The first science fiction book I read was a gift, a collection of short stories by Arthur C. Clarke. But the first science fiction book I consciously picked from a library was Ray Bradbury’s Martian Chronicles.
My school had organised a large book-reading event with a local bookshop. We were all supposed to pick a novel, read it, then talk about it in front of the class. Naturally, most books were of the educational variety, novels on real life problems, with teenage heroes and patronising narrators. These books bored me to death, and in general, they saddened me—there’s nothing more depressing than well-meaning adults projecting their fantasies of what teenagers should be like in the hope that their audience will be touched. So when I read ‘science fiction’ on the cover, I grabbed the book, took it back home, and read it in a couple of sittings.
Few books had moved me in this way before. I felt I could touch the ground of Mars, I was thrilled, I shuddered at the occasional darkness and cruelty. I don’t remember how many times I read ‘Ylla’, that Martian version of Madame Bovary, only it’s a Madame Bovary where the heroin is understood, not crushed under the condemning weight of provincial stupidity and hysteria, nor turned into a foil to expose the insignificance of her husband’s life. What I remember, however, is failing to find the words to recommend the book to my classmates, so different it was from anything we’d been expected to read up till then. But I didn’t care. I soon found more books—Fahrenheit 451, The Illustrated Man, A Cure to Melancholy, The Machineries of Joy, The Golden Apples of the Sun, I Sing the Body Electric and some more. Reading them, again and again, understanding dawning on me.
I didn’t know what literature was about before I discovered Ray Bradbury’s books. There were books I was supposed to read (which were by necessity boring), and books I read to pass the time (which I was supposed to outgrow). The Martian Chronicles changed it all. I had never been told how to explain what made them so wonderful. I found awkward words by myself: they could make me step into another world while describing mundane reality, they would make Martians realer than humans, blurry pictures more vivid than documentaries. Naïve as such statements were, they were the first time I found out by myself how to explain what made a book worth reading. That’s when I started reading, instead of repeating the readings of others, of re-explaining, in ever the same words, why this or that famous work deserved indeed to be so famous. Three years after The Martian Chronicles, I tried again to find a decent explanation of what had made me read Death Is a Lonely Business three times in a row, and failed, again. The teacher praised me for ‘having attempted a critical reading, even though it was not much more than a summary of the book’, and I gave up for a few years after that.
The words have come now, though I’ve been using them to write about other books than Ray’s. Of all my teenage infatuations, they are the only books I didn’t read again when I set out on my PhD. I read The Lord of the Rings again and then some more, and Lovecraft’s stories, but I didn’t open The Martian Chronicles. It’s not that I outgrew them. Rather, something in me was scared—couldn’t come around to it, for fear that my newly-practised analytic brain would find them wanting. That wasn’t something I was ever ready to face, though I seldom looked at it this way.
I found the courage yesterday at last. I found they were wonderful.
Rest in peace, Ray Bradbury.