This is the script I worked off of for Cheapskates #5: It’s more or less what I actually said:
Greetings to my fellow coach-class passengers aboard the StarShipSofa. My name is Adam, welcoming you to Cheapskates and bringing you reviews of free science fiction ebooks and audiobooks.
Well, everyone, I know that I promised you Star Wars last month, but you’re just going to have to wait a month because something has happened. That something, put simply, is that Ray Bradbury died.
For those of you taking up residence under rocks lately, Bradbury is the author of such great works as Fahrenheit 451, The Martian Chronicles, The Illustrated Man, Dandelion Wine and Something Wicked this Way Comes. He just happened to be one of the greatest writers of our time.
When I heard the news, I knew that I needed to honor him in some way with my own small segment here on the Sofa. So I changed my plans.
The trick, I quickly discovered, is just how I could possibly honor the man, given the premise of my segment – that I review 1) Free content available 2) On electronic devices – ebook readers and digital audiobook players.
The problem with the first criteria – free content – is that Bradbury is decades from having work in the public domain, which is the cheapskate’s bread and butter, and he never really used free content as any sort of marketing tool. Ray may be gone, but his creative legacy – wrapped up in hundreds of short stories, about 50 books and a trove of poems, essays , plays and even operas – is going to yield profits for a loooong time coming. In fact, he currently has out a new paperback, two new hardbacks and another new hardback coming soon to stores.
Don’t get me wrong, there’s no good reason a Cheapskate shouldn’t enjoy Bradbury. You can pick up an old paperback of most of his works online for just a penny plus shipping. And it’s a pathetic library indeed that doesn’t have at least a few of his works available to borrow.
But it’s not… free…
Then there’s the second premise: that the content I review is available in electronic format. ‘Ol Ray seemed to have… a bit a technophobia streak, especially in his later days.
Phobia’s the wrong suffix, as he didn’t seem to fear it. He just hated a lot of it. A misotech, perhaps? And, well, while I don’t want to judge a man’s entire life by his bugaboos late in life, his thoughts on technology seem pretty heated and deep seated. Take for example this quote from the Los Angeles Times in 2010:
“We have too many cellphones. We’ve got too many Internets. We have to get rid of those machines. We have too many machines now.”
Yeah, but surely he’s OK with a device that’s created just for reading, right? Uh, not so much… Quoting from the same article:
“I was approached three times during the last year by Internet companies wanting to put my books on an electronic reading device. I said to Yahoo, ‘Prick up your ears and go to hell.'”
Sorry, Ray, I… I really think you’d like ereaders if you gave it a shot… Um…
So, Ray, Why pickin on yahoo, you know they don’t do much with ebooks, so, uh…
Hey, uh, Did… did you know I can get Fahrenheit 451 on Kindle here now… So… so.. you weren’t completely against it forever but.
OK, yeah, still not a big fan, huh Ray.
OK, yeah, I can respect. You, uh, you did write all those great books, so, I’ll uh… yeah, no, it’s cool. Just… little help here would be nice…
Sorry for that, Ray…
So, to make a short story long, I don’t have a free Ray Bradbury story to review for you today.
But I just might have something better…
While he might not have been a fan of technology and ereaders, he was a fan of education – especially the kind you pursue independently, seeking your own passion. Quoting.
“I spent three days a week for 10 years educating myself in the public library, and it’s better than college. People should educate themselves – you can get a complete education for no money. At the end of 10 years, I had read every book in the library and I’d written a thousand stories.”
Complete education… no money…
Now we’re talking.
My free Ray Bradbury content recommendation, then, is a free college-level online course from a site called Coursera.org. That’s C-o-u-r-s-e-r-a dot o-r-g. This site offers free online classes in a variety of disciplines, including mathematics, world history, and human-computer interaction, taught by professors at Princeton, Stanford, University of Michigan and the University of Pennsylvania. In each course, you take classes in interactive online lectures and forums. I haven’t taken a class yet, but from what I understand it takes advantage of social interaction by allowing the best questions to rise to the top by letting people vote on them and using fellow students to help grade and give feedback on papers. You don’t get any actual credit, but you get self improvement and certificate of completion to use on resumes and such.
The class Cheapskates will want to take first is “Fantasy and Science Fiction: the Human Mind, Our Modern World” taught by Eric S. Rabkin of the University of Michigan, who won the Science Fiction Research Associations Pilgrim Award for lifetime contributions to science fiction criticism.
The course lasts 10 weeks and tackles a different subject every week, starting with Grimm’s Fairy Tales and Lewis Carroll, and moving on to Bram Stoker, Mary Shelley and Poe, before ending with more modern science fiction authors Cory Doctorow with “Little Brother”, Ursula K. LeGuin with “The Left Hand of Darkness” and, you guessed it, Ray Bradbury with “the Martian Chronicles.” The great thing for cheapskates is that all but two of the works on the reading list – Bradbury and LeGuin – are available for free download.
The next session starts July 23, and I’m going to give it a try and see how it goes. Go sign up: Maybe I’ll run into you in class.
As for my book review, I wanted to make another selection off of the course list to read and review for you here today. Just before Bradbury on the reading list, the natural one to choose would of course been “A Princess of Mars” by Edgar Rice Burroughs. As you heard here on the sofa a few weeks ago in Tony’s interview with Ray, Burroughs was a huge influence on Bradbury. Well, here, I’ll let Ray describe it in this introduction to a 1977 audio series of Bradbury reading short stories and selections from The Martian Chronicles and The Illustrated Man.
As this suggests, really, I should just have you go back and listen to that review of “A Princess of Mars”, so if you want to consider Cheapskates in StarShipSofa No 230 part of my tribute, please do so. It really should be.
But I also want to give you something new, so I decided I would go back and review that other great science fiction author so intrigued with Mars, that if you were listening closely you might have just heard Bradbury mention. That is, H.G. Wells, the author of the famous “The War of the Worlds.”
I was a bit surprised to find “War of the Worlds” not on the list given the subject matter of much of the rest of the course, but a short story included in the required reading – H.G. Well’s “The Star” – will do just fine. After all, as you heard, “The Martian Chronicles” is essentially a series of short stories about the first explorers, settlers and eventually refugees to Mars, loosely connected together. A book of short stories seems actually more appropriate than a novel.
One free ebook anthology of Wells’ short stories that contains “The Star” is “Tales of Space and Time” published in 1900 and available for free on Project Gutenberg. You can also get volunteer-read audio books of “The Star” and a few others of the stories in “Tales of Space and Time” on librivox.com. I’ll provide links on my blog site cheapskatesreview.wordpress.com.
The collection as a whole in “Tales of Space and Time” boasts beautiful, if occasionally archaic and complex, use of language, and the strength of Wells’ imagination and his influence on the genre can be plainly seen.
As for “The Star”, it’s a surprisingly engaging if short read. The basic premise is that a previously unidentified planetary mass on an erratic orbit collides with Neptune, sending both fiery spheres hurtling toward earth. As the apparently new star grows in the sky, the viewpoint jumps from person to person – that’s a big distracting, but typical Wells. Then, at last, a mathematician finally runs the numbers. It’s not good: a near miss at best, a direct hit at worst.
The mathematician confronts the specter out his window as it grows in the sky. Quoting:
“You may kill me,” he said after a silence. “But I can hold you – and all the universe for that matter – in the grip of this little brain. I would not change. Even now.”
The next day, he stands in front of his class in the most dramatic scene of the story.
“Circumstances have arisen – circumstances beyond my control,” he said and paused, “which will debar me from completing the course I had designed. It would seem, gentlemen, if I may put the thing clearly and briefly, that – Man has lived in vain.”
The students glanced at one another. Had they heard aright? Mad? Raised eyebrows and grinning lips there were, but one or two faces remained intent upon his calm grey-fringed face. “It will be interesting,” he was saying, “to devote this morning to an exposition, so far as I can make it clear to you, of the calculations. Let us assume –”
He turned towards the blackboard, meditating a diagram in the way that was usual to him. “What was that about ‘ lived in vain?” whispered one student to another. “Listen,” said the other, nodding towards the lecturer.
And presently they began to understand.
The rest of the story is death and destruction, with an ending bringing in the Martians for a cameo and a bit of perspective.
“The Star” is a forerunner of basically any of the “earth destroyed by blunt objects from the sky” subgenre of science fiction, like the movies “Armageddon” or “Deep Impact” – although I prefer this story to those flimsy blockbuster films any day.
On to the other stories in the collection, we have “The Crystal Egg.” After some initial confusion about whose perspective the story is actually following, we finally settle on watching the owner of a curio shop who possesses, among his other treasures – an ordinary-looking crystal egg. When someone offers to buy it, he jacks up the price to a whole five pounds, then wheedles about another potential buyer who had been there this morning.
All most suspicious… And his wife and step children are furious when the egg is “lost” and their plans for the five pounds vanishe.
The shop owner has secreted it away to an acquaintance for safekeeping, and we at last get to learn of the egg’s curious properties – When viewed at the right angle, one can peer into a world of flying creatures and lofty cities – a world which they eventually determine is – you guessed it – Mars.
The setup and intrigue of the story promises much, but – at least from the perspective of a modern reader – delivers little. I think the story comes from a day when an interesting concept or image could carry the entire weight of a story. Picky readers today – Well, OK, me at least, want to know what “happens.”
The next two stories are connected – “a tale of the stone age” and “a tale of things to come.” They are also the longest in the book and probably the ones in this collection you can feel the least guilty about skipping.
That’s not to say by any means that they’re not quite good. Wells language is deep and rich, and at his worst he’s still orders of altitude above me at my absolute best. It’s just that for the payoff, you put in a disproportionate amount of time. There’s better Wells to be reading.
Still, we forge ahead.
“A Tale of the Stone Age” takes place in the land corresponding to ancient England – of 50,000 years ago. It relates the tale of the elder tribe leader Uya, the young upstart Ugh-Lomi and their mutual love interest, Eudena.
During the course of the story, Ugh-Lomi and Eudena escape from the rest of the tribe and fight a cave bear with their budding human ingenuity. Ugh-Lomi invents the first stone hand axe and is the first human to ride a horse (yep, same guy!) Armed with his new weapon, Ugh-Lomi returns to the tribe and dispatches Uya, after which they are hunted by the tribe in true “Lord of the Flies” fashion. Eudena is captured, offered as human sacrifice to a lion, rescued by Ugh Lomi, aaand so on. In the end Ugh-Lomi is triumphant, becomes the tribe leader and they live happily ever after, Wells suggests, or at least until the next upstart comes along.
I have to admit, I’m not a fan of this style of science fiction where there the “science” is purely prehistoric anthropology. My experience with these stories is similar to watching the actors in a horror movie for me. I want to shout at the screen, give them direction, say “Hey, why don’t you make that stone pointy already.” It is for this same reason that, to my great shame, I still have been unable to get past the first few chapters of “2001: A Space Odyssey.” You can only deal with primates on the verge of turning into something more gesticulating at each other for so long.
I know, it reveals a certain egoism in modern man, and probably tells a great deal about me. Still, I lose interest in this sub-genre quickly. I’m too disconnected by time, and don’t feel the tension, knowing that regardless of what happens to them, it all seems to come out in the wash in the long run.
The second tale is a bit more up my alley – “A Tale of Things to Come” – and it makes the story of ancient times more interesting in counterpoint. This tale takes place in the same physical location as “A Tale of the Stone Age” but 200 years into Wells’ future and 88 years into ours… in the year 2100.
I think I’ve always had a soft spot for writers who have the hutzpah to lay out their visions of the future, knowing full well that future will be reached and the inevitable comparisons made. In this case, Wells makes some intriguing, oddly close predictions – air flight is nearly correct, the decline of the written word Wells depicts seems to be moving on apace, and the multi-function “phonograph” described sounds oddly like a modern smartphone or high-end digital music player, even if it is the size of a Dutch clock. Other predictions seem to be correct in vector if not in degree – Wells correctly recognizes the migration into cities, but not to the same level. England, for example, is down to a mere four super-metropolises.
And then there’s my favorite predictions, the downright silly – most which are in the area of fashion, which when you come to think of it, is already pretty silly anyway. In this story, Wells has foreseen air-inflated clothing allowing for instant changes in body physique, a penchant for surgical removal of all body hair, and headgear shaped like a cock’s comb suctioned to people’s bald heads and filled with hydrogen. This last one had me laughing aloud and thinking of exploding roosters. Think about it, you’d be walking around with a mini-Hindenburg on your head.
The plot, however, is purposefully parallel to the story of man’s ancient ancestors. Here, our hero is a young man of little means named Denton who is in love with a genteel woman named Elizabeth – that’s Elizabeth spelled with a “theta” at the end. As in “A Tale of the Stone Age.” Their romance is also threatened by the elders of Elizabeth’s father Morris, spelled “Mwres” and Bindon, to whom Morris wants to betroth Elizabeth.
Their trials are decidedly more science-fiction, however. In the first section, Morris tries to hypnotize Elizabeth out of her love for Denton, in a way reminiscent of “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind.” They then try to escape their own tribe in the opposite direction of Ugh-Lomi and Eudena – rather than moving toward greater “civilization” (I use that in quotes), they go from the city into the now-abandoned countryside, which they’re not able to sustain for more than a few days.
Returning and living off of debt, they’re soon degraded to the lowest rung of their society, the Labour Serfs, who complete undesirable jobs for room and board and a pittance of allowance. Conditions are awful, and Denton in particular discovers that even future man is just a few paychecks away from being reduced to scrapping and fighting for survival.
I would have liked a different ending – it’s Deux ex machine in the extreme – but I found these two stories together to be more than the sum of their parts. Wells seems to be communicating that underneath the surface, the basic condition of humanity remains the same, and that even though each person is a blip in the larger scheme, and humanity itself a blink in the cosmos, yet it all still somehow matters and has purpose.
The final short story is “The Man Who Could Work Miracles.” It’s a quick, entertaining romp and is my favorite of the collection. It concerns a store clerk named George McWhirter Fotheringgay, who, while attempting to make a strong argument that miracles cannot exist, manages to create an impossible miracle. He then continues to perform miracles, small and large, as the story progresses. Think “Bruce Almighty” with better intentions and worse results. For example, he inadvertently sends a constable to San Francisco… by way of Hades. And then he… but, well, that would give it away wouldn’t it?
I’ll just leave off the book saying that the ending has an interesting paradox I found particularly delicious. See if you can spot it too. This collection ends the way I think life should close – with a smile.
A final note on “Tales of Space and Time.” From promotional wording at the end of the book, it’s obvious that “A Tale of Things to Come” is the basis for Wells’ full novel “The Sleeper Awakes” and that this slim volume of short stories was used to promote the longer work. I’d like to suggest that this small anthology filled the same role then as free short ebooks made available today for the purpose of selling a longer work – it’s the cheap bait used to land a larger purchase. Interesting how that strategy has remained essentially the same…
Before I leave you, I want to end out where I started this episode – by honoring Ray Bradbury. I’m going to let him have the closing thought here, also from the 1977 recordings. He’s talking specifically about The Martian Chronicles, but I think it’s a greater observation on humanity and its future in the cosmos.
Thank you, Mr. Bradbury. May your stories live forever.
That’s all today for Cheapskates. This is Adam, reminding you… if I may depart from my usual outro, here… to be rich to each other.