Wednesday, January 28, 2004

The Thanks Department

When I was a certain age in my childhood, science fiction was my air and water. Mornings would find me biking down to the library to switch the books that I had just consumed for the ones that they led me to. Every sub-genre was fair game: Golden age, dystopian, utopian, hard science, soft science, space opera, and Omni magazine. My mother was concerned about this. Looking back on it now, she was probably connecting them with the lurid comic books that were censored in the 40's and 50's. However, she didn't press too hard - after 3 boys, she knew that from prohibition grew obsession. But I was already obsessed. I won't say that reading sci-fi was a direct influence on getting my degrees in physics and astronomy, rather that the same person who has an affinity for one, usually has an affinity for the other. Reading sci-fi did have another consequence, one that I did not recognize for some time.

Reading sci-fi put me into the habit of reading and to look to books for escape, knowledge and fun. Libraries and bookstores to this day are revered and sacred places to me. I can lose myself for hours in an University library. Look - bound issues of The Illustrated London News from 1910 - Over there - literary studies on James Joyce - Say, look at all these journals on psychology. Most of all, libraries are sacred to me because of their ecumenical nature. Churches are always suspect because of their evangelism and dogmas - their unreasoning acceptance of human authority (i.e. when they say it is God's will, it ain't, it's the will of the guy saying it is God's will) and silly rules that deny most of human nature. Libraries on the other hand are not trying to tell you what to do and every facet of human nature is going to be found in a book - displayed, examined and discussed - rather than condemned, hidden and banned. I had a boss once who I heard was against libraries. To me, that would be like saying you are against three dimensions, "No, I prefer two dimensions, thank you very much." Whatever Carnegie may have done in his robber baron days, in my book he is a saint for building and funding libraries throughout early 20th century America.

But it isn't libraries that got me to write this thanks. No, it was the memory of some books that I read in my sci-fi days. These were books of tales that showed me what lies beneath what we call reality and society. By tweaking ever so slightly some little natural law or accepted ritual, he shone in greater light our human nature. Unlike most of the authors I had been reading, it wasn't plot, science or horror that was his focus. His obsession was on what it was like to be human. Reading The Golden Apples of the Sun, R is for Rocket, and S is for Space I was immediately drawn in by the stories of otherworlds, space travel, and supernatural suspense. Those were just MacGuffins that lead the reader to the real subjects of his work. I believe that these books were my first introduction to art. Looking back on the cultural suburban wasteland of my childhood, I can see no other places where I would have exposed to any honest-to-goodness art of any kind. My parents did not read books or poetry, or listen to music, or go to museums. Instead there was this void filled in by TV and the church. Imagine Babette's Feast and the total lack of sensual activity and you would be pretty close.

So, I would like to thank Ray Bradbury for showing me another world. Not a world like Mars or Jupiter, but a rich, inner world of depictions of what it is like to be a person in the world we have now. I think he gave us a clue on what he is really on about in naming one of his collections I Sing the Body Electric. I will end with two excerpts from another work with that name:

There is something in staying close to men and women, and looking on them, and in the contact and odor of them, that pleases the soul well;
All things please the soul—but these please the soul well.

O I say, these are not the parts and poems of the Body only, but of the Soul,
O I say now these are the Soul!


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