Tag Archives: ray bradbury

The Weird ~ The Crowd ~ Ray Bradbury

I have decided to pick up a project I put down some time ago because, well, life, stuff, the usual reasons, mostly life and stuff. So it’s back to reading The Weird, edited by Ann and Jeff VanderMeer.

Ray Bradbury’s ‘The Crowd’ is the last of a group of stories in The Weird (the others were Wollheim’s ‘Mimic’ and Fritz Leiber’s ‘The Smoke Ghost’) which seemed to focus very specifically on the intrusion of weirdness into the mundane. In many respects, Bradbury’s story is the most mundane of the three. While Leiber transforms the oppressive smoky atmosphere of the city into something tangible, and Wollheim speculates about the nature of the people who hide in, and on, its anonymous buildings, Bradbury turns instead to a common-or-garden phenomenon: the crowd that gathers when an accident occurs.

We’re probably all seen it. Something happens. A crowd very quickly forms. In this instance, Mr Spallner has crashed his car, and for a moment there is silence. And then ‘The crowd came running’ (284). As Bradbury says, ‘They had all come from – where? Houses, cars, alleys, from the immediate and the accident-shocked world. Out of alleys and out of hotels and out of streetcars and seemingly out of nothing they came’ (284).

On the one hand, we might see this as simple curiosity. People want to know what’s happening. And yet Bradbury has already imbued the scene with a subtle menace: ‘they came running’ somehow sounds more threatening than it ought to, given Mr Spallner has had an accident, and that menace is enhanced by the reference to ‘the sound of their numerous feet’. It makes them sound more like charging animals than human beings, and perhaps this hints at the nature of Mr Spallner’s anxiety. The crowd isn’t people so much as a thing in itself: urban living has been characterised for a couple of centuries at least by that fear of the crowd, the mob, the capacity for violence. One can get lost in a crowd, true, but simultaneously, the crowd can turn on someone. There is a moment when you might think of the crowd as being like one of those big flocks of birds on their way to winter roosting, twisting and turning in the sky, an entity made of individuals. It’s a very curious thing indeed.

Mr Spallner is alarmed by the crowd. They pronounce upon his survival as he is lifted into the ambulance, like a gathering of street sibyls, but while he is reassured by this, knows that they are right, something isn’t right.

The crowd looked at him and he looked back at them and did not like them at all. There was a vast wrongness to them. He couldn’t put his finger on it. (284)

Perhaps it is that Mr Spallner doesn’t like to be the centre of attention:

The ambulance doors slammed. Through the windows he saw the crowd looking in, looking in. That crowd that always came so fast, so strangely fast, to form a circle, to peer down, to probe, to gawk, to question, to point, to disturb, to spoil the privacy of a man’s agony by their frank curiosity. (249)

This seems to me to be about more than a man surrounded by people after an accident. Instead, it touches perhaps on a deeper dislike of living too close to other people, of having too much of your business known.

Except that, unlike the crowd, Bradbury has the delicacy to turn away from the story at this point. Instead, there is something else bothering Mr Spallner: the spinning wheels on the car. There’s a nicely filmic quality to this detail. You can imagine a hallucinatory montage – the wheels spinning, the ring of faces, the wheels spinning, the ring of faces …

And finally, Spallner works it out. Or at any rate, it’s played so long on his mind, he thinks he’s worked it all out. The wheels on the car are still spinning. How did the crowd get there so quickly? Spallner’s doctor suggests that his sense of time has been affected: what seemed like a short time was probably much longer. And that may be true, though the only time I was ever in a road accident, my experience was that while it might have seemed to go on for a while, I know the whole incident was over in seconds because the same news item was being broadcast on the radio. So time dilates rather than contracts. (For that matter, people arrived on the scene very quickly indeed, which suggests again that Spallner’s concerns might have a psychological origin.)

Much of the middle portion of the story is predicated on the idea that once you notice something, you can’t stop noticing. And thus Spallner, having become obsessed with the speed at which the crowd arrives, can’t stop looking at the crowd when it does arrive, and making patterns. If it weren’t for the confirmation offered by a taxi driver about how odd it is, perhaps he would let the matter drop. But he doesn’t, and there is the moment when he witnesses the aftermath of another accident, notes the speed at which people come running, and hears someone in the crowd saying that the victim shouldn’t have been moved. And the moment when he feels the faces, or many of them, are familiar.

Spallner starts looking at old photos of crowds at road accidents for some sort of confirmation of his new idea that it is the same people reappearing. ‘Old photos of crowds at road accidents’– it’s all too easy to forget how this sort of thing was once news to the extent that you might record the presence of the living as well as the vehicles themselves. (And this is not a thing that Bradbury has made up specifically for this story – there are historical photos all over the internet.)

So, we have moved from Spallner’s sense of wrongness, which we might interpret as a personal dislike of proximity, to an external confirmation of the presence of the same people at accidents, over and over, though Spallner has not, so far, connected the two. But I find myself wondering, given the fuzziness of newspaper photographs, how he can be so sure. Or does he want to be sure. Has he constructed an explanation that makes even less sense?

Quite late in the story it’s hinted that Spallner himself has started finding his way to accidents, looking for these people, these members of the crowd, but somehow is always thwarted in his attempts to actually speak to them. And we might begin to wonder then what Spallner himself has turned into. Do these people even exist? How is it that they always ‘slip into the crowd and vanish’ (287).

And you’ve probably already guessed how this is going to turn out, more because it is inevitable than because it is heavily signalled, although it’s fairly clear what is to happen once Spallner realises that the same people keep appearing.

But what we never know is why they are doing it. Or what it is they are doing. According to Spallner, they arrive ‘to make certain the right ones live and the right ones die’ (288), which makes them sound like some sort of urban Fates, though he quickly enough turns this into murder, so it’s not a passive exercise. And yet, it is as though Spallner himself doesn’t know what they are. They are ‘the faces, the construction, the cast’ (289), somehow always there. Or at any rate, since the city grew up. What was it before car accidents, I wonder? Riding accidents? Carts overturning? Or did they emerge into being specifically because of the car smashes?

We never know. In fact, we never can know. That’s the beauty of the story. And yet, ever afterwards, you can never look at a street accident in quite the same way.

Reading Sightings by Gary K Wolfe

And this, the most recent of my reviews for Foundation

Sightings: Reviews 2002-2006 – Gary K Wolfe
(Beccon Publications, 2011)

In the December 2003 issue of Locus, Gary K Wolfe reviewed, among other things, John Clute’s Scores: Reviews 1993-2003. Wolfe and Clute have a number of things in common, not the least that they are major genre critics who are best known to the reading community through their work in what Wolfe, in his review, calls ‘monthly venues’. While Clute elsewhere ploughs a highly visible if sometimes idiosyncratic theoretical furrow, thanks to his ongoing work on the Science Fiction Encyclopedia, Wolfe’s impact on the field is less immediately obvious, though no less significant, be it as an editor (he has recently edited a collection of sf novels for the prestigious Library of America) or as a literary critic (see Evaporating Genres: Essays on Fantastic Literature, his 2011 collection of extended essays), or more recently as one of the hosts, along with Jonathan Strahan, of the weekly Coode Street podcast. No one could ever accuse Wolfe of shirking his responsibilities as a critic and commentator.

Wolfe suggests that one should not approach Scores with ‘the idea of gaining a comprehensive overview of SF or fantasy’ but I would argue that this is to an extent what Wolfe himself achieves with Sightings and its predecessors, (Soundings: Reviews 1992-1996 (2005), Bearings: Reviews 1997-2001 (2010)), not least because of the magnitudeof his output. He has been writing reviews for Locus for twenty-odd years, and in that time he has created a formidable rolling overview of a particular facet of the genre through this series of monthly snapshots.

Wolfe’s Locus columns employ a comparatively straightforward formula. Each month Wolfe reviews a handful of titles, novels, short story collections, anthologies, and occasionally works of non-fiction. How these titles are chosen remains obscure; one assumes Wolfe has some say in the selections, not least because certain authors reappear regularly in his reviews, and they are authors for whose work he clearly has some affection. It is also immediately clear that Wolfe is playing a long game. Each title he discusses is carefully situated in its historical or theoretical context. To take a particularly effective example, the very first review in the collection, covering Kim Stanley Robinson’s The Years of Rice and Salt, and two anthologies by Gardner Dozois, Supermen: Tales of the Posthuman Future and Worldmakers: SF Adventures in Terraforming not only offers a sharp and pertinent discussion of the ways in which alternate history is nowadays so often debased but also provides an illuminating potted history of the theme anthology. Wolfe’s reviews are invariably studded with such helpful nuggets of contextual information, intended to bring the reader quickly up to speed on particular genre issues, and valuable even to the experienced reader. At such times, Wolfe’s prodigious knowledge of the field is elegantly but unobtrusively displayed; the reader is informed but not intimidated.

This raises, then, the question of how Wolfe perceives his Locus audience. Locus has always, formally or informally, represented itself as the trade paper for the genre, providing a steady stream of information about markets, sales to publishers and forthcoming publications, alongside reviews and interviews. Precisely what niche Locus now fills is not clear, though it has gone far beyond its original intention, to keep fans in touch with what was being published in the sf field. I suspect that one can no longer guarantee that the Locus audience will have a deep knowledge of the history of sf alongside an interest in contemporary work, not least because there is now simply too much to read. In which case, Wolfe’s reviews serve, in part, as a primer in sf history, situating the texts under discussion as part of the broader continuum of genre. In fact, there is a distinct flavour of the seminar about these reviews at times, perhaps not surprising given Wolfe’s own background as an academic and educator.

This raises further questions about the nature of Wolfe’s criticism. His analysis is very sharp but as Matthew Cheney noted in a 2011 review of Evaporating Genres, ‘it is the sort of analysis provided by good book reviews: interesting, provocative, concise, but not thorough’, which is of course precisely suited to this particular venue. What is also notable is Wolfe’s scrupulous fairness in these reviews – almost too fair, as one occasionally wonders if he is capable of saying a bad word about anyone (not helped by a widespread anecdotal perception that Locus only publishes positive reviews). While it is difficult to imagine the ever-courteous Wolfe carrying out a vitriolic takedown of an author (though I find myself wondering what such a thing might look like, were he to be driven to it; and indeed, what would drive him to do such a thing), a close reading of his reviews reveals more than the occasional note of asperity when an author has done something particularly crass (though often softened by being enclosed in brackets). At such times Wolfe writes more in sorrow than in anger; it is remarkably like having a beloved tutor inform you that he is very disappointed in you. At other times, he has the ability to sum up a discussion which has generated thousands of words in other venues in one pithy sentence. I think particularly of his comment on the endless controversy of Margaret Atwood versus SF: ‘She’s not demeaning the SF market so much as protecting the Atwood market.’

Bringing the reviews together in a collection such as this reveals another, perhaps unconscious, facet of Wolfe’s project. Individual reviews are transformed into cumulative wisdom, as Wolfe creates a dense fabric of critical connective tissue through some well-placed cross-referencing, encouraging the reader to think beyond the individual review. While reading an entire collection of these reviews will not provide a detailed portrait of sf activity in those years covered it will nonetheless still flag up the most pressing issues in the genre at any given moment. When discussing the writing of Ray Bradbury, as Wolfe does several times in this collection, he frequently expresses the belief that in Bradbury’s work it’s not so much the individual story that is Bradbury’s métier as the short story collection, and I wonder if the same couldn’t be said for Wolfe himself. As individual reviews, these are enjoyable, educative, perceptive but inevitably ephemeral; it is only when the reviews are collected that their true strength can be fully realised.

Which is not to say that the collection is in every way perfect. At times, one could wish for a little more bibliographical detail within the reviews – tracking the history of the republication of Kim Stanley Robinson’s and John Crowley’s short story collections might have been easier had there been a year of publication at least. The text is also marred in places by distracting typos and odd little formatting flaws, which momentarily force the eye away from the page as the brain tries to make sense of what it has just seen. However, the sheer usefulness of the text as a whole outweighs the nuisance value of such things.

Returning to Wolfe’s review of Scores, he concludes that it ‘amounts to a long and pleasant evening in which too much wine is drunk and too many ideas are flung on the table, but from which one returns, veering a bit, with the conviction that this stuff matters.’ Much the same might be said of Sightings; to finish reading it is to emerge with a new sense of engagement with science fiction, as well as a strong determination to do better with one’s own reviewing.

Archive – Roil – Trent Jamieson

Another golden oldie from Interzone in 2011. I recall I struggled to fit my views into the allotted words.

Roil (Book 1 of The Nightbound Land)
Trent Jamieson, Angry Robot, 384pp, pb

Trent Jamieson draws his inspiration for this novel in part from the fantastic fiction of the early twentieth century. He invokes Hope Mirrlees in his portrayal of small-town life, and most explicitly in the town of Mirrlees-on-Weep but he draws his plot, and indeed the trilogy’s title, from William Hope Hodgson’s The Night Land. The inhabitants of Shale are similarly threatened by a planet-wide cloud of heat and vapour which corrupts everything with which it comes into contact, and in which strange creatures lurk. Hope Hodgson’s characters have long since retreated to the Great Redoubt, a metal pyramid so vast it holds more than a thousand different cities, but on Shale, the survivors struggle on, concentrated into fortified towns, most of which have now been lost to the Roil while the others are threatened by a sudden acceleration of the cloud’s progress.

In The Night Land the occupants of the Great Redoubt, sheltered from the threat outside, have become detached from their past. The inhabitants of Shale, by contrast, are still in the process of losing their history and with it the knowledge that might save them from the Roil. Several characters believe the explanation for the Roil’s presence lies unrecognised in the history books, and this is made explicit, perhaps excessively so, by the way each chapter of the novel begins with quotations from different accounts of Shale’s past. Using this evidence, the smart reader naturally suspects that Shale’s inhabitants may themselves be responsible for the Roil’s creation but this prospect is so terrible they can barely acknowledge it. The Engineers deal in what seem like abstractions to the majority but the Confluents are concerned with day-to-day survival and are critical of the Engineers’ trust in big solutions although they know their own response to the threat is pathetically inadequate. Attitudes have hardened into political ideology over the centuries, leading to the creation of the Vergers, a security force to keep the two groups apart but one with its own inscrutable agenda.

In this atmosphere of fear and paranoia, the Engineers have staged a bloody takeover, leaving David Milde, son of a Confluent leader, on the run. A drug addict, he is an unlikely candidate to survive a journey through dangerous territory, and it is a mercy that he is quickly – too quickly – found by Cadell, a mysterious figure associated with the Confluent but also much older than them. At the same moment, Margaret Penn, daughter of two of the most able scientists on the planet, is fleeing Tait, which had survived in the Roil until its defences were sabotaged. It is inevitable that the paths of the two young people will cross, the only question being, to what purpose?

Purpose is an issue in this novel. Jamieson has worked hard to establish the novel’s atmosphere, a mixture of grime and melancholia that echoes Ray Bradbury and Michael Swanwick alongside the earlier writers. But, as trapped in his own literary history as his characters are in their past, Jamieson seems to have abandoned story. David and Margaret forever teeter on the brink of making significant discoveries without ever quite getting there, as aimless in their thoughts as they are in their wanderings. One longs for them to grasp at least some of the dark hints that Cadell offers them but they seem remarkably slow to understand. I’d like to believe this is Jamieson’s deliberate choice, an attempt to hold the reader’s attention that has misfired, but too often it seems as if he’s not sure which way to go, or else he is too in love with his setting to move beyond it. As a result this novel is stiff with unfulfilled potential as its characters dawdle along, impotent in the face of the Roil’s threat. I only wish I were eager for the next volume because of the strength of the storytelling rather than to see how Jamieson writes his way out of the technical impasse he’s created.