I must confess that I normally would have never picked up Martian Chronicles on my own. But somewhere in 2013 (or was that 2012) I signed up for a MOOC class on Coursera which involved reading Ursula Le Guin’s Left Hand of Darkness and Ray Bradbury’s Martian Chronicles. Although my sister went on to diligently complete the course in flying colours I chickened out somewhere between the first session and the second assured that my pathetic internet connection (oh the days before fibre optic internet- what did we do?) would never allow me to access all the video lectures on the course. So Ray Bradbury slept in his brown cardboard and plastic wrapping fresh from flipkart for ages (Ursula Le Guin escaped a similar fate only because I bought that one as an ebook on kindle- I read Left Hand of Darkness- fantastic book!- in August this year, only because it’s easier to surreptitiously read a book on your ipod than a physical book) until I finally had the chance to unwrap the book and read it this last long weekend. I really enjoyed reading the book which as the title indicates is a collection of narratives that give you an insight the broader planetary events in both Earth and Mars. I’m not trying to review the book in this post but I wanted to just highlight one or two things that struck me as I read the book.
Two recent events happened concerning movies that were recently released or about to be released. If you are in India you certainly cannot have missed all the noise around “PK” the latest movie released by Aamir Khan. People who follow my blog know that I have very little interest in Bollywood but I tune in whenever there is a debate that concerns “artistic licence vs offending a certain section of people”. If you didn’t know, this latest movie has provoked the ire of certain religious groups as it offended their sensibilities (this movie had earlier courted controversy with its teaser poster of a naked Aamir Khan with only a transistor covering his private parts). The Supreme Court of India in its supreme sensiblity refused to ban the film and despite the vandalism of some cinemas in certain parts of the country the movie runs to packed houses almost everywhere else. Internationally, you would have certainly caught the developments about Sony Pictures and their movie “The Interview” and I really don’t need to say much about this.
So with all this in mind I was really struck by a passage in Ray Bradbury’s book where he talks about this whole issue of censorship of art and literature.
“It was a grain of sand. They began by controlling books of cartoons and then detective books and, of course, films, one way or another, one group or another, political bias, religious prejudice, union pressures; there was always a minority afraid of something, and a great majority afraid of the dark, afraid of the future, afraid of the past, afraid of the present, afraid of themselves and shadows of themselves…with a screw tightened here, a bolt fastened there, a push, a pull, a yank, art and literature were soon like a great twine of taffy strung about, being twisted in braids and tied in knots and thrown in all directions, until there was no more resiliency and no more savor to it. Then the film cameras chopped short and the theatres turned dark, and the print presses trickled down from a great Niagara of reading matter to a mere innocuous dripping of ‘pure material’. “
Ray Bradbury wrote this in 1950 responding to themes from his own times but I don’t deny that this is where I fear that we may be heading. Of course there has always been censorship over the ages and some in times worse than ours (fancy being burnt at the stake anyone?) but somehow that passage just sounded very prescient in the current scenario.
About 20 years ago when I was in 6th grade (or was it 7th) I remember reading this story/ excerpt in our English textbook. I was studying under the CBSE curriculum then. The story was tale of what we would call “a smart home” these days, where the house automatically does everything (it was like magic those days, these days more reality) but that the house had been abandoned due to some catastrophe and after being destroyed by a fire one last wall of the house stands to say “Today is (fill date)”. This story made a huge impact on me in school and I was completely moved by the pathos of the story. I kept thinking of that lonely voice in that empty world repeating the same phrase endlessly- nobody would come home anymore. Imagine my shock then when I encounter the same story (or else the one I read in the textbook was a careful. lightened recast for 10 year olds) in Bradbury’s book. I was truly stumped. I am not sure if anyone can remember this story from the English textbook of yesteryears but if you do please give me a shout.
There are sci-fi writers and sci-fi writers. What differentiates the better ones from the rest is how close to the truth they can strike even while remaining far away through the creation of exotic narratives. Bradbury’s exploration of human nature even through his Martian fantasy made him a writer par excellence.