BOOK REVIEW: “The Toynbee Convector” by Ray Bradbury (1988)

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ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED ON 10/23/09

I have a weird little chill; I feel weird little footsteps on my grave; I have weird little pain in my back suggesting a piece of my long-moldering youth isn't returning: the 1980s just officially ended for me. I finished that Bradbury book I started in 1989.

I can’t explain why I didn’t finish it then - I can explain it now, with hindsight - but back then it confounded me. I was at the peak of my Bradburyphilia, gobbling up every one of his books, scrambling to find everything I could. I had been for years. I’d discovered him as a freshman in High School, when I read “October Country,” and he scared hell out of me. A year later, I read “Fahrenheit 451,” and fell in love with him. I read more and more by him, always a pleasure, always a prize, peaking, probably, with The Martian Chronicles, which I didn’t actually read until I was a freshman in College. A friend of mine was going in to the Marines, and gave me a whole bunch of his old books, including that one. Bradbury held my soul in his hand like few other writers have done, a seemingly perfect blend of ideas, moral outrage, innocence, wonder, poetry, and mundane concerns. It was the perfect coctail for a young Republibot 3.0, let me tell you.

And then, in 1989, with this book, the fever broke for some reason. Oh, sure, I continued to read him, but there was less stuff I hadn’t already ingested and digested, less and less new material, and yet, and yet “Death is a Lonely Business” was the last book of his to make a major impression on me, and “Green Hills, White Whale” was the last thing I found rewarding, though neither of those were SF at all. And this book…damn, I just never got through it.

Until today, of course.

On the surface, it seemed giddy and exciting - a *new* Bradbury anthology! What could be greater? He’s my favorite writer, after all, everything I want to be! And yet…and yet…well, the first story wasn’t that good. Ok, fine, slow start, keep going. Second story, nope, no better. Third? No. Fourth? Haven’t I seen this all before? Fifth…damn, is there any Science Fiction in this book? Sixth, seventh, eighth, all vague impressionistic tales with no clear beginning and no clear end, all merging one in to another, all strangely indistinct, strangely derivative, strangely uninspired. It wore me down.

I’m not sure where I gave up, or how far I read before I did, but I put the book down. I almost never abandon a book without finishing it, I’m far too OCD for that: I have to know how it ends, if it got better. Even if I forget everything about it a week later, that doesn’t matter: I need to know that I knew, at some point. So I put this on the shelf at some point in 1989, assuring myself that I’d get to it some day. It’s followed me across two colleges, three states, three decades, two centuries, two fiances, one wife, a dozen jobs and at least a score of moves, always dutifully pulled off the shelf, put in the box for transit, then ceremonially pulled out of the box, dusted off, and put on the shelf again afterwards. Did I start to re-read it? Did I thumb through it at random and try to pick it up from wherever my fingers landed? I can’t say. I may have, I don’t remember. All I know is that it has stalked me lo these many years, and finally I decided to have done with it.

And now I am. And now I’m haunted, not by the book - which is bland and forgettable - but by my own mental fingerprints on the book. I read it, and I get the tiniest glimmering of who and what I was back then, and the great gulf fixed between that earlier model of me, and the current one. There’s even some numbers scribbled in my own handwriting inside the front cover - 10862 - I have no idea what that means. There’s no real point in mentioning this, other than it’s unusual, and I just kind of wanted to talk about it.

On to the actual ‘review’ portion of this review:

Billed as “The first new Bradbury collection in nearly a decade,” it’s 23 short stories, long on emotions and short on substance. It’s always difficult to review anthologies, since the tone changes so much from one to the other, but let’s take ‘em item by item, shall we?

“The Toynbee Convector” is the ‘title track’ of this particular album, and without spoiling too much, it’s about the constructive use of lying as a motivational and inspirational factor. The central hook is about a man who may or may not be a time traveler, who may or may not be conning the entire world, but if he is, it’s definitely working. When asked to explain his actions, there’s this beautiful little indictment of our passionless, rational, materialist society, circa 1984:

“Forgotten was the moon, forgotten the red landscapes of Mars, the great eye of Jupiter, the stunning rings of Saturn. We refused to be comforted. We wept at the grave of our child, and the child was us.”

When this proves to be a little to poetic for the main characters interlocutor, when asked to justify how he lied to the entire world for a century (Ok, he really is conning people), he says it was for their own good:

“You see the point, don’t you, son? Life has *always* been about lying to ourselves! As boys, young men, old men. As girls, maidens, women, to gently lie and prove the lie true. To weave dreams and put brains and ideas and flesh and the truly real beneath the dreams. Everything, finally, is a promise. What seems a lie is a ramshackle need, wishing to be born.”

It’s a neat little hook for a story: a guy lies about seeing the future, a great future, and his lie becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy, but, in the end, it doesn’t deliver enough bite. It actually suffers a bit from its inherent Bradburyness, if you will, a less poetic narrative would have suited the material better. Had he written it in 1974 rather than 1984, it would be a classic, but ten years after the water began boiling out of this particular pan, it’s merely the best-produced, slickest track on this collection of B-sides, outtakes, and soundtrack songs. It’s not the best one, though.

“Trapdoor” is a pointless, not-at-all scary little horror story about a house that eats people. Yawn.

“On the Orient, North” gets my vote for best story in the batch, even if it’s fantasy and not SF. It’s a sweetly sad love story between the last ghost in Europe (And even *Saying* that phrase is kind of sweetly sad, don’t you think?) and an elderly Nurse who was never a nun, but might as well have been. Both of them have been alone so long they can’t remember any other way to be, and he’s fleeing to England, where people still believe in ghosts, but wouldn’t have survived the trip were it not for his chance encounter with her.

Recounting his past, he says, “I have ‘lived’ in one place outside Vienna for two hundred years. To survive, assaulted by atheists as well as true believers, I have hid in libraries, in dust-filled stacks, there to dine on myths and moundyard tales. I have taken midnight feasts of panic and terror from bolting horses, baying dogs, catapulting tomcats…crumbs shaken from tomb lids. As the years passed, my compatriots of the unseen world vanished one by one as castles tumbled or lords rented out their haunted gardens to women’s clubs or bed-and-breakfast entrepreneurs.”

Man! When Bradbury is firing on all thrusters, there just ain’t nobody who can touch him!

Ghosts live on people’s belief, and her belief sustains him for a time. Seeking replenishment, she suggests they have a picnic in a graveyard, and tells him they can set up “Anywhere….but carefully! For this is a *French* cemetery! Packed with cynics! Armies of egotists who burned people for their faith one year only to be burned for their faith the next!”

The story is beautiful and funny (As when the Ghost starts to become violently ill when confronted with some French Communists) and clever and sad, without being cloying. Easily the best thing in the collection, and it made me believe - for a moment - that I was a fool to put this book down so many years ago.

Alas, the next story, “One Night in your Life,” is a vapid, pointless, existential not-quite-love story about a man going through a divorce and having one perfect, surprisingly chaste night on a hilltop somewhere in the middle of America. The only good thing I can say about it is that it gave me this line: “When everything is repeated and over and familiar, it’s the first things, rather than the last things, that count.”

“West of October” is another of Ray’s rare “Family” stories, involving Uncle Einar and the rest. This time out, several family kids are astral projecting when their bodies are killed in a fire, so they’re forced to move in to Grandpa’s head. There’s a lot of supposed-to-be-funny-but-it’s-actually-creepy stuff about Grandpa suddenly getting horny, and the boys getting turned on by their own grandmother. It’s played for thought-provoking laughs, but fails on both counts.

“The Last Circus” is one of Bradbury’s Circus-related stories, which I admit I never quite connected with. To me, growing up on my side of the 20th century, Circuses are smelly, shabby affairs full of freaks, reprobates, and elephant turds. On Ray’s side of the century, they’re heaven made manifest. This one’s a vignette about what may be the last circus on earth following a nuclear war, or immediately before one, or it could be that the kid dreaming of the circus is just growing up and will be too old to appreciate it the next time it comes through. It’s a little vague, but entirely too slight to attempt to flense for some deeper meaning.

“The Laurel and Hardy Love Affair” is a cute story of a doomed romance between a fat guy and a skinny girl, who pledge their love - and their love of L&A movies - forever, but then drift apart. The ending is bittersweet and poignant - their lives ended up better without each other than they were with each other - but there’s always that part of you that aches for the bit of you left behind in another’s heart. There’s a great one-liner in it about “Laurel” as a child meeting WC Fields and asking him for an autograph. Fields politely signs the boys autograph book, and hands it back to him saying “There you go, you little son of a bitch!”

“I Suppose You Are Wondering Why We Are Here” might better be titled, “I suppose you are wondering what’s the point of this story,” for it doesn’t really have one. A middle-aged man somehow summons the ghosts of his dead parents up, and has dinner with them in a restaurant. They complain about the place they’re living in the afterlife, complain about the food, and then tell their son that he’s boring. He laughs at this. They go ‘home’ and he cancels dinner with his daughters for the next night because he’s such a bore. The End. No clue what to make of that.

“Lafayette, Farewell,” is an elegiac kind of story about a Ray Bradbury surrogate who befriends the last living member of the Lafayette Escadrille from World War I. The veteran knows he’s not long to this world, and fears the ghosts of all the men he killed in the war coming to get him. “Ray” suggests that the old man simply apologizes, which he does, and the ghosts are appeased. And they all died happily ever after, I guess.

“Banshee” has yet another Ray Bradbury surrogate, this time hanging out in Ireland in the 1950s, writing movie scripts for a John Houston surrogate. Houston tortures Bradbury with backhanded praise and outright insults, until a screaming woman spooks them. Houston says it’s a Banshee, but Ray thinks it’s a gag, and goes out to discover it really is one, seeking a long lost lover who lived in the Houston house centuries before. Back in the house, Ray warns John about this, but John thinks it’s a gag, and, ultimately, having had entirely too much of the bastard, Ray lets him go to his doom with the Banshee. The Ray/Houston things are always fascinating, played to their best extent in “Green Hills, White Whale” - which someone should make in to a movie - there’s a weird love/hate thing going on between them. I guess Hate was winning on this particular day.

“Promises, Promises” is a vignette of the end of an illicit love affair between a married man and his newly-catholic mistress: He promised God that if He’d save the life of his daughter, he’d give up the only thing that meant anything to him: the love of his mistress, and just came by to tell her that. It’s supposed to be bittersweet and raw and meaningful, but just mentioning mistresses in a Bradbury story feels wrong, you know? And her reaction, implying that it’s all just a boy’s club that even God is included in, allowing men to cast of unwanted women, rings a bit disturbing to me.

“The Love Affair” is essentially a newly-written chapter of “The Martian Chronicles,” which could be inserted just about anywhere in the middle of the book. A Martian teen, grown to adulthood since the demise of his race, spys a woman in a cabin in the middle of nowhere, skinnydipping in a canal. He’s instantly lovesick over her, but is she worth it? No, turns out she’s a prostitute laying low for a while since the Church Groups in the colony have shut down all the brothels.

“One for his Lordship, and One for the Road!” another Ireland story - his lordship, who has a fine wine cellar, dies without heir. Rather than give it to the peasants, who couldn’t properly appreciate his collection, he decrees that he should be buried with it. The peasants oblige, though they take the liberty of first converting the wine to urine before they put it in the grave with him.

I think it was somewhere around this point that I stopped reading in ‘89. I have vague memories of the stories prior to this point, but nothing clear afterwards.

“At Midnight in the Month of June” is…well, to be honest, I’ve got no idea what it is. A man who may or may not be a monster, ruminating on his possibly imagined monsterism. I read it, realized I had no clear impression of it, read it again, and still had none. Make of that what you will.

“Bless me Father, for I have Sinned” is a story in which a priest hears the confession of a younger version of himself. Meh.

“By the Numbers” is a story of an abusively strict father who orders his kid around in the 1950s, and a chance meeting with the kid decades later in which the kid explains how his dad’s strictness ended up hoisting him on his own petard. It’s not very good.

“A Touch of Petulance” is a time travel story about a happily married newlywed who meets an elderly version of himself on his way home from work one night. Turns out that in the future he kills his wife, and the future him has come back in time to try and prevent this. Somehow he never noticed how damn annoying his wife was back in the day. This one wavers back and forth between a painful look at how love dies by degrees, and a ‘why bother’ SF story. Ultimately, it doesn’t really work.

“Long Division” is a vignette about a newly-separated couple dividing up their book collection, pursuant to their divorce. It’s as ‘feh’ as it sounds.

“Come and Bring Constance” is a pretty funny romantic comedy about how a misinterpreted letter ends up nearly destroying a marriage, and the ludicrous extremes a shrink goes to in order to patch things up again. It plays like an unusually vicious episode of the “Dick Van Dyke” show - funny, well done, but ultimately forgettable, and not nearly as good as the dream episode with the Twitilights.

“Junior” is a pointless, kind of hard-to-follow story of a young boy being visited by the ghosts of his dead dad’s girlfriends - or possibly the actual elderly women themselves. Meh.

“The Tombstone” is a *Damn* funny story about some stupid Okies who move to LA, and are spooked by a tombstone that just happened to have been left behind by the previous tenants. The story is genuinely funny, has an O’Henry twist to it, and this is all made better by the fact that the idiot wife is deliberately screwing with her husband’s mind.

“The Thing at the Top of the Stairs” is a Green Town story - same place “Dandelion Wine” and “Something Wicked This Way Comes” are set. A former bed-wetter visits his abandoned home as an adult, sees something scary, and wets himself moments before the thing he was afraid of all along turns out to be real and kills him. Feh.

“Colonel Stonsteel’s Genuine Home-Made Truly Egyptian Mummy” is another Green Town story, and a much better one, about how a young boy - yet another Bradbury surrogate - and an elderly veteran decide to add some meaning and panache to people’s lives by deliberately hoaxing the town, and setting up a cabal to keep the hoaxes going. The Bradbury-surrogate declares that he wants to be a writer based on the endless chatter of the Colonel. It’s a cute, funny end that is a beginning.

The end.

And this really is a ‘the end’ of sorts, isn’t it? I’ve fulfilled my younger self’s fealty to my onetime-literary master. I’ve plowed through his dross, most of which wouldn’t have been deemed fit for publication in his prime. It’s not a bad book, mind you, but it is testament to the gradual decline from youthful brilliance to artistic senescence that everyone goes through, with occasional glimmers of startling lucidity. As I said, when he’s really on, there’s no one who can touch Mr. Bradbury, but he’s not on nearly as much as he used to be, bless his heart.

When I put this down decades ago, I think it was because there wasn’t really much SF in it - three stories out of 23 - but I don’t think that’s it. There’s something fundamentally off about the book, or most of it, something cynical and un-Bradbury like. I’m not saying I want happy stupid stories from the guy, I know he can do dark, and do it well, but he doesn’t so much plumb the depths of the human heart here as he does simply resign himself to it. Damn near every male character in the book has had an affair, damn near every female character in the book is either a wife who’s resigned herself to this, or an other woman who’s resigned herself to that. It’s coarse, not in a vulgar way, but in an “I no longer believe in that kind of magic” way. I mean, if Ray Bradbury can’t find true love, what the hell kind of chance to the rest of us have? There’s also a bit more profanity than I’m used to from him.

What I really took from this was an unexpected opportunity to look through you younger eyes for an afternoon or two, to feel the way I used to feel, and think the way I thought back when I though differently than I think now. That’s quite a prize: to spend a few hours in younger shoes, to strip a few miles off your soul, and run around with it as it ran when you were 22, and not 41. To see and recognize forgotten faces in your mind’s eye for a bit, and then forget them again, to feel the flush of love, or at least lust for women who’s names I’ve long since forgotten but who‘s scent stays with me, to be all giddy and manic, but in a good way, without the depressive crash. That’s the unexpected outcome of this book, perhaps the reason I subconsciously kept it on the shelf all those years. That’s what I’ll take from this book, and that’s what I’ll be grateful to Ray for, despite the fact that he couldn’t have intended it. Or could he? Though only incidentally, and accidentally, this book made me feel for a moment like a character in a Ray Bradbury story - a good one, of course, not one from this collection - and I think that in the end, that’s all I ever wanted.

The bottle is empty, there is no more draft within. Tomorrow I’ll drop the book off at the salvation army. It’s served its purpose, and I am happy, and I am oddly sad. I am reborn, and I am old. I even remember what the numbers inside the front cover mean.

But I’m not going to tell you. That’s just for me.

WHAT I'M READING NOW:

"The Star Diaries" by Stanislaw Lem, which happens to be the book that this is based on

and if that doesn't work, try this link http://www.ijontichy.de/trailer/trailerneu.html

AFTER THAT:
"Something Wicked this way Comes" by Bradbury
"The Killer Angels" by Schaara
"The Science Fiction Stories of Jack London" by London
"Highrise" by JG Ballard
"Gumby: The authorized biography"
"Watchmen" by Moore and Gibbons.

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