Welcome back to the Golden Age of science fiction! Well, sort of. If you read last month’s episode, you’ll recall the hot debate going on about the true end of the Golden Age in the U.S., with some arguing that it even persisted into the early-1960s. Again, I have no horse in this race, but I think I can make a pretty compelling argument that the 1950s deserves the ‘Golden Age’ moniker as well.
Regrettably, the 1950s often gets left out of the Golden Age conversation, instead relegated to a transitional period that predates the New Wave of Science Fiction in the 1960s and 70s. However, much like the “transitional” period that is the Radium Age, the 1950s produced some of the most highly influential pieces in the science fiction literary genre. I prefer to think of the late-1940s to mid-1950s as a second Golden Age of sorts, and I’m not alone in that conclusion. The writing produced during this time was remarkably similar to that which was produced in the late-1930s to mid-1940s (e.g., speculative, dystopian, realistically scientific, etc.), and literary magazines played an equally important role in the publication of science fiction stories, even if many of those stories were eventually republished as novels.
Yet, there is one event that draws a fairly clean line between the first Golden Age and the second: the end of WWII, specifically, the dropping of the atomic bombs on Japan in August, 1945. Prior to this event, science fiction literature could only speculate about nuclear warfare. After? Total global destruction from atomic weapons seemed imminent. It is no surprise that many of the science fiction stories that emerged in the years immediately following WWII were hyper-fixated on exploring the possible worlds that could exist beyond our doomed planet.
Thus, the time period after 1946 through the 1950s stands both with and apart from the rest of the Golden Age of science fiction. Regardless of its “official” inclusion, it produced notable contributions including: Red Planet (1949) and Starship Troopers (1959), both by Robert A. Heinlein; Childhood's End (1953) by Arthur C. Clarke; More Than Human (1953) by Theodore Sturgeon; The Caves of Steel (1953) by Isaac Asimov; The Sirens of Titan (1959) by Kurt Vonnegut; A Canticle for Leibowitz (1959) by Walter M. Miller Jr.; and countless others.
And, for the benefit of this series, the 1950s also saw the publication of two of the most pivotal works from one of the greatest science fiction writers of all time, even if the man himself denies such a title: Ray Bradbury.
"I Don't Write Science Fiction"
Ray Bradbury was an American author who most decidedly did not write science fiction, at least according to him. So, why is it that his name appears on every “best science fiction authors of the 20th century” list, and why am I about to spend the rest of this science fiction essay talking exclusively about him and his work? The short answer is that he sort of did write science fiction (the long answer is that it’s a bit more complicated than that).
The thing is, Bradbury believed that science fiction is "the art of the possible". In fact, he is often quoted as saying the following about his own work: “I don’t write science fiction. I’ve only done one science fiction book and that’s Fahrenheit 451, based on reality. Science fiction is a depiction of the real. Fantasy is a depiction of the unreal.” Full disclosure, I have tried for months, with limited success, to locate the original source material for that quote. The best I can find is a reference that claims he said it in a 1999 interview with Weekly Wire. However, the quote does appear about a hundred times (overlaid on inspirational images) on totallytruequotes dot com, so he must have actually said it, right?
Regardless of the authenticity of the quote, if you remember our discussion last month on the defining features of the Golden Age, it actually makes a lot of sense. While contemporary science fiction may contain more wild and outstanding ideas that we can only dream into possibility, the Golden Age was defined by its adherence to scientific realism. For Bradbury, this meant that stories about traveling to Mars and meeting (and, spoiler alert: warring with) Martians was altogether unrealistic. But dystopian societies wrought with censorship and book burning? Yeah, that's probably going to happen sometime in the near future.
So, as a Golden Age author, it makes sense that Bradbury would regard Fahrenheit 451 as science fiction while excluding something like The Martian Chronicles. And yet, I can almost promise that if you make the trip down to your local used bookstore, you’ll find the latter in the science fiction section right next to the former (that’s where I found them, afterall). As I teased in the very first episode of this series, designating something as science fiction (or not) is a messy business, even when the authors themselves have had a say in the matter.
But before we move on to Fahrenheit 451, Bradbury’s only science fiction novel, I want to spend a brief moment with The Martian Chronicles, because I think it has earned our attention.
In 1950, Bradbury published a collection of short stories, many of which had already appeared as standalone stories in literary magazines, as a novel called The Martian Chronicles. When they were originally written, Bradbury did not intend for these stories to be published together, only choosing to do so at a later time. As a result, the novel doesn't necessarily follow a single plotline throughout its chapters; yet, it is clear that all of the stories are set in the same literary universe. The entirety of The Martian Chronicles takes place across the time period between 1999 and 2026 and tells of man’s attempt to travel to and colonize Mars as Earth is threatened by nuclear war. The stories are arranged in chronological order, and while some of the individual plot points and characters do appear in multiple stories, each story can, and does, stand on its own. However, there are a few common themes that run throughout the chronicle, specifically those warning of the hazards of uninhibited militarism, colonialism, and nuclear power. Throughout the collection, Bradbury sends a clear message: once man destroys Earth, he is bound to try to destroy Mars as well.
Without stumbling too far into hyperbole, The Martian Chronicles is, without a doubt, one of the most interesting, intelligent, and well-written books that I have ever read. The chronicle format, along with the merging of standalone short stories into one novel, is honestly just some really smart writing. If you’re interested, this one gets my full recommendation.
But, as much as I love The Martian Chronicles with so much of my dorky little science fiction heart, I will honor Bradbury’s wishes and spend some time discussing Fahrenheit 451, which, if we’re being fair, also deserves our utmost respect and attention.
Burning Paper Castles
Fahrenheit 451 (1953) is one of those novels, like Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World and George Orwells’s Nineteen Eighty-Four, that is regrettably often assigned as high school reading. It truly is a shame the number of people out in the world that have not read Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 simply because they were once told that they must.
Originally published as the 1951 novella “The Fireman” in the magazine Galaxy Science Fiction, Fahrenheit 451 is the story of a dystopian American future where books have been outlawed, and “Firemen” have been tasked with enforcing this law through the practice of book burning. After he strikes up an unlikely friendship with a young girl, one such fireman, Guy Montag, begins to question the world around him, along with his role in it. With guidance from a former English professor named Faber, Guy rebels against the life that has been created for him and resolves to help a group of exiled book-lovers rebuild a better society.
Though such a simple story, Bradbury manages to pack an incredible amount of heart, wisdom, and warning into Fahrenheit 451. The most overt theme of the novel is the dangers of government censorship and overreach, which was a primary concern of the very outspoken Bradbury in the wake of the second world war. When Guy begins to question the censorship, his Fire-Captain, Beatty, explains to him that book burning is essential to maintaining societal uniformity and happiness (which, in a dystopian society, means conformity and government control):
"We must all be alike. Not everyone born free and equal, as the Constitution says, but everyone made equal. Each man the image of every other; then all are happy, for there are no mountains to make them cower, to judge themselves against. So! A book is a loaded gun in the house next door. Burn it. Take the shot from the weapon. Breach man's mind. Who knows who might be the target of the well-read man?"
However, according to Beatty, the censorship was not entirely the fault of the government. Rather, it was partially self-imposed by the people. As populations continued to grow and become more diverse, everyone demanded something different from the media. As a response, the media became the mass media. Easier to consume, but more of it, and faster. As Beatty says, “‘Books cut shorter. Condensations. Digests. Tabloids. Everything boils down to the gag, the snap ending.’” At the end of the day, books were tossed aside, and the government machine, eager to control the narrative, was happy to go along with it.
In essence, Bradbury managed to predict, way back in the 1950s, the mindless production and consumption of social media in the 21st century. (Interestingly, he also predicted the invention of bluetooth headsets and headphones, which he calls Seashells, along with portable TVs a few years before the first ones ever came to market.) However, despite his prediction and condemnation of the influx of rapid-message media platforms, and the subsequent decline of long-form media (i.e. books), Bradbury was not altogether opposed to television. He even produced The Ray Bradbury Theater, a series of episodes based on his short stories that are still available to stream online today. In fact, in Fahrenheit 451, Bradbury argues that the message, rather than the medium, is what's truly important.
As Guy Montag begins to question his role in the destruction of books, he seeks advice from Faber, who tells him:
"It's not books you need, it’s some of the things that once were in books. The same thing could be in the ‘parlor families’ today. The same infinite detail and awareness could be projected through radios and television, but are not. No, no, it’s not books at all you’re looking for! Take it where you can find it, in old phonograph records, old motion pictures, and in old friends; look for it in nature and look for it in yourself. Books were only one type of receptacle where we stored a lot of things we were afraid we might forget. There is nothing magical in them at all. The magic is only in what books say, how they stitched the patches of the universe together into one garment for us.”
However, Faber further explains that books can provide three important things that Guy has so desperately been searching for: "‘Number one, as I said: quality of information. Number two: leisure to digest it. And number three: the right to carry out actions based on what we learn from the interaction of the first two.’” With this guidance, Guy Montag, and maybe even Bradbury himself, sets off on a journey to restore society’s love for books.
In reviewing these themes, it’s easy to see why Fahrenheit 451 made such a lasting impact on the science fiction, speculative, and dystopian literary genres. Bradbury’s impressive ability to predict future technology, along with his practice of championing for the free exchange of knowledge and art, especially during a particularly tumultuous time in American society, rightfully earned this novel a place at the top of countless “best of” lists. And yet…
When it comes to consuming media and art, I think we have a real problem with playing favorites. I’ve started to notice this cultural phenomenon where someone expresses interest in something, and then suddenly that interest gets pigeonholed into a little box called "favorite book" or "favorite author" or “favorite whatever”. Once that happens, once you lay claim to a favorite (by choice or not), you are then expected to know about and support every aspect of that favorite thing. Oh, you like to read? You must have a favorite author. So you watch sports? You have to pick a favorite team. Favorite this. Favorite that.
When did enjoying media and art and hobbies become such a commitment?
So here's my confession: I am rarely, if ever, willing to choose a favorite… well, anything. Because, 1. I've only consumed a miniscule percentage of the available media out there, so how can I know that one specific whatever is my favorite, and 2. Due to some weird, natural law of media consumption, the exact second that you pick a favorite something, you'll learn how problematic it is. And then you'll feel like a shithead.
Take for example finding out that the artist that inspired you to push the boundaries of your own art was an abusive misogynist who stole art from other cultures without giving credit. Or that a movie series that helped you feel more ok with being a little bit different was based on books written by a transphobic author. Or your favorite tv show, book, album, etc. is suddenly marred by the discovery of new (or old) information about the artist involved in the creation of that art.
So, no, I prefer to not have a favorite author, or book, or painter, or band. Hell, I can't even commit to a favorite literary newspaper.
Unsurprisingly, the science fiction literary genre is not immune to that phenomenon. As I mentioned last month, Isaac Asimov was accused of sexually harassing women in the science fiction community. Don't forget HP Lovecraft, who named his cat a racial slur. And Ray Bradbury? Well, let’s just say that Bradbury expressed some political opinions later in life that I find to be quite shortsighted and damaging. But does that mean that I have to, or even want to, stop reading the works of those authors?
For me, the question isn’t really about whether you should separate the art from the artist, but simply, can you. I promise that I'm not here to debate the morality of consuming art from problematic artists, or even how to define "problematic"; that is a much larger conversation. Rather, as I get deeper and deeper into science fiction, I find that I am having to ask myself the same question over and over again: does what I now know about this author change the way that I read and enjoy their work?
More often than not, the answer is ‘yes’.
Truthfully, I feel this way about Ray Bradbury. Bradbury’s writing absolutely deserves to be at the top of many lists in science fiction and other genres. Without a doubt, he is a talented writer. His prose is gorgeous and his stories are poignant, and so much of his writing resonates with me. However, there are things that he has said, mostly later in life, with which I vehemently disagree, and I cannot deny how that has altered the way that I consume his work. (I also feel the same way about many other science fiction authors, some I have discussed in this series and some I have not.)
But even still, I strongly believe that certain things–messages, enjoyment, comfort–can be taken from those works even in spite of my problems with their creator. I also think that it’s possible to acknowledge the lasting and overwhelming impact that a piece of literature has had on society, without outright condoning everything the author has said and done, especially that which I find problematic according to my own set of morals.
So, about Ray Bradbury: I love his work, but I do not love him. I value what he has done as an author, but I do not appreciate his opinions as a political commentator. The Martian Chronicles is an incredible collection of short stories. Fahrenheit 451 is one of the best dystopian novels ever written. But is Bradbury my favorite short story or science fiction author? If I had to pick a favorite, I imagine that it could be him. And in a moment of weakness, at the end of Part IV of The Time Machine, I even referred to him as “one of my favorite authors”. But am I prepared to officially claim him as my favorite? No, I can't say that I truly am.
And with so much art out there to consume, why do we even need to pick a favorite?
Alright, if you’ve stuck around through my existential literary crisis, I am truly glad that you’re here. I hope you’ll come back for Part VI, where I’ll be ushering us into the New Wave of science fiction in the 1960s and 70s. And if you know anything about global politics during that time period, then you should expect things around here to get… interesting.
By JL Snyder