Saturday, October 22, 2011

The Toynbee Convector by Ray Bradbury

The Toynbee Convector
By Ray Bradbury
Copyright 1988

The Toynbee Convector
A journalist is excited to be interviewing the world’s one and only time traveler on his 130th birthday and on the day in a future passed that he arrived in a distant time to find that man has conquered the demons of pollution, war, international strife, and bad economies. The journalist, confident he is getting the story of a lifetime, finds the story isn’t quite what he thought.

One could see the twist coming, but it was nonetheless an enjoyable morality tale told the way Bradbury tells them best. This was an episode of the Ray Bradbury Theater.

A woman awakens to find a doorway to an attic that she’d never noticed before even though she’d lived in the house for ten years. She’s afraid to go into the attic because it seems to be inhabited by rodents. She calls an exterminator who finds the job to big for him. . .

This was a rather banal story. Not loathsome, but below par for Bradbury.

On the Orient North
A middle aged nurse has a chance meeting with a ghost – a corporeal ghost – as she travels north on the Orient Express. She pities him because he is dying a slow and miserable “death.” He is dying because, in the modern world, embracing the rational has squeezed out faith in what we cannot see. The nurse sets out with the ancient, stately being to find that faith and belief in ghosts that will sustain him.

This was a fantastic tale, worthy of being ranked among Bradbury’s best. The ghost as a sympathetic, lonely creature is nothing new. But Bradbury puts a delightfully refreshing twist on it by adding social commentary about the death of imagination in an increasingly secular world. This story was made into one of the finest episodes in the six year run of the Ray Bradbury Theater.

One Night in Your Life
A newly divorced man heads east from Los Angeles en route to New York to start his life over. As he contemplates the misery of his marriage that was, he finds a young woman wandering along the side of the road outside a small Iowa town. He stops and passes the day – just one day – with the woman of his dreams.

There are a couple themes here common in Bradbury stories. The man is miserable in Los Angeles with his wife who loves the big city. He enjoys driving his convertible along the open vistas of America. His wife hates it. Finding happiness in the openness of middle America is a common thread in Bradbury stories. The other is the pure happiness that is limited in its time by a supernatural force. This is a wistful and romantic story.

West of October
The matriarch of a farm family has the power to send her family member on adventures by transporting their souls into the bodies of others. She transports her two young nephews to explore the minds of inmates of a nearby insane asylum. While they are gone, their bodies are destroyed in a fire. The woman must deposit their souls into the head of their grandfather until new bodies can be located for them. The boys adolescent fantasies torture and embarrass their grandfather who is driven nearly mad.

Imagine being an old man with two adolescents living inside your brain! Bradbury weaves a fanciful tale that is humorous, a bit racy (at least for Bradbury), and original.

The Last Circus
Two boys hear that a circus is coming to town. As one of the boys talks excitedly of the circus at breakfast, the boy’s father laments the development of ever increasingly powerful atom bombs. The boys go to the circus and take in all of the acts. After the circus is over, they watch as the workers take down the tents, pack their gear, and head off for the next destination. As they walk home, one of the boys, perhaps pondering his father’s worry of the growing atomic menace, tells his buddy there will be no more circuses. This was the last.

I think we’re supposed to get from this story that atomic war is coming to wipe out the world, and therefore there will be no more circuses. The link between the father’s lamentations and the boy’s conclusion is tenuous, but it is there.

The Laurel and Hardy Love Affair
A slightly overweight man and a slightly undersized woman meet at a cocktail party and instantly fall in love. The call each other Stan and Ollie and we never learn their real names. For a year, they rejoice in their love and fondly embrace their repartee of the old movie duo. However, Stan decides she wants a commitment which Ollie is not willing to give, and she leaves, promising to come back to the steps where Laurel and Hardy performed their famous piano moving sequence once each year to see him. Ollie shows up at the appointed time for a couple years, but Stan doesn’t show. He skips a couple years, then goes back. He finds a bottle of champagne with a note from Stan saying she won’t be returning. Years later, they pass each other in a Parisian street by chance, each accompanied by their respective families. As they pass, Ollie says to Stan, “This is another fine mess you’ve gotten me into,” and keeps walking.

This is a romance story pure and simple and Bradbury writes a few of these which are always passable and sometimes good. He rewrote and retitled it for the Ray Bradbury Theater and injected a sinister supernatural element which made the screen version better.

I Suppose You Are Wondering Why We Are Here?
A man prepares a fine feast at a restaurant for his parents who reside just up the road – in a cemetery. They are coming back for a visit and to tell him something. They tell him that he bores them.

I love Ray Bradbury. I really do. But sometimes, there’s just no point. This is one of those instances.

Lafayette, Farewell
A World War I airman, getting on in years repeatedly walks into his next door neighbor’s home, mistaking it for his own. He often sits and reminisces fondly of his former comrades in arms like Eddie Rickenbacker. But on this night, as he nears the end of his life, he wants to honor his enemies, including Baron von Richtofen, who he says fought honorably and bravely.

This was a story that provided an interesting commentary on the nature of war and who actually does the fighting. Most soldiers in World War I didn’t know Kaiser Wilhelm from Hoyt Wilhelm (yes, I know it was before Hoyt Wilhelm’s time, but you get the idea). They had no political ideology – just a job to do. One can admire the honor and glory of a vanquished foe.

A screenwriter reports to his director’s home deep in the moors of Ireland with his latest submission. The director is a boastful, arrogant man who talks constantly of his conquests over women. As the director and screenwriter talk, they can hear a plaintive wail out in the fog. The director says it’s the wail of a Banshee and invites the young screenwriter to investigate. The screenwriter finds the pitiful creature bemoaning being used and jilted by a resident of that home a century prior. She longs for revenge. The screenwriter convinces her that the current occupant is deserving of a little revenge on behalf of all women used by cads.

This was a taut, well paced story with sufficient character development in its scant pages to make the reader want to see a little vengeance dished out by the undead woman. The story served as an episode of the Ray Bradbury Theater.

Promises, Promises
A man shows up at his mistress’s door to tell her that his daughter has nearly died of a head injury sustained in a fall at home. Whilst she clung to live in the hospital, he prayed and promised God he’d give up the thing must precious to him in the world in exchange for his daughter’s life – his mistress.

This is purely mainstream fiction and a passable story. It is a commentary on one of the many ways people find their way to faith.

The Love Affair
One of the last Martians left after the chicken pox epidemic admires from afar a young earth woman who inhabits a lonely radio outpost on the surface of Mars. He revels in her beauty, but is certain that, if he makes his presence known or makes contact, he will fall prey to the same disease as did most of his people.

It’s always fun to revisit Mars with Ray Bradbury. This Martian is like Ylla from the first installment in The Martian Chronicles. He is attracted to humans.

One for His Lordship, and One for the Road

A British lord with the greatest wine cellar known to man dies. His will stipulates that he indeed will take it with him and the minister starts to pour the rare vintages over his casket in his grave. But a careful reading of the will by the patrons of a nearby bar reveals that it need not go with him in any precise form. They begin to partake of his stock, promising to leave it with him.

As the saying goes with beer and wine, you don’t own it, you rent it. A humorous innuendo here.

At Midnight, in the Month of June
A serial killer stalks and attacks his last victim. As he wraps up his crime, he thinks back to games of hide and seek he played as a child and how accomplished he was at hiding from the seeker. Now, he decides it’s time for all in free. He leaves clear clues at his last crime scene and toddles off to an all night diner for some milk and graham crackers – his favorite childhood treat.

This was a creepy story that was a delight to read. Serial killers of various kinds have been done to death by horror writers. Leave it to Bradbury to find the fresh take, linking the heinous deed to a childhood game.

Bless Me, Father, for I Have Sinned
A priest awakens in the middle of the night, certain that someone is coming to confess. He dresses and walks to the church. Sure enough, a penitent comes to the confessional and confesses a childhood sin. The priest finds this old man’s sin to be very much like his own from years past.

This was a Christmas story. And like all Christmas stories, it is about redemption and forgiveness. No one is ever going to compare it to A Christmas Carol, but it’s a well told tale nonetheless.

By the Numbers!
A man on a train sees a stranger who immediately reminds him of an incident years before at a hotel when he observed a hotel maintenance man who had a strange and methodical means of disciplining his son. The man learns that, in the end, that rigid discipline didn’t pay off for either the father or the son.

There’s nothing supernatural in this tale, but it is indeed strange. Perhaps a commentary on what can happen if excessive discipline is taught to a child.

A Touch of Petulance
A man on a train meets himself, 25 years older. His older self has come back to tell him that, 25 years from now, he’ll murder his wife. His wife will drive him insane with her petty whining. The younger man, newly married man, is incredulous, claiming he loves his wife dearly. He invites his older self home to see.

Was expecting a twist here that never came. But the last sentence makes the story work. This story was redrafted for an episode of the Ray Bradbury Theater.

Long Division
A man arrives at his former home to divide up the marital property as he and his wife finalize their divorce. When he arrives, she finds that she has already decided who gets what books. They argue over and trade books for hours. Finally, after hours of haggling, the man prepares to leave and reminds his wife that, at some point, they will have to discuss who gets the children.

Some people really love their books! Of course, I don’t love them as much as my children, but I do take very good care of my books and don’t lend them out easily. When I finally have to part with a volume, I worry it might go someplace where the owner will fold pages to mark places or worse yet, lay the book face down to mark a place.

Come, and Bring Constance
A man receives an invitation to attend a self help seminar. At the bottom is scrawled, “Come, and bring Constance.” Problem is, his wife’s name isn’t Constance. Sometimes he has trouble remembering his wife’s name, but he knows it isn’t Constance. The wife wants to know who Constance is. When Constance arrives on her doorstep, she finds out.

This story didn’t seem to have a point, a theme, or underlying message. A rare swing and a miss from Bradbury.

An elderly man awakens to find that he has the first erection he’s had in years. He calls three elderly women with whom he used to cavort in his salad days to come over and admire it.

Bradbury uses G-rated language to tell a PG-13 story just wonderfully! I don’t dig reading comedy, but Bradbury hits the mark here.

The Tombstone
A man and a woman are traveling and stop by a boarding house to spend the night. The room they have reserved has a tombstone in the middle of it. The proprietor explains that the room’s last tenant was a stonecutter who carved tombstones and had left this one behind because he misspelled the name. The woman is upset, convinced the room is haunted, but her husband makes her stay. In the middle of the night, the stonecutter returns to claim his stone. He has located a recently deceased for whom the stone will serve perfectly.

I don’t know if this was a story Bradbury wrote in the 1980s for this book or if it was an older one from the 1950s or 60s. It has a retro feel to it. The woman is hysterical like many women from 1950s literature. The couple is staying at a boarding house (who stayed at boarding houses in the 1980s?). Even the language was somewhat archaic. It was a story best enjoyed by a younger audience. This story was an episode in the final year of the Ray Bradbury Theater.

The Thing at the Top of the Stairs
A traveling man decides to stop by his old home town of Green Town, IL. While there, he visits the house in which he grew up. It now stands vacant. He goes inside to confront the not-quite disbelieved imaginary monster of his childhood.

This was an undertold story. There was a lot to work with here and Bradbury gives us the bare minimum to make it interesting. Stephen King once stated that Bradbury over wrote much of his work. The story and the monster had so much more room for development to make a truly terrifying tale. It's interesting that as I envisioned this story unfolding, I envisioned it in black and white, perhaps linking it in my own mind to The Twilight Zone for which it would have made an excellent episode.

Colonel Stonesteel’s Genuine Home-made Truly Egyptian Mummy

A bored little boy appeals to an old man to help him make the final days of summer interesting and exciting. The old World War I veteran builds an fake mummy out of materials from around the house. The kid plants the mummy in a field. When it is discovered, excitement ensues.

This was not a terribly interesting tale, but it had a moral. Life’s excitement is not generated by the events around you, but what you make of those events. This story was rewritten and retitled for the Ray Bradbury Theater.

Of the Bradbury collections I've read, this one was the weakest. It had one truly great story and several good ones. Bradbury rarely produces a clunker, but there are a couple here.

One can't help but wonder if Bradbury wrote many of these stories with an eye on the television screen since, at the time this book went into publication, his television show was in full swing on HBO.

The Toynbee Convector is certainly not one of his best works. But it is worth reading -- especially for hardcore Bradbury fans.

No comments:

Post a Comment