Pet stories

Ray Bradbury’s body of work is so large that he was undoubtedly overwhelmed when he began to select his 100 favorites from among his stories. This new collection covers a career that spans 60 years—the oldest story, “The Wind,” originally appeared in Weird Tales in 1943—and it represents only about 20 percent of his work.

The problem lies in his decision to choose his favorites. Stories are often like children: The ones that are the most beloved are not necessarily the most successful. These stories aren’t all the best, or even the most famous; they’re the ones Bradbury feels closest to, and some of his favorites are, well, interesting choices.

For example, there is a group of stories set in Ireland, written while Bradbury wrote the screenplay for John Huston’s 1956 version of Moby Dick there. These stories seem overly concerned with setting the scene and far less compelling than his best work.

Then there’s the issue of arrangement. The book seems to have been put together whimsically, organized neither chronologically nor thematically.

One consequence of this lack of an overall organizing principle is that the stories that make up The Martian Chronicles are scattered throughout the book. This dilutes their power as a collective commentary on the human drive to explore. The Martian stories do what speculative fiction does best: illuminate all possible consequences, planned or unplanned, of a particular course. Taken as a whole, they juxtapose narratives of conquest in a way that leads us to examine both the noble dream of exploration and the ignoble consequences of colonization. We lose that overarching narrative when they’re spread so far apart.

That said, this volume is rich with stories worth reading, if not for the first time, then anew. It includes several selections that may not have seen the light of day for the last half-dozen presidential administrations and that are surprisingly political.

One of these, “And the Rock Cried Out,” is a taut and terrifying tale of Americans caught up in a Third World revolution. As they head for safety, they shed both belongings and the trappings of class and begin to understand why the rest of the world might resent their privilege. “The Garbage Collector” gives a compassionate recounting of a trash man’s decision to leave his profession because of what he’ll be called upon to “collect” in the event of a nuclear war. Both of these stories originally appeared in 1953, and their contemporary sensibility is amazing.

Then there are the familiar stories: “The Illustrated Man,” a rich fable of fate and free will that relies as heavily on textured language as it does on plot, is one of them. The frequently anthologized “Bang, You’re Dead!” is another. This odd but compelling tale is both a paean to the innocence of childhood and an indictment of war’s rape of that innocence.

What becomes apparent upon immersion in this collection is that Bradbury’s themes have remained constant throughout his career. These are stories about the power of the individual, for good or evil—a power made manifest in language.

Most of Bradbury’s heroes are readers—and a good many of them are the great writers of ages past, even if they exist in the stories as ghosts, robots or happy charlatans masquerading as the originals. They talk, not just in the dialogue necessary to advance to the next plot point, but in dissertations on ideas and the consequences of thinking.

Most short stories succeed or fail on plot, but Bradbury’s stories delight in character: Confronted with great moral questions or tiny dilemmas of ethics, his heroes take a stand. It’s a bit old-fashioned in these times that seem in thrall to the shadow of the anti-hero, but it’s also a blessed relief.