01/05/2010. Contributed by Pauline Morgan
pub: Subterranean Press. 300 page 474 deluxe hardback. Price: $35.00 (US). ISBN: 978-1-59606-290-0).
check out website: www.subterraneanpress.com
In 2007, these editors put together a volume tracing the development of Ray Bradbury's iconic novel 'Fahrenheit 451' for Gauntlet Press with the title 'Match To Flame'. Now they have produced a very similar collection for a different small press publisher, Subterranean Press, this time without commentary. In fact, the most important thing missing is the date of publication or writing of these stories. The result is that it is lacking a context. As the review copy is a proof, it is possible that this has been rectified in the final edition. Nevertheless, assuming that the stories are in chronological order, this volume does show a progression in the ideas and concerns of Bradbury's thinking.
Many authors have various themes and concepts that they re-visit throughout their career. Some even produce the same polemic in novel after novel. Others develop their ideas and produce better arguments. In Bradbury's case, this has taken the form of a dire warning: if we carry on as we are, this is what will happen!
It is a theme that recurs in his writing and is still very relevant today: the dumbing down of literature and the consequent rise of the inane and the shortening of the attention span.
The sequence of stories dates from the 1940s and here begins with 'The Reincarnate'. This concerns a man who has dug himself out of his grave in order to go back and visit his wife. During his walk to her home, he meets another dead man who exhorts him to come to a meeting where the dead will rise up and take over from the living. Except that no-one turns up.
'Pillar Of Fire' re-addresses the theme of the dead walking, but this time it is 300 years later and Lantry walks because graves are being dug up and the corpses are being incinerated. He is angry and tries to destroy the incinerators. He also tries to resurrect other dead people but fails. In both cases, the walking dead are motivated by strong emotions. At one point, he is walking along the road and is stopped by a man in a car who thinks it is wrong to be walking, a theme taken up again in others of these stories. He also visits a library and finds that seditious writers such as Poe, Lovecraft, Machin and Bierce have had their works incinerated.
'The Library' takes a small part of the 'Pillar Of Fire' in that the authorities are burning books. The custodian explains, in vain, that when he dies, so will the imaginations of the authors. The world will be a poorer place without books.
'Bright Phoenix' also has the censor arriving at the library to burn books but this time he is shown that while people live on, books and the ideas they contain will live on as well. Here, Bradbury is introducing the idea of readers memorising and preserving passages from books.
'The Mad Wizards Of Mars' is a surreal story. As books have been destroyed on Earth, the pain of the death of books has resurrected the authors. Poe, Hawthorne, Blackwood and similar writers are living on Mars amidst the creations of their imaginations. As a rocket containing the last copies of their books approaches, they plan to kill the crew. However, as the books are burned, the authors fade away. Thus by destroying books, we are also destroying an important part of our heritage.
'Carnival Of Madness' again takes the theme of forbidden writers, especially the fantasy/horror writers. Their books had to be burnt because the contents were too disturbing. So Stendahl has a House of Usher built and invites all those who censor literature to a big party and has them die horribly in the manner according to the proscribed writers.
'Bonfire' plays on the fears of the time it was written of the atomic bomb setting the whole atmosphere alight and destroying life on Earth. This is paralleled by the thoughts of William Patterson who is regretting the imminent demise of art and literature when the bomb is ignited.
'The Cricket On The Hearth' takes another fear of the time, that of government surveillance. This brings another element into the development of ideas, that of the watchful state.
'The Pedestrian' harks back to a small incident in 'Pillar Of Fire' and the idea that walking is a sign of insanity, a prophesy that appears to be coming true as the majority rely more and more on cars despite the cost of running them.
'The Garbage Collector', like 'Bonfire' and 'The Cricket On The Hearth', deals with a more pressing concern at the time it was written. In this case, the protagonist is considering quitting his job when told that in event of an atomic bomb strike he will be expected to load his cart with bodies instead of garbage. It is the kind of reversal of jobs that the Fire Service experienced in 'Fahrenheit 451'. The skill of a good writer is to turn present conceptions on their head.
'The Smile' goes back to the idea that the appreciation of art or literature is doomed as if it is not accessible to all it should be accessible to no one. In this story, the working people are invited to line up and spit at the Mona Lisa. A young boy in the line is captivated by her smile and when the signal comes for the picture to be ripped to pieces, he manages to get the bit with her smile on.
Both 'Long After Midnight' and 'The Fireman' are essentially two versions of the same story. Both are the bones which finally became 'Fahrenheit 451'. They incorporate a number of themes that appeared in earlier stories. Montag is a fireman in a world where owning books is illegal. They contain ideas and might make people think. There is very little crime because the populace is soothed by a continuous diet of pap through the TV, radio and bland, consumer-based magazines. Walking, though not illegal, is only done by the anti-social and the weird. Montag's job is to burn books. He is an intelligent man and is intrigued by the forbidden, so he steals books. He walks at night to get away from the banality of his home life and when he finally rebels, he is turned in by his wife (this is very much a surveillance society). He runs and finds a group which preserve books by memorising them.
The finished novel was originally published in 1953 but so many of the themes and Bradbury's concerns are still very relevant today. We could still see a world like that portrayed in 'Fahrenheit 451' Which book will you memorise?
Included in this volume, there are three bonus stories, 'The Dragon Who Ate His Tail', 'Sometime Before Dawn' and 'To The Future'. All three of them are variations on the theme of time travel.
If you've already got 'Match To Flame' and 'The Dragon Who Ate His Tail', where these stories also appear then you might think twice about buying this book. If you haven't, then you're thinking for the third time and want to save the book from the great fire.
Add SFcrowsnest.com daily news updates to your own web site or blog - just cut and paste the code below...
Stephen Hunt's novels - USA