Thursday, January 24, 2008

Ecce Homo

I was very pleased to see that Avedon Carol linked to my post on Ray Bradbury. One of her commenters was not:
Bradbury's critic nails him. He repeats motifs, he gets details wrong, he doesn't like abstract art. Let's crucify the bastard! Of course, the critic seems to hate representative art, he repeats himself, and he gets details wrong, too, so get that second cross ready. In particular, he cites Bradbury being critical of a magazine honcho catering to minorities just a year before a critical segregation case, but even in the quote he uses, it's clear that Bradbury is using the word "minorities" to mean "niche audiences" -- cat lovers, dog lovers, that sort of thing.

I'm reminded of the Medved books on bad movies, where they whale away on everything, including movies that aren't really all that bad.
My primary target wasn’t Bradbury. I was twitting some of his fans who were shocked! shocked! by his opinions on minorities and other matters, as though they were recent aberrations – when in fact, those opinions also appeared in the book they claimed to love. No one expects you to remember every detail of every book you read, but if you’re a fan who’s read Fahrenheit 451 many times, you should have noticed those dismissive remarks about "minorities." They’re not just a passing detail, they’re spelled out at length in an important (if tedious) segment of the book. I have the same reaction to professed Tolkien fans who spell his name “Tolkein”: if you love him that much, you can at least spell his name right.

And of course, I don’t expect a hostile commenter to get details right either – such as the fact that, even in the quote I used, “minorities” means not only “niche audiences” but “Colored people [who] don’t like Little Black Sambo.” This part startled me when I read it too, because one of the things that had stayed with me since I read Bradbury as a kid was the episode in The Martian Chronicles where all the Negroes leave Alabama to go to Mars.

Before reading F451 last summer (and remember, I had not read it before), I reread The Martian Chronicles and The October Country. That chapter had the same soft-focus Norman-Rockwell sentimentality that suffuses a lot of the book. It’s touching, but as a cynical old adult I can’t help noticing that Bradbury’s Negroes are humble and long-suffering – they’d never pitch a fit over Little Black Sambo, and one way to make sure they never do is to ship them off to Mars. (I wonder now if that episode might have inspired Derrick Bell’s parable, in Faces at the Bottom of the Well [1992]) of an alien race offering white America a treasury of wealth and technological goodies in return for all ‘our’ black folks.)

I’m not singling out Bradbury for disparagement here. He's not really worse than most of American science fiction; the noble engineer Heinlein, to name just one other Midwesterner who struck pay dirt in the ore fields of space, is if anything even worse on race than Bradbury. The science fiction available to me as a kid was mostly the work of white males, and it imagined a future with few women and no non-whites. Isaac Asimov’s Foundation, which I also reread last summer, imagined a galactic empire in which everyone was white and male, except for one or two walk-on females. (In We boys together: teenagers in love before girl-craziness [Vanderbilt UP, 2007], Jeffery P. Dennis showed how inadvertently queer Foundation is. That’s not to say that the notorious cockhound Asimov was gay, only that his hothouse all-male imaginary world left his characters no one to lust after but each other.) Despite his sexism Heinlein, as feminist critics discovered to their surprise, created better female characters than most of his male contemporaries: they might have been Vargas girls in appearance, but they were smart, competent, and played significant roles in his stories.

That began to change at about the time I was losing interest in Golden Age SF, in the late 60s. White women and black men – or rather, a black man, Samuel Delany -- began making an impression on the field. In the mid-seventies, some women friends alerted me to the work of Joanna Russ, Anne McCaffrey, Elizabeth Lynn, and others, and SF began to interest me again. Delany was joined by a few other black writers, notably Nalo Hopkinson and the late Octavia Butler. SF and fantasy now have more variety in them, though they are still dominated by white boys.

No, I don’t want to “crucify” Bradbury. He’s just not all that good, and never was. And his views on minorities in F451, whether cat-lovers or Colored, are unfortunately not antediluvian: they survive whenever someone gripes about Political Correctness. Bradbury was prophetic all right.