Two Bluebirds

I’ve been rereading Ray Bradbury’s (…may he rest in peace…so sayeth we all…) Fahrenheit 451. Actually, I’m listening to it on Audible; there is a performance of it by Tim Robbins which literally makes me weep. It’s THAT good.

Anyway, as I revisit this all-too-prophetic story of a society so frightened by what is uncomfortable, challenging, or even beautiful, I am convicted. My earlier post “Dystopian Reality” goes into more detail, but as I revisit this book, I am more and more convinced that we ought to read dystopian literature with the same care with which we read history.

Most of us are familiar with the following quote by (most likely) George Santayana:

“Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”

However, we ought also to bear in mind this:

“Those who do consider dystopian literature seriously are doomed to find these stories more fact than fiction, more future than fantasy.”

Okay…admittedly, I am quoting myself here and it isn’t even a good quote at that. Regardless, I believe Bradbury would back me up in my claim.

But the real reason I’ve gathered you all here today is to share the following poem, inspired by Clarisse McClellan of Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451: 

The bluebird blinking from my palm, its nest,
Is hollow in its o’er-bright, beeping song
And though its shallow verses are not long—
If only it would lay its voice to rest!

For I saw another bird today take wing;
It caught my eye and I dared not stroll past,
For true moments of beauty rarely last
And yet inspire me all the more to sing.

The first bird blares and yet draws not a breath
As it cries out for me to tend its feed
While yet the other bird has no such need
Though it— alive — is capable of death.

These two are of no familial feather:
One takes to flight, the other to its tether.

Ray Bradbury: a reflection 

Yesterday was the birthday of renouned American author, Ray Bradbury. Three more years and we can celebrate his 100th birthday. But even in 2017, Bradbury’s birthday is special to me because his stories provided the kick-in-the-pants I needed to take my writing seriously. 

Before entering high school, my family and I made a trip to the bookstore. Barnes and Noble was having a sale on its classics (when is it not?) and I picked out two with ease. But when searching for a third (buy two get one), I was at a loss. 

“How about this one?” my mom asked, holding up the book I found least attractive. It was red with planets orbiting on it. Ew, Sci-fi.

“Um…” 

“It’s good!” she persisted. “When I was teaching English, I would read aloud a short story from this book every Friday!” 

Oh great, I was thinking. Science fiction and short stories. 

Poor little me. I was so fixated on reading thick Austen or Bronte novels in an effort to seem impressive that I felt I was above fanciful scribblings about space. 

The irony…now I cannot help writing such scribblings myself.

Not wanting to argue any longer and urged on my my brother, who was worried we would miss our movie, I surrendered. I purchased my selections and let the Ray Bradbury collection thud like a rocket into the bag, forcing its way between the indignant British classics. 

That night, after the movie, I lay awake. Perhaps the movie had not satisfied my desire for a good story. Perhaps I had just eaten too many candies during it. For whatever reason, though, I found myself flipping open the red tome. 

“Let’s see if you live up to your reviews,” I might have whispered into its crisp pages, which fell open with all the grace and crunch of snowflakes. 

Minutes later, I was buried in an avalanche of words that fell so beautifully from Bradbury’s mind to pen to page that I could not dig my way back out had Jane Austen herself called for me.

Hours later, I was several stories in and near tears with that delight that only true bookworms know- the inexplicable thrill of having found writing that transcends mere ink and paper, writing that is instead made of the same substance as dreams. 

I devoured The Illustrated Man and made dessert of The Golden Apples of the Sun. It was with great self-control that I rationed out The Martian Chronicles for a later year when I was in need of escape. 

And, as this diet of “words, words, words” digested, it fueled ideas. 

And soon, these ideas begged for a form. Or did they beget a form? (Alas, Plato…your philosophy is not wanted just now.) 

As my ideas grew on those of Bradbury, I sought advice on how to bring them from the abstract brainstorm into croncrete being. 

Write a short story every week. It’s not possible to write 52 bad short stories in a row.” 

Bradbury’s words came to me (possibly via Pinterest) and away I flew.

I definitely did not write 52 stories. 

I definitely did not write more than a couple semi-decent ones.

But I was writing and that was enough.

(Not that I hadn’t been writing before. My memory boxes are stuffed full of the “newspapers” written in crayon and “manuscripts” typed on the family computer with my mom as my editor.)

But now something clicked within me and I could not seem to stop writing. This blog testifies to that; not every post gets likes, some poems are feeble in hindsight, and only a few stories turn out to be keepers. But just like Bradbury’s short stories, it is impossible to have a year’s worth of bad posts, right? 

Don’t answer that. 😉 

Back to Bradbury. He inspired me to write (especially speculative fiction) and continues to make me fall more and more in love with literature every time I read his writing. 

For instance, just a few days ago I finished reading Herman Melville’s Moby Dick and then watched the 1956 movie for which Bradbury wrote the screenplay. It was quite possibly the most flawless book-to-screen transition yet. Bradbury perfectly portrayed the central themes of MD in under two hours. (Whereas the book took…well, a long time, to read.) 

He also wrote Leviathan 99, which is dedicated to Melville and is essentially Moby Dick in space. This stunning novella portrays the same themes of MD in a completely different setting, yet does so with such mastery that I believe Melville would be proud. (Also, pro-tip: if you don’t have time to read MB, just read Leviathan 99.

Reading Leviathan 99, I was filled with the same joy and wonder that I felt when first reading “The Veldt,” the first story in The Illustrated Man. Reader, do your mind a favor and listen when your English teacher mother encourages you to purchase a Ray Bradbury collection.

Although Ray Bradbury is sadly no longer with us in body, we are still able to celebrate his legacy on his birthday. He has left his readers deeper in love with literature and filled with awe at the power of writing. 

He has, also, left us a little bit lost on Mars. 

Dystopian Reality

Dystopian novels have been “in” for several years now. The Hunger Games and Divergent were the most popular reads of my high school days. Brave New World, 1984, and Anthem were on the AP reading lists. I continue to devour Ray Bradbury’s work.

However, we forget the purpose of dystopian fiction, which is to warn and protect us from creating such futures in reality. Dystopian fiction remains fiction only so long as we read and heed these books as warnings, not merely as disturbingly entertaining tales.

While we continue to be shocked by the dystopian stories we read, we are at the same time allowing ourselves to fall into them. By labelling them as “fiction” we are separating them from our reality and from our future. We feel terror and disgust as we read them, but can easily brush them aside as “mere stories” once we close the covers.

Ray Bradbury once said,

“You do not have to burn books to destroy a culture. Just get people to stop reading them.”

As much as I’d like to say Bradbury is inerrant, I would like to alter this statement ever so slightly for the sake of clarity:

“You do not have to burn books to destroy a culture. Just get people to stop believing them.”

As soon as we assure ourselves that dystopian societies are just monsters created by authors, they lose their power to prevent us from growing into such societies. The moment we begin to read these books as fiction, when we stop believing that such horrors and degeneration might be possible, is the moment we begin to descend into dystopia ourselves.

images-1.jpgIf children were to read the classic tale of Hansel and Gretel as merely a story that could not possibly have any truth to it, the preserving concept of “stranger danger” loses its impact. We cannot read this story to children without explaining its moral and begging them to heed its lesson.

In the same way, adults cannot read dystopian novels simply as futuristic fairy tales; we cannot consume them only for their shock and entertainment value. Rather, just as we would hope that children learn caution from Hansel and Gretel, it is our duty as responsible readers to learn an even greater caution from stories such as Brave New World, Fahrenheit 451, and even The Hunger Games. 

It is of even greater importance now in 2017 than when these stories were originally penned, even if that was not long ago. We already have turned deaf ears to the warnings of these stories and are already reaping the consequences as we slip into dystopia.

Consider the following: 

images

 Remember the citizens of the Capitol in The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins? We were bothered by them for their selfishness, their vanity, their degenerate morality, and their obsession with entertainment. But are we equally concerned by such lifestyles in reality? Or do we shudder at them between pages and then act as they do in our own lives without even realizing?

download-2In The Giver by Lois Lowery, another YA dystopian novel, babies who are not up to standards are “released.” I remember my friends and I crying over this chapter in elementary school. Yet now so many former young readers champion the killing of the pre-born because of detected health problems, special needs, or simply because the child is unwanted. How can we justly promote in reality the things of which we once read with sorrow?

download-3Fahrenheit 451 is fairly explicit in its message (Bradbury makes no attempt at subtlety -bless him). Yet while we read of the death of literature, we retreat without a thought into cheap entertainment as soon as we finish the book. Worse, we ignore his clear warnings and are happy to glean our information through soundbites and social media blurbs rather than through thorough reading, considerate conversations, and serious thought. Are we, too, mindlessly “watching our stories” without discernment or contemplation?

fullsizeoutput_161Perhaps the most shocking dystopian novel I’ve read is Brave New World (Aldous Huxley). At least, it was shocking when I read it four years ago. Now, it feels rather ordinary. (Has the world really fallen so far in four years? Perhaps I am simply older and sorrowfully wiser.) As I read this book, I was horrified at the unrestrained sexuality of it; most characters sought only their own pleasure, cared nothing for relationships, and procreation was a thing of the distant past. But is this so far different from today? We find ourselves living in a generation that boldly protects promiscuity and demands consequence-free pleasure while conservative approaches to relationships are scorned as old-fashioned.

download-4.jpgAyn Rand’s Anthem centers on a character called “Equality 7-2521.” Everyone is equal, but, ironically, no one is free; every member of the society is equal to the extreme that none of them may differ from others. Today, are we perhaps striving for a dangerous equality like that of Anthem? We must certainly protect and value all people equally; however, Anthem warns against forcing equality of thought. Although we read this warning, do we follow it? The minute someone expresses an idea that we consider offensive, are we quick to aggressively silence him or her rather than admit that we all have the right to think freely?

I am not saying that everything in these dystopian novels will come true, but they are not nearly as far-fetched as they once seemed. Certainly I do not expect America to be divided into factions or our teenagers to be sent into battle against each other or for us to mate according to selection by governors. However, there are undeniable dangers to reading dystopian novels as fiction, just as there are dangers to ignoring the morals of fables and fairy tales.

We ought to read dystopian books as seriously as we read history books. It is said that “those who do not learn history are doomed to repeat it” and so we diligently are set to studying history from the minute we enter school. We also are encouraged throughout our school days to read dystopian stories, but we must not be satisfied with reading them as mere fiction. Rather, we must read them with the discernment and diligence with which we study history. It is imperative that when we read dystopian books, we read with great awareness of their relation to reality so that we are not, like poor history students, doomed to live them.

 

The Same Sun

“There is nothing quite like the moment when an idea strikes and you can whip out your notebook and favorite pen and scrawl away for an hour. I’ve been going nonstop for weeks now and was overjoyed to have time to write something other than my 30 page political manifesto. (*cries from post-paper-writing trauma*) Anyway, this little story ties together some concepts from my philosophical readings and my own random questions with what I like to imagine is a Ray Bradbury-esque twist. Let me know what you think!

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The Same Sun

The view was spectacular.  Almost enough to make one believe it had been painted, sculpted by some great cosmic artist rather than produced by blind nature with no talent but plenty of time.

Almost.

So Atlas thought to himself as he sat among the spectators, his fellow elite of the Earth. Those elite who, seven years ago, had fled to Mars to escape after some unknown thing had taken a large portion of the population. It might have been a disease. Or a secret enemy. Nobody stuck around to investigate.  All anyone remembered is that where one moment a man stood, the next he was gone. It had seemed so random; one janitor vanished, leaving a broom to fall unattended, while another continued mopping; one mother and child disappeared without a trace while another was left to rock her startled toddler; one surgeon asked for a scalpel and another turned to hand it to him only to find empty air.

Terrifying.

The wealthy did not care to investigate, seeing no explanations in accordance with their unbending logic. But even their logic was subject to fear, so they fled as far as they could from earth, desperate to avoid catching (or perhaps, being caught by) what became known as “the sudden death.” Of course, nobody knew for certain that the victims died, but what else happened when one disappeared?

That was seven years ago now.  Atlas and his partner, Eden, had fled along with the rest of their social class. With the vanishing of thousands followed so soon by the abandonment by the upper class, the oligarchies of earth fell into madness. Now,  Atlas sat in a stadium with hundreds of others, staring through telescopic glasses out across the solar system at a single bluish orb floating like a lonely teardrop in a dark sea. Earth.

“Beautiful view, isn’t it,” Eden said, sauntering up behind him and laying a red-lacquered hand on his arm. Her other hand clutched a wine glass. It was so full that only its magnetic rim kept its iron-laced contents from spilling over and onto her blouse.

“Yeah,” Atlas shrugged. “It’s something else.”

The solar system spread itself before him, a mobile of multicolored planets. He himself perched on the red one: Mars. The Martian Colonies had been experimental for decades. Now, though, with such a rapid influx of investments from the wealthy in their eagerness to escape the sudden death, it became not only livable but luxurious. Seemingly overnight, the industrial Martian Colonies transformed into what some called “New Vegas” and others- poetic from the combined effects of the change in gravity and the influence of Martian wine- called “Paradise.”

From where he sat in the bleachers,  Atlas scanned the planets and moons before him, shining gemstones set against the dark velvet of space. His eyes settled on the sapphire and topaz earth. He turned the dial on his glasses and zoomed in for a closer view of his native planet.

From afar, it was still beautiful. Almost enough to make him homesick for the greens of trees and of the sea near his home.  Almost. When he got a closer look, the feeling faded. Brown, dusty, and swarming with ants who were really men. Rough with the pockmarks of mines and the sharp scars of city skylines. Turning around and peering over the rim of his glasses, Atlas feasted his eyes – thirsty and sore from the sight of decrepit earth – on the artificial Martian oasis behind him. Without having to crane his head, he could see the lights of cabarets, smell the aroma of wine and food, and hear the ever-blasting bass of the Night-and-Day clubs.

Yes, this was better.

“Quake number 333 has struck earth,” announced a bored voice over the broadcasters. “Anytime now, the pious-” he pronounced this word with an audible sneer “- of earth expect it to happen.”

It…

Atlas’ mind flashed through months of news reports.

It.

The gathering of the pious.

The judgement of the wicked.

The end of the world…

Well…the end of earth at least.

An involuntary shudder ran through Atlas. He felt Eden’s nails tense around his bicep. He had forgotten she was there.

“What’s wrong?” she asked.

“Nothing.”

“Exactly,” she said, quirking what might have been a witty smile had she not already downed two glasses of wine. “Nothing.”

“What?” Atlas turned to her.

“Nothing. That’s what is going to happen. These people…the ‘faithful,’ the weak…they’ve been waiting and praying, counting signs and whispering that this thing they call ‘the Day’ is coming. But for what? Nothing. They’re hoping for paradise to come for them. Well, paradise is here!”


She threw out her arms as if to display to Atlas the splendors of Mars, her wine sloshing but stopping at the rim. She beamed, obviously proud of her quippy conclusion. She watched Atlas for a reaction, but, receiving none, lowered her arms and resumed her easy manner. She licked her lips as if savoring her own superiority along with the wine. Her sly mannerisms, usually so attractive, sent another shudder down Atlas’ spine.

“Then why are we watching?” he asked softly.

“What?”

“If nothing is going to happen, why are we here, on Mars, watching like a crowd at a football match, to see what happens? Why pay and wait to watch nothing?”

“Well…” Eden bit her lip. Her confusion was over in an instant, though, and she was all smiles once more. “It will be fun to watch them run about in confusion with nothing happens. Like ants when their hill collapses. Too bad we don’t have a magnifying glass big enough to make them sizzle just a little.”

She laughed at herself.

Atlas stared at her, his eyes wide behind his glasses. She always became a bit morbid at night but this…he shook himself. He was being silly. He was being illogical. Nature was all he saw, not a beautiful design. And nothing was all that would happen, not some wondrous conclusion to the story of earth.

That was all.

And yet…

“Reports of thunder are arising from every continent on Earth despite unusually clear skies,” drawled the voice of the broadcaster, sounding only slightly more interested in this new development.

The crowd barely paid any attention, but Atlas scanned Earth’s atmosphere. No signs of storms. Not even clouds over South America. And yet, the radio had said thunder?
“Suppose,” he faced Eden. His voice had come out too sharply. He cleared his throat and tried again. “Suppose something does happen. Suppose it happens.”

“Does it matter?” sighed Eden.

“Pretend it does.”

“Well,” she said, speaking as if to a child who had pestered her with too many questions already, “if something does happen, all the better for us! We have the best seats on Mars and are safe from anything on Earth.”

“Judgement.”

“Huh?”

“That’s what they – the weak- claim is coming. Judgement.”

“So what? We are here. Judge the Earth? By all means! Makes a better show for us on Mars. I swear,  Atlas, you’ve been in an odd mood all night. Want a sip?” She held out her nearly-empty cup.

“The cup of wrath shall be poured out,” Atlas murmured. He had heard someone say that once on Earth. He had laughed aloud at the time, but now something clenched inside his chest as he remembered the phrase.

“What? I swear…” Eden said again. “You are being awfully serious tonight. And not fun at all.”

She tossed aside the cup and folded her arms over her chest, pouting.  Atlas ignored her. Something else caught his eye. Clouds were gathering in the sky over Earth in one large mass. A hurricane? No, it could not be. It was too mountainous.

In his odd, fanciful mood,  Atlas thought briefly that the clouds looked exactly like a chariot, horses and all. He stared at them in wonder for a moment before, without warning, the sun burst from within them.

But…

The sun was not on Earth. And yet…

A deafening sound reverberated through the air, so strong that he only knew Eden had gasped by her open mouth. He gripped the armrests of his chair and focused his glasses in on the scene before him, aghast.

The trumpets blasted again, shaking him to the depths of his soul. That is, to the depths of his body. He knew rationally that men were animals with no souls. But he did not have time to reflect upon this before another sound crescendoed with the trumpets, surrounding him- and Mars- as well as Earth, from all sides.

He was trembling and, though his vision was unsteady and spotted by the afterimage of that glorious, inexplicable sun, he saw that Eden was shaking beside him. In fact,  Mars itself was shaking. They had watched dozens of Earthquakes from their safe, removed Paradise, through the lenses of telescopic glasses. But never, in the seven years since they had emigrated from Earth to Mars, had they felt their new planet – their world – quake beneath them.

The light of what could not possibly be the sun but could not be called otherwise became blinding. Atlas found that shutting his eyes did nothing against its radiance. He turned away. Behind him, he saw the lights of the cabaret flicker and go out. He watched as food carts, as if in slow motion, toppled and spilled their wares. He watched men stumble about, shocked at the magnificent and horrifying scene they had not expected to watch, let alone perform in. He saw women in ridiculous heels crumple to the ground, their men either letting them fall without noticing or going down with them and remaining on their knees, unable to rise.

Spiderweb cracks thickened and multiplied across the gold-stoned street, spreading up over even the red stones of its buildings. The very sky seemed to crack as veins of that terrifying, wondrous light cut through the atmosphere of Mars like a sword, turning its rust-colored air blood red.

Atlas turned his face back toward Earth, but found the Sun instead. Its brilliance sent pain shooting through his skull. The thundering grew louder. It felt as if it were coming from within his own head. And then the thunder turned to the stampeding of horses. It had been horses all along, he realized, his logic forsaken. What use was logic now? His soul laughed bitterly at him, for he now knew without a doubt that he had a soul.

Another tremor shook the ground, yanking the chair out from under him and tossing him to his knees. He stayed down, no longer daring to stare into that all-consuming, burning, living light. He was a child who had tried too many times to look at the sun and he had finally learned.

Another trumpet blast sent his heart simultaneously up into his throat and down into his stomach. Ecstasy and agony fought in his chest and ended in a despair that could not even find relief in lament.

His mouth fell open and he felt sure he would be sick. But only a word fell out.

“Holy.”

The light flashed. He dared not move. Another trumpet blast sounded. The thundering hooves of horses were upon him. He felt, rather than saw, Eden fall beside him and had just enough time to think that it was almost funny: Paradise crumbling behind him and Eden collapsing beside him. 

Almost.

He could not laugh, though. He could only think over and over that they had been wrong. It had happened.

The Day had dawned.

Mars was no escape.

It was a different planet, but they shared a Sun.

The Day dawned for both Mars and Earth.

Awe and horror filled him, every corner of his body and soul felt ready to explode with the sensation, yet instead poured out in another despairing gasp of “Holy.”

And then, the Day burst forth as the Son rose completely. It had happened and all that remained were fear and trembling: trembling souls on a trembling planet, in the midst of a light they were unable to bear.

“Holy.”

Writer’s Despair: Part Two

Last night I was struck with a severe case of what I have dubbed “Writer’s Despair,” the cruel cousin of Writer’s Block. Unlike with Writer’s Block, I could not break through Writer’s Despair by searching through my idea notebooks or looking up prompts on Pinterest. Rather, WD hung over my head like one of those cartoon rainclouds, allowing me to write, but not allowing me to take pride in what I wrote. Even worse, this grey cloud of WD prevented me from seeing my work as unique or worth finishing.

“Oooh,” I’d think to myself, scribbling away in my notebook. “I will have a scene where the main character realizes that…”

“Predictable and cheesy,” grumbles WD.

“Fine,” I think. “How about-”

“Nope. Already done.”

“Well…”

“Why bother?” sighs that stupid cloud. “You’ll never publish this novel. Actually, the odds that you’ll ever publish a book of any sort are low and- hey!- look over there on your shelf: Newberry McWritesALot has published five books already. And there you are, blogging again, pretending to ignore me.”

Ouch. Writer’s Despair stings. A lot. On the verge of tears, I decided that I was not going to let this persistent and metaphorical cloud rain on my equally-metaphorical parade. I marched over to my new books and picked up Bradbury Speaks. And thank goodness that Ray Bradbury did speak, for from his words, I gleaned the single best piece of writing advice I have ever received and it was enough to evaporate WD for the time being. Bradbury, probably my number one writing mentor (despite never having met him and him being, unfortunately, no longer alive), had these words to offer as he discussed his writing methods:

“What we have here, then, is a very unusual approach to writing and discovering, not knowing the outcome. To move ahead on a blind journey, running fast, putting down thoughts as they occur. And along the way my inner voice advised.”

There are three key pieces of comfort that I found in these words:

1. Writing is about “discovering.” It is about mysteries. And guesses. And hopes and dreams and abstract ideas. Plot graphs are nice and cutesy, but ultimately, to be authentic, they must be abandoned to some extent so that the writer can discover through his or her freedom the realms of possibility in the world of words.

2. Writing is a “a blind journey.” Sure, this means that some stories will go off on tangents, some flop miserably, and some make zero sense to anyone but the writer. However, through these miserable flops and failures, the writer will find stories with plot twists he or she never could have planned, characters that seemed to create themselves, and stories that fly because they are not bound to a carefully-charted arc.

3. Writing is about finding and expressing your unique “inner voice.” I do not have a specific style of writing. Jane Austen did, Charles Dickens did, and J.R.R. Tolkien certainly did. I do not, yet. As of now, I am an infant writer, experimenting with rhetorical devices I learned in school and writing of experiences that are not my own. But someday I will find the style that fits, if I just keep on writing. Essays, blog posts, stories, journals- it does not matter. If I just keep trying, putting letters on a page and attempting to communicate my ideas, one glorious or perhaps simply ordinary day, my “inner voice” will finally spill out onto paper and Writer’s Despair will no longer call me unoriginal.

Ray Bradbury’s words have inspired me today. I may not be working on my novel as I should be, but here I am: writing. So take that Writer’s Despair! Not today!