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Mars in apogee

Bradbury Stories: 100 of Bradbury's Most Celebrated Tales, Ray Bradbury, William Morrow: 894 pp., $29.95

August 03, 2003|Scott Timberg | Scott Timberg is a Times arts reporter and co-editor with Dana Gioia of "The Misread City: New Literary Los Angeles."

Ray Bradbury is the first Los Angeles writer many people read. He's also the first reasonably serious writer -- someone concerned with political and moral themes -- many encounter. His early science-fiction novels and story collections have drawn readers, especially intellectually ambitious teenage boys, for a half-century now. Many of these Bradbury fans become lifetime readers, moving into all kinds of weightier fare, from the darker, more complicated science fiction of William Gibson, Ursula K. Le Guin and Philip K. Dick to mainstream literary work without end. He's the ultimate gateway drug.

"Bradbury Stories: 100 of Bradbury's Most Celebrated Tales" is a new anthology of work selected and introduced by the author, one that does not overlap with an earlier collection from Alfred A. Knopf. First, the good news: The stories included here from "The Martian Chronicles" -- first printed in magazines in the late '40s and later published as a story cycle inspired by Sherwood Anderson's "Winesburg, Ohio" -- remain powerful, even at times rhapsodic. With their combination of lyricism and quiet gravity, these stories are so different in tone and effect from the rest of this volume that they could be the work of another author entirely. Perhaps they're best attributed to the writer Bradbury briefly became and perhaps could have remained. Here's the opening of "February, 1999: Ylla":

"They had a house of crystal pillars on the planet Mars by the edge of the empty sea, and every morning you could see Mrs. K eating the golden fruits that grew from the crystal walls, or cleaning the house with handfuls of magnetic dust which, taking all dirt with it, blew away on the hot wind."

The setting is so strange that it can take a while, as it does for the Earthmen who arrive and struggle with the planet's thin atmosphere, to adjust to the author's cadence and imagistic marvels. Here's the second sentence:

"Afternoons, when the fossil sea was warm and motionless, and the wine trees stood stiff in the yard, and the little distant Martian bone town was all enclosed, and no one drifted out their doors, you could see Mr. K himself in his room, reading from a metal book with raised hieroglyphs over which he brushed his hand, as one might play a harp."

This graceful, morally serious book marked not only the author's mainstream breakthrough -- thanks in part to a rave by Christopher Isherwood, who brought the kind of respectability to Bradbury that W.H. Auden would later bring J.R.R. Tolkien -- but a triumph for the science-fiction genre itself. Before long, Time magazine was hailing Bradbury as "the poet of the pulps," and suddenly science-fiction authors were appealing to a mainstream, sometimes even intellectual, readership.

"Bradbury Stories" includes five pieces from "Chronicles," which began a debate among science-fiction fans about whether the author was part of their club. Detractors called him an anti-science-fiction writer, since he was suspicious of technology and often seemed to lack interest in science altogether. The genre, in those days, prided itself on its "hard" nuts-and-bolts science and was more masculine and far less literary than it became in the late 1960s, when the "New Wave" writers of England and America brought psychology, feminism, liberalism and the social sciences into the mix.

Parochial debates like this are best left to the purists. What Bradbury does is often closer to a blend of Edgar Allan Poe and Aesop's fables than the now-forgotten authors of space operas: He creates myths, or metaphors, that express universal human truths by slightly displacing them. At their best, they're ambiguous, resonating equally into the past and the future.

The Martian stories, for all their high-tech settings, are rooted in the Bible and Nathaniel Hawthorne's Puritan allegories. With its pioneering Earthmen who discover a culture they can't understand and aim to recreate Old World lives, the book echoes backward to the conquistadors -- and L.A.'s Ohio-born settlers -- and forward to "Apocalypse Now."

In their way, "The Martian Chronicles" are nearly as good a guide to the history of Southern California as the histories of Kevin Starr. The final story in the "Chronicles," "The Million-Year Picnic," not collected here, may still be the truest and most poignant description of becoming a Californian. Of the stories collected here, Bradbury's combination of moral seriousness with understatement and irony works best in "June 2001: And the Moon Be Still as Bright," which takes its name in part from a poem of Byron's. After landing on Mars, years after several failed expeditions, one of the Earthmen gathers some wood and watches it burn.

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