be art.  Did he secretly sympathize with Lem’s position?


We are fortunate, at least, that Bradbury lived a long life, and that many of his works remain in print.  Thanks Ray.

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6 Comments leave one →
  1. Suzanne McCarthy permalink*
    June 7, 2012 2:25 pm

    Thanks for this reminder of some authors that I loved growing up. I was exposed to a lot of literature in the home, but it was at school that I came to appreciate the BACH group. I quickly moved on to John Wyndham who should be mentioned in this context, as well as H.G. Wells and Jules Verne.

    When I later tried to connect with other Science Fiction, like the Dune series, I just gave up in disgust. Lem’s criticism is justified.

    I enjoyed watching the TV segments on Bradbury yesterday and it reminded me of a lot of reading pleasure in my teen years. Thanks for this post.

  2. nzumel permalink
    June 7, 2012 9:43 pm

    Thanks to the So Many Books blog, I just found the 2010 Paris review with Bradbury.
    Part of the interview goes:

    INTERVIEWER

    Does science fiction satisfy something that mainstream writing does not?

    BRADBURY

    Yes, it does, because the mainstream hasn’t been paying attention to all the changes in our culture during the last fifty years. The major ideas of our time—developments in medicine, the importance of space exploration to advance our species—have been neglected. The critics are generally wrong, or they’re fifteen, twenty years late. It’s a great shame. They miss out on a lot. Why the fiction of ideas should be so neglected is beyond me. I can’t explain it, except in terms of intellectual snobbery.

    He also says somewhere in there that he thinks of SciFi not as a telescope into a future, but a mirror of the present — something that examines/critiques the world the way it is, or nearly is, metaphorically (I’m paraphrasing).

    So I suspect that perhaps he’d think that Lem was largely missing the point.

    Of course, he also kind of admits he doesn’t read much science-fiction, beyond the classics. At least that’s how I read it.

    Interview here:
    http://www.theparisreview.org/interviews/6012/the-art-of-fiction-no-203-ray-bradbury

    Sweet remembrance by the fact-checker on the article:
    http://www.theparisreview.org/blog/2012/06/06/fact-checking-ray-bradbury/

  3. nzumel permalink
    June 7, 2012 9:45 pm

    A little off-topic, but here’s Lem’s article about Philip K. Dick, the one science fiction author he seemed to like.

    http://www.depauw.edu/sfs/backissues/5/lem5art.htm

    I like Dick a lot, but I also don’t think he was quite as good a writer as Bradbury.

  4. June 7, 2012 9:58 pm

    Nina, thanks so much for those references.

    It is hard to compare Dick and Bradbury — they are so different in every aspect of their life. But in terms of sheer quality of prose, I would agree with you. (Have you read Dick’s letter to the FBI denouncing Lem as a communist agitator who was eager to convert American science fiction studies to a Marxist field?) Actually, I wonder how well Lem read English. Did Lem read those science fiction authors in English, or in translation? Bradbury, for example, I would imagine would suffer much more in translation than Dick

    Suzanne, thanks for your kind words and thoughts. I am embarrassed to say that I have never read Wyndham.

    I have to further confess that I am fond of Wells; I regard him as political fool, an abysmal historian, and a poor writer.

    But I am quite fond of Jules Verne, though.

  5. nzumel permalink
    June 11, 2012 10:38 pm

    I don’t think the FBI paid much attention to Dick — he wrote them several letters:
    http://www.lettersofnote.com/2010/07/neo-nazis-syphilis-and-world-war-iii.html

    And to hijack this thread further — can you imagine being in the audience when Dick gave this speech?
    http://deoxy.org/pkd_how2build.htm

    Apparently he believed that we are still living in Rome, immediately after the crucifixion of Christ, waiting for His return. The world of the present (1978) is an illusion…

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  1. On Reading Stanislaw Lem; and a pointer to my other blog | Multo (Ghost)

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