Book Review – I Sing the Body Electric (By: Ray Bradbury)

I Sing the Body Electric is a collection of short stories by one of the greats: Ray Bradbury. These are from the (early) middle of his career, after most of the books you’d recognize, but (long) before it ended. There are 13 stories in the book, all of varying types and lengths, enough that I think it might be tedious (and spoilerific) if I were to go through each one, so I’ll try and hit the highs and the lows while giving my overall impression of the book.

How do I always get these obscure editions where the cover is impossible to find in good quality?

I am a Bradbury fan. The Illustrated Man is one of my favorite short story collections, and I’ve enjoyed many other stories he’s written. This one starts by hitting it out of the park with The Kilimanjaro Device which filled me with enough emotion to make it difficult to sleep that night. I would say it’s probably the best story in the book, but it fits my taste better and I could easily see how someone else would like one of the other stories more. From there, it maintains its classic Bradbury feel, with all sorts of weird twists, contextual literal meanings, waves of emotions, and extensive flowery language.

Some of it’s typical Bradbury stuff (there is not one, but two android-based stories {One of them, Downwind at Gettysburg, is mentioned on the back cover as “humanoid Abe Lincoln”. When was he not humanoid?}), but typical Bradbury isn’t very typical. They range from the strange and water-based The Women, to the raw but humorous depression era The Inspired Chicken Motel, to the terrifying Mars loneliness of Night Call, Collect. There are a few themes: androids, as previously mentioned, Mars, and Ireland; (specifically Dublin) are each in two or more stories. As with most short story collections, they all run in strange channels and sometimes ooze strangeness with every word. Loneliness and just basic emotion are also frequent themes, again, like many short stories. But some are simply amazing; Heavy Set is one of the most moving stories I’ve read in a long time (and it has that strange spelling of Hallowe’en).

Still, while the subjects and stories are fantastic I must complain a moment about Bradbury’s writing. There’s nothing technically wrong with it (the only errors I noticed are in The Tombling Day, and that’s likely an editor’s or typesetter’s fault), but he seems constantly overcome with the desire to let one know exactly how many words he has in his repertoire. I think his stories are fantastic, and the language used is essential to pull off some of the emotional moments, but in many cases Bradbury has the uncanny ability to make the most interesting story in the world boring to read, and it’s a testament to his imagination that I continued on. It’s not bad, it’s just boring sometimes. And boring in the strangest way, as I want to get through it quicker, but not stop reading. This is most apparent in his novels and in dialogue. He doesn’t have the time in these short stories to launch into a one-page description using every word tangentially related to (and sometimes not related to at all) the subject, to convey a “feeling” you’ll forget, about a thing that is inconsequential to the story (at least that often). He does, however, have the time to use a bunch of dialogue that no human would ever speak. I have a bit of a pet peeve about unrealistic dialogue and some of the worst examples of that are in these stories. That flaw is made up for upon occasion with how interestingly it is assembled. It reads like poetry at times, but it can also be a garbled mess. There is a point in the final story The Lost City of Mars, where a character is obviously meant to sound pompous or “too-wordy” and he ends up sounding just like quite a few other characters not meant to share that personality trait.

The Lost City of Mars has another problem by itself that is, thankfully, only present in it (I actually get to talk about the end of a book here without spoiling it). I’m not sure if it’s meant to have anything to do with the other “Martian” stories but it feels like it’s trying to create a world, and in that world a great many story possibilities are brought up (in just a few pages) that would be as or more interesting to me than this particular story, though it is a good one.

But for all my griping about the flowery language, or a slow story (such as The Cold Wind and the Warm which tries to take something mundane and spin it as miraculous), or missed opportunities, or the bit of sexism thrown in to remind you when the book was written, for all that, Bradbury still writes a good fantasy. Often the overdone bits fade into the background to form a foundation on which you can read and really feel, or think, or be absorbed into a fantastic world where the mind can go anywhere. Often you don’t want to stop reading because you want to see where it goes next. You want to hear everything about The Man in the Rorschach Shirt or Tomorrow’s Child. You want to enter the fantasy and enjoy.

And I did enjoy this book; even at the slow pace I read it. I might not have enjoyed every minute of it, but I would read it again. I might even have to considering how bad my memory apparently is, as its huge variety of story types and lengths doesn’t make it easier to remember the shorter ones or the start when one gets to the end. It does mean that there’s probably a story in there for everyone, and not a lot of “wading” to do to get to it. It’s not my favorite Bradbury, but it did far better than to make me lose hope. If you’re a fan of that 60’s sci-fi and fantasy scene, short stories, or of Bradbury at all, I would give this one a look. It’s a great read with all its ups and downs and twists and turns.

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