One of the nice things about working in a school is that I can nick books from the English cupboard, bring them home for a day, or a week, or most of the year, and quietly return them without anyone complaining. It’s a perk that almost makes those times you accidentally stand under the bell worth it.... Anyway, earlier this year I was reaching for short stories to show my sixth form students, and it occurred to me that “A Sound of Thunder” is a damn fine short story, both in a technical and a literary sense. I found copies of this anthology, which includes “A Sound of Thunder”, and away we went. Long after we were finished with Bradbury, I kept my copy of the book, intended to read the rest of the stories “soon”. Now it’s almost the end of the school year—but better late than never!
The Golden Apples of the Sun is an old collection, older than I am. It showcases the diversity as well as the sameness of Bradbury’s writing. I think of him (and a lot of people, I think, would agree) as a science-fiction author. Yet many of the stories here aren’t overtly science fiction. There are a few I can’t quite puzzle out, and a few that are definitely science fiction, but not in the sense that we conceive of science fiction these days. Bradbury is a master of that space within the science-fiction experience where the writer exaggerates one or two scientific or technological phenomena as a tool for social commentary (“The Meadow” and “The Garbage Collector” are both good examples of this.) In contrast to the rockets and blasters and robots that pervaded Golden Age SF, Bradbury focuses on the everyday.
There is a strong, almost melancholy sense of loss to most of these stories. People are losing their homes, their livelihoods, their dignity. In “The Fog Horn”, the monster has lost its potential mate again after waiting millions of years. The eponymous “April Witch” is torn between her heritage and her love for a mortal, a choice she tries to avoid in vain. In “The Great Wide World Over There”, Cora loses her temporary connection with the rest of the world when her nephew leaves after writing letters for her but not actually teaching her to read or write. And, of course, the protagonists of “A Sound of Thunder” lose their present.
On a larger scale, Bradbury seems rather ambivalent about how technology is transforming society. “The Pedestrian”, “The Flying Machine”, “The Meadow”, and “The Garbage Collector” all depict slightly-exaggerated ideas about the future that will be familiar to anyone who has read Fahrenheit 451. Bradbury is obviously concerned about the convergence of communications technology and nuclear capability. We are simultaneously able to talk faster and make war faster; and everyone knows how easy it is to get into a heated argument and then do something one regrets. So, these stories display a healthy scepticism for the benefits of better phones, more TV, etc. And the nuclear apocalypse that was such a threat following World War II looms over the backdrop of some of the later stories.
I don’t mean to give the impression that this is a downer book. Far from it: I think this collection celebrates a lot of the strongest ties that bind our society. It’s an ecomium of family and friendship, of connection to our past and the importance of always looking towards the future. Though there is a deep foreboding in some of these stories, it’s only there because of Bradbury’s fears about what the mechanization of the world does to these ties. Bradbury wants balance; the trouble is, he doesn’t seem sure what that balance might be or how it might even be achieved (let alone maintained). Thus, while this isn’t a downer book, it isn’t necessarily optimistic about human capacity for moderation. Whatever else we might be, we are an eager species when it comes to what we perceive as “progress”.
The nice thing about this being a slim anthology volume is that I can’t really feel bad about recommending it. Regardless of past experience with Bradbury, you will probably find something interesting in The Golden Apples of the Sun. The stories are all short enough to read in a single, brief sitting—but they are deep enough that even the shortest provides enough meaning to spend an afternoon with. It’s a nice snapshot of the early part of Bradbury’s fiction, and it’s an interesting exposure to an attitude towards writing SF that is, if not as cynical as some of the cyberpunk that would come much later, then just as apprehensive about the developments it sees happening.