Tag Archives: Ray Bradbury

Imaginative Limits

My brain is in a weird place this morning. I woke up in the middle of a vivid dream and I haven’t quite managed to get my head on straight since; also, it’s a new month. The year’s turning. There’s a lot going on.

All this – and some incidental stuff, like the fact I watched the movie Avatar yesterday for the first time in ages and a book review I read this morning – are conspiring to fill my mind with thoughts of speculation about the future and how little, in real terms, we can know or imagine about it.

Photo Credit: Firestoned via Compfight cc

Photo Credit: Firestoned via Compfight cc

I like to read SF books. I won’t say that I’m well read; beyond the basics (Philip K. Dick and Robert A. Heinlein and Ursula K. LeGuin, and a few others), and a couple of oddities I’ve picked up second-hand over the years, I have a fairly thin knowledge of the genre overall. I’m more of an interested amateur. However, one of the things that has always struck me when reading SF is, strangely, not the unlimited breadth of imagination that greets the reader, but the strangely limited views about humanity and its future that one tends to encounter. One of the ways in which this manifests, for me, is the fact that I’ve rarely, if ever, come across a classic SF book which doesn’t mention ‘tapes’ – audio and video tapes, history recorded on reels and reels of celluloid, manually operated and paused and edited. This has always fascinated me.

We can imagine worlds where giant gelatinous cubes can make three-dimensional copies of any object placed in front of them – essentially, an organic 3-D printer – but we can’t imagine anything like a digital future (In Philip K. Dick’s A Maze of Death (1970)). Even Fahrenheit 451, one of my favourite SF novels, imagines a totally analogue world, despite the fact that television screens have become so large that they act as the walls of the room the viewer is sitting in. Books are still hard-copy, and nothing like the internet has even been thought of. The book review I read this morning was for The Monadic Universe, by George Zebrowski (1977), which features a story called ‘The History Machine’, again imagining an archive far in the future which is entirely dependent on tapes. I haven’t read this story but it did chime with the impression I have often received when reading SF books and stories – when it comes to certain aspects of human culture and technology, SF seemed to have been strangely blind.

(Then, of course, you have books like Neuromancer which blow this ‘theory’ out of the ballpark, but you don’t often find books like that – books which resemble our world, but a much less humane and comforting version of it. Usually SF books make me feel like we live in a horror-filled version of their dream of the future; Neuromancer makes me feel like we live in paradise. But I digress).

Sometimes I read SF books and I realise exactly how rooted they are in the world which created them, and how indicative they are of the prejudices and preoccupations of their own age. Inverted World, for instance, which I recently read, was originally published in 1974 and, while being an amazing book about relativity, environmental decay and massive-scale engineering, it also features the most egregiously offensive scenes in terms of its treatment of women and marginalised peoples, and their function in this society. Of course, perhaps this was the point – maybe the author was trying to say something meaningful about how no matter how much changes in terms of technology, old school prejudice and sexism will always be alive and well – but I’m not sure. It just seemed to be a no-questions-asked, this-is-how-the-world-operates acceptance to me, and quite possibly a reflection of the world it came out of rather than the world it was imagining. I know all literature does this – and of course it does, because nobody can see the future – but for some reason I expect more of SF. I expect it to be focused on imagining wider horizons, presenting ways in which the future will be better, more than we can dream of, filled with impossibility. But this genre, more than any other, describes exactly how limited the human imagination can be. We see futuristic societies and thought processes and whole centuries of imagined history (far into our own future, of course), but we still rely on tapes, or women are still abused, or it’s still all about war and terror, and the whole edifice collapses.

Then, perhaps is a cause for optimism that these SF novels seemed so limited in so many ways. As they wrote stories about far-distant futures where celluloid was king, in reality the seeds for a digital future were being sown. As they wrote stories about women as objects for use like any other resource or tool in worlds all over the galaxies, women in reality were fighting – and winning – their battles here on Earth. As we were taking some of the best ideas from the SF novels so beloved by so many and turning them into reality, we were also developing faster than any SF novel had ever dreamed. Perhaps it’s a sign of how far we’ve come that our development has outstripped the dreams of our most far-sighted writers, and perhaps that’s something to be celebrated.

And perhaps I should have rolled over and gone back to sleep this morning instead of getting up and trying to function. Who knows?

Welcome to a new week, y’all. Let’s try and make it something to be proud of.


Classic Inspiration

If only I could show you the fabulous blue sky outside at the moment. If only. But I have no camera, and even if I had a camera I’ve no idea how to hook it up to this computer-thingie (I’d probably accidentally create a black hole, or something). Let’s just say, it’s a gorgeous morning here, blue from edge to edge, and my garden is sparkling in the sunlight.

I’m in love with this day.

“i thank You God for most this amazing day:
for the leaping greenly spirits of trees
and a blue true dream of sky; and for everything
which is natural which is infinite which is Yes…” (E.E. Cummings)

It’s incredible how much difference a bit of sunshine can make to the nation’s mood. On the radio as I write, the DJ is asking for people to do a shout-out for the sunshine, to share their joy at the beauty of the world with everyone they see. To be fair, I can see how that might backfire, depending on the grumpiness level of the person with whom you’re sharing your joy, but I also think it’s a wonderful image – a whole country full of people yahoo-ing and high-fiving one another just because the sun decided to shine.

Get up the yard! Image: setdancingnews.net

Get up the yard!
Image: setdancingnews.net

It’s also helping my mojo, in a major way. It’s probably no secret to you, if you’re a regular reader, that I’ve been feeling a bit (read ‘a lot’) uninspired for the last while; I’ve been having the whole ‘palpitations and heartburn’ thing going on, elevated stress levels, the whole lot. Since yesterday, though, I’ve been starting to feel better. On this beautiful hazy blue day, I can appreciate that part of my anxiety may have been connected with the weather, but it was mostly due to the fact that I felt like I was looking down into a big black pit of nothing, listening to it whisper ‘your ideas are all gone! You might as well give up, right now!’

Well, take that, big black pit of nothing. Are you ready for a revelation? Take a deep breath, now…

Yesterday, I wrote a story.

Yes! I sat down, an idea in mind, and wrote a story that seemed to just appear on the page. I printed it and read it over once I’d finished it, and then I left it sitting for a while as I busied myself with other things; finally, I revisited it, pen in hand. I did make some changes, mainly with descriptions and paragraph breaks, but it remained largely the same from draft 1 to draft 3.

Image: beefymuchacho.blogspot.com

Image: beefymuchacho.blogspot.com

Yes, captain. I, too, was flabbergasted.

This is a cause for celebration because yesterday morning, as I tried to get the writing ball rolling, I ended up doing the classic ‘staring at the flashing cursor’ thing. My brain felt like a slab of ice, and I realised I was starting to get the shakes, such was my terror that I’d never find so much as a single letter to place on the white page in front of me. After a while, I couldn’t take it any more and so I got out for a walk, I did the dishes, I pootled around for a bit, all the while tossing ideas around in my head. Everything seemed pointless.

Then, my beleaguered brain remembered something. It was sort of like throwing a rope to a person hanging by their fingernails – the last straw, of sorts. The whole day was going to go to waste unless I got things under control, and so I did the only sensible thing I could – I listened to myself.

Here’s what my brain was whispering: Shirley Jackson! Read some Shirley Jackson!

I have a tiny Penguin Popular Classics edition of five Shirley Jackson short stories (entitled ‘The Tooth’ – recommended) among my books; however, I hadn’t seen it in months before yesterday morning. Within seconds of my brain’s SOS call, though, I had the book in my sweaty fist, and I did what I’d been told. I sat down. I read the book, start to finish, all five stories in a lump. As I read, my mind started to slow its whirring, and my heart thumped a bit more gently, and eventually my shakes came to a stop. Reading these stories was the best thing I could’ve done.

In case you’ve never heard of her, Shirley Jackson‘s work was amazing. Another author who died far too young, she was a master of the short story form, and one thing she did really well was suspense and gently creeping horror. She wrote stories which seem somehow weird as you read, but you don’t really know why until you get to the end, when your jaw is left hanging at the words on the page before you. Her story ‘The Lottery’ is one of my favourite pieces of short fiction, ever, and I couldn’t believe it had been so long since I’d read it.

And so, once I’d finished reading, I sat down and wrote my own story, straight through without stopping; my story is, of course, nothing like a Shirley Jackson story, but the important thing is this: it came to me after I’d filled my brain up with all the lessons her stories teach. Suspense, hinted-at horror, excellent dialogue, descriptive touches, deft flicks of colour and detail, sensations, unease rooted in the body, making the everyday seem somehow strange and different – all these things soaked into my dried-up brain yesterday, and resulted in me breaking through a block I’d had for nearly a week. Reading her stories made me realise what a short story should be, how it should work, and the power it can have. As well as that, it gave me back my conviction that writing stories is important, meaningful and worthwhile.

So. If you’re having a hard time with your words, perhaps try taking inspiration from the classics. Of course I recommend Shirley Jackson, but there’s also Flannery O’Connor, Carson McCullers, Ray Bradbury, Maeve Brennan, Emma Donoghue (not sure she qualifies as ‘classic’, since she’s still alive!), and so many others.

Go outside into the sunshine, and bring a book, and read it. And then add your voice to the chorus, and never listen to that black pit. The ideas will always be there, if you’re quiet enough to hear them calling.

Have a lovely Thursday!