My Vonnegut phase lasted from ages 22 to 25. I read every book he’s written, even the crappy ones (hello there, Slapstick). I loved his voice, his humanism, the jokey poetry of his anecdotes. I’d often argue that Slaughterhouse-Five, an American classic, is only his fifth-best book (beaten by Cat’s Cradle; Jailbird; God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater; and Mother Night).
By the time I hit Breakfast of Champions, though, I’d fallen out of love. His cynicism grew stale, and his dark, dry wit began to feel like knee-jerk pessimism. Vonnegut felt like a guy at a party I’d spent too long talking to. We’d run out of things to say. His negativity was beginning to grate.
So here I am, age 26, in need of a new literary imagination to commune with. I want somebody who, like Vonnegut, writes science fiction but transcends the title “science fiction author.” Somebody with an imagination as vast as Vonnegut’s, with a voice as distinct, but with a poetic idealism to replace Vonnegut’s vernacular realism. Vonnegut growls. I want somebody who sings.
Enter Ray Bradbury.
I saw a copy of Bradbury Speaks: Too Soon from the Cave, Too Far from the Stars on sale for $2. I’m a sucker for a bargain, and suddenly I’d found it: a writer as infatuated with the world and Vonnegut is disillusioned with it.
I humbly offer some favorite passages.
Over lunch with publishers, the topic of trains comes up, and we see Bradbury’s ability to go from zero to reverie in five seconds:
“My God,” they said. “Why don’t you write an article on trains for us?”
“Wait here!” I cried, and ran across the street to my office, where I wrote the piece in a white-hot burst of love and returned to the luncheon table in thirty minutes. I sold the article during desert.
Here, he describes what makes a good movie (p. 23):
A bright film with a mediocre ending is a mediocre film.
Conversely, a medium-good film with a terrific ending is a terrific film.
And this is Bradbury on dogs (p. 65):
Dogs, for instance, are on their way to humanity. They sense the difference between good and bad, know guilt, and suffer sadness.
A story about lunch with his good friend Walt Disney (p. 75):
One lunchtime, I said that Los Angeles needed a really good creative mayor like Walt. His swift response:
“Why should I be mayor, when I’m already king?”
Another conversation with Walt (p. 103):
I suggested he hire me to help rebuild [Tomorrowland].
“It’s no use, Ray,” Walt said. “You’re a genius, I’m a genius. We’d kill each other in the first week.”
Bradbury expresses some lovely thoughts about the joys of train travel, and getting to see the countryside transform around you. He contrasts it with the instantaneous dullness of plane travel: (p. 142):
The jet knows only two places—where it takes off and where it lands.
Here’s a pithy hymn to libraries (p. 149):
Step into a real library, swim in the aquarium of time.
Bradbury on “cool” (p. 223):
I hate cool people. Next thing you know, they are cold.
And last but not least, Ray on his home, Los Angeles, offering the nicest and most compelling words I’ve ever heard about the city (p. 225):
So here’s to Los Angeles, diverse, multitudinous, going nowhere, arriving somewhere, a gigantic pinball machine with several million balls ricocheting off the future. May it never be integrated, may it never be described.
35 thoughts on “Ray Bradbury is My Anti-Vonnegut.”
Why don’t you give Dan Brown a chance? I know he doesn’t write that well but he does tell a very convincing story.
Thanks – I don’t read much mystery but I might check out Da Vinci Code at some point. Probably my favorite recent reading was “Embassytown” by China Mieville, followed by the first 2/3 of Jeff Vandermeer’s “Southern Reach” trilogy.
“The City and The City” and “Perdido Street Station” are both excellent Mieville novels — I preferred them both to “Embassytown”.
Bradbury is one of my favorite authors. Have you read Haruki Murakami? I contend that he writes “near-science fiction” stories, and has a wild and vivid imagination. His books are dreamlike and gorgeous.
Haven’t read any Murakami – sounds like lovely writing! Any particular novel I should start with?
If you have time, “The Windup Bird Chronicle” or “Kafka on the Shore” are both excellent. “Kafka” is a little shorter, so that may be better to start. “Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World” is probably my favorite. Murakami also writes some non-fiction, one of which, “Underground” is about the sarin gas attacks in the Tokyo subway in the ’90s that is incredibly interesting and such a stark commentary on Japanese society.
You should definitely check out Neil Stevenson. Snow Crash is a good starting place.
On an unrelated note: You’re 26 years old? You write with the wisdom of a much older, and much more experienced, teacher. I guess I got my daily dose of feeling inadequate early today.
I actually read Snow Crash in high school and really enjoyed it. Not sure why I never went back for more Stephenson – a good suggestion!
Also, thanks for the kind words, but my seeming experience is all bluster, I assure you. One of my problems is that I write a better game than I actually teach.
A friend of mine got dissed by her boss this way: “Oh, you’re reading Vonnegut? You’re such a college student!” … She’s 26.
But there is something about his writing that was very appealing to the 18-24 age group. I think maybe the clarity and humor with which he conveys a *real* message.
A suggestion (in line with Vonnegut’s clarity and humor): Gabriel Garcia Marquez. It may just be the translation, but his writing is clear, clever, and meaningful.
Yeah, I still think Vonnegut is pretty great. I plan to go back and reread some of his stuff in a few years. But I think you’re right there’s something particularly resonant about his humor and message at that age.
I read a little Marquez (in Spanish) in high school and I’ve been meaning to go back and read some more. I’ve got a book of short stories (and 100 Years) somewhere – I’ll move them closer to the top of the pile!
Have you read Dandelion Wine yet?? I think it captures that essence of Bradbury that you were describing
That’s a good suggestion. My students in Oakland read it in 9th grade, and I skimmed it but never actually read it. I’ve only read Fahrenheit 451, Martian Chronicles, and R is for Rocket (short stories).
I just read dandelion wine this winter, 10 years after reading Fahrenheit 451, and wow! That little book left a big impression! Followed it up with Martian Chronicles – which I loved- but could not compete with the beauty, fullness, haunting, and home-hitting substance of dandelion wine. Which is to ,say, I recommend this book a ton and think it shows a familiar but different side to his writing.
I’d recommend Robert Heinlein. Start with Stranger in a Strange Land or The Moon is a Harsh Mistress. I’m devouring them one by one.
“A competent and self-confident person is incapable of jealousy in anything. Jealousy is invariably a symptom of neurotic insecurity.”
“Everything is theoretically impossible, until it is done.”
Thanks! Any book that gets a lyric in “We Didn’t Start the Fire” is certainly worth my attention.
I second the Heinlein nomination! The Moon is a Harsh Mistress is what got me into science fiction. I also love Where Late the Sweet Birds Sang by Kate Wilhelm and Lord of Light by Roger Zelazny. Although some of Zelazny’s best writing is in his short stories. Try the collection The Doors of His Face, The Lamps of His Mouth.
I like Bradbury, but he can be quite the pessimist too. Read “The Fog Horn” for a tale about lonely creatures and unrequited love:
> “That’s life for you,” said McDunn. “Someone always waiting for someone who never comes home. Always someone loving some thing more than that thing loves them. And after a while you want to destroy whatever that thing is, so it can hurt you no more.”
Or read any story of his that mentions TV, walkmans or similar devices. Or any story about the alienation of mankind. I think Bradbury didn’t completely lose hope, but he wasn’t always optimistic about mankind.
That’s a good point – Bradbury can turn some pretty dark corners when he chooses. (“Fahrenheit 451” isn’t exactly the world’s most optimistic.)
I guess what he has more than “optimism” is “romanticism.” There’s a poetic, dramatic flair to his worldview that’s an interesting counterpoint to Vonnegut’s anti-romantic irony (even though, at his best moments, you can tell Vonnegut’s cynicism is a shell protecting a soft, idealistic underbelly).
Fantasia Mathematica is an anthology edited by Clifton Fadiman of sf stories with mathematical themes. Nothing like Bradbury, but you might enjoy it anyhow.
Sounds like a lot of fun. I think Flatland remains the only thing I’ve read that’s successful both as fiction and as math.
It is funny (well, not really, I suppose) but when I was growing up, I, and the people I knew with similar reading tastes, all read Bradbury before Vonnegut. So it was a kind of slide into cynicism that fit in very well with being a teenager, I think. 🙂 I don’t know why, exactly, that ‘order’ emerged — I think perhaps because (some of) Bradbury’s stuff appealed more to us when we were in( or just before) our early teens (short stories, plus space-ships!, etc.). (Later, of course, I think many of us came to appreciate Bradbury’s “darker” elements in a different way then we had as youth…) BTW: “S is for Space” should be on your “to read” list. 🙂
Given all the fine suggestions for other authors to read made above, I hesitate to make any more suggestions. But I’ll leap in. On a friend’s suggestion, I recently reread Ursula LeGuin’s “The Dispossessed,” and then followed it up with rereading “The Left Hand of Darkness” and reading (for the first time) “Four Ways to Forgiveness” — a few of the major works in her somewhat loose ‘Hainish cycle’ of novels (I’d reread “The Word for World is Forest” a few years ago, so didn’t this time, but it is another major and worthwhile one). I was impressed again with their relative sophistication and humanity.
Thanks! I’ll add “S is for Space” and bump LeGuin even higher on my ladder than she already is. (At this point, I may read one of hers next.)
Funny that you all went Bradbury –> Vonnegut. I remember there was a year when all my friends read 1984 and Brave New World in some order, but I can’t remember the order.
Margaret Atwood is another sci fi writer who transcends the genre. I read The Handmaid’s Tale in college and loved it. A few years ago I read The Blind Assassin and as soon as I finished it I reread it.
Ah, the Handmaid’s Tale is chilling and beautiful and excellent. You should check out Oryx & Crake, too. And I’ve been meaning to read Blind Assassin – my wife keeps recommending it every few months.
No one has mentioned Isaac Asimov yet, or Larry Niven. I would put both on par with Bradbury, and heartily recommend both of them. “Tales of Known Space” and “Ringworld” still thrill me, as does the collection of short stories which includes “Bicentennial Man” (but only if you shoot the movie). Oh! Arthur C. Clarke – “Tales from the White Hart” and the 2001 series are amazing! Anyone who gets an asteroid named after them and invents the idea of the geostationary orbital satellite has to rock!
Classics! I read some Asimov when I was younger, but would love to revisit. (I just read “The Question” a few months back and it’s still amazing.) And my mother loved Clarke, so I should probably give him a fair reading, too.
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Have you ever read any Issac Asimov? the foundation trilogy and I, Robot are great. My favourite quote, from the first book of Foundation:
“Violence is the last resort of the incompetent.”
I read the first two Foundation books in high school and enjoyed them a lot. I think he had some more kid-friendly robot stuff that I read, too. But man, was that guy prolific! Lots of good stuff to get into.
Yeah, well life can have quite an effect on your attitude. Like enlisting as an infantryman to fight the Nazis, having your mom commit suicide while you’re home on leave, then surviving the worst massacre in European history and afterwards being forced to dig bodies out of the rubble, as opposed to living with your Mom for 26 years, living on egg sandwiches, and waxing nostalgic about your magical childhood in Illinois.
And since you’ve “read every book he’s written” you surely remember “The Euphio Question” which presents a method of giving everyone a positive attitude all the time. Cheers.
If I’m honest, it makes me a little sad that you think you have to trade Vonnegut for Bradbury.
I profess to love them both. I think Vonnegut is more hopeful than you give him credit for, just as Bradbury is more cynical than you believe.
Please also, go and read their friend Isaac Asimov. Go read Robert A. Heinlein, and Arthur C. Clarke, and so many others. Science-Fiction is vast and complicated. It doesn’t have to be so narrow
and it’s also worth knowing, Bradbury knew Vonnegut who knew Asimov who knew Clarke and on, and on.
It was a fellowship, not a war
I think you miss some of the revelation in Slaughterhouse-Five and what it means for Vonnegut himself. The limericks in the first chapter, as well as the fourth wall breaking and injecting himself as a character lend insight into how he saw the world after the war. As many great artists exist, I think he too, existed on the precipice of insanity and in 1984, he almost let it take him.
I get where you are going with the pessimism and constant cynicism, but I also think the tenderer moments in his books belie how beautiful living could be if life didn’t get in the way.
“The purpose of human life, no matter who is controlling it, is to love whoever is around to be loved.”- Kurt Vonnegut Sirens of Titan