Please allow me to introduce one of the best examples of a contemporary short story and That’s Classic!’s Story of the Month for March 2011: Julie Orringer’s “The Isabel Fish.”
I confess that when I look back on all the short stories I’ve ever read, those written by Ray Bradbury are some of the first to pop into my head. It’s partly because I have read more work written by Bradbury than I have by any other author, but it’s mostly because he is a literary genius. He was always ahead of his time, raising specific social issues in his stories before it was “popular” to do so. But most importantly, he knew how to weave a story, how to mold characters, how to captivate readers. He is a legend. And that is why That’s Classic!’s Story of the Month for February 2011 is Ray Bradbury’s “I Sing the Body Electric!”
I believe I mentioned in previous posts that I was fortunate enough to take a college class that studied Bradbury’s work at length. Over the course of sixteen weeks, we read two novels in their entirety and somewhere between forty and fifty short stories. We discussed his writing style and the mechanics of his work. But we also talked about his development as a writer and what was going on in his professional and personal life.
I fell in love with Bradbury’s early work The October Country. The stories in this particular book tended toward the fantastic, the strange, the horrific, the grotesque. The October Country was a collection of short stories that made my skin tingle and my stomach turn as I nervously flipped on the lights and cautiously peered over my shoulders. The stories reminded me of my beloved and favorite show, The Twilight Zone. They were glimpses into “What if?” scenarios that were both strange and beautiful, terrifying and captivating. In other words, I was hooked.
But Bradbury’s writing style developed and evolved. He gradually moved away from the shock- and twist-filled science-fantasy stories like “The Crowd” and “The Lake” to more literary-fantasy stories like “The Fog Horn” and “I Sing the Body Electric!” I resisted his newer stories, feeling betrayed after falling so hard for The October Country. But it took the writer–not the reader–in me to realize that his writing needed to evolve. Had his writing not developed from the stories he wrote in his early 20s…well, it wouldn’t have made him a good writer. Writers change, writers age, writers live. And as we live our lives we go through new experiences that should find their way into our work. It means that we are maturing as writers. And that’s exactly what happened, and still happens, with Ray Bradbury.
“I Sing the Body Electric!” is a rare gem of a story. The title gives the impression that it could be either a) a horror story about body parts or b) a science fiction story about technology. In all actuality, it a a fantasy story (you can call it science fantasy, if you wish) about a human family, a human family that has experienced a great loss: the death of a beloved wife and mother.
True to form, Bradbury infuses this story of humanity with a touch of the strange and a simple what-if scenario. What if this family–a distraught and helpless father, an angry and deeply hurt daughter, and a son and daughter desperate for a mother figure–were to find everything they were looking for…in a robot? A custom-built, grandmotherly robot? Would she fill the place of the children’s mother? Would she be able to properly love and care for the children the way the father needs her to? Would she be able to penetrate the cold and bruised heart of a daughter betrayed by her deceased mother?
One of Bradbury’s most poignant stories, “I Sing the Body Electric!” is a true work of literary fantasy that creates memorable characters (something that Bradbury often struggled to do) and a heartwarming story that keeps you fully engaged, left wondering less about how a machine can fill the holes in a family’s heart left and more about how the machine would cope after children grow and age and a family no longer needs it, her, after she no longer has a purpose. What if an immortal grandmother, built to the specifications of a broken family in desperate need of love, develops an iron mind full of memories and an aluminum heart full of love for a mortal, aging family that won’t need her forever, that won’t live for forever? Do we care what happens to her?
Yes. Just as much as we do about the family, and the devastated daughter, that she tries to save.
Ray Bradbury, the only man who could make us weep for a burning house, a dying shape-shifting Martian, a robotic grandmother doomed to outlive her family. Yeah, he’s that good. Read “I Sing the Body Electric!” and you’ll see it, too.
NOTE: For all my fellow Twilight Zone fans out there, you’ll be happy (and surprised) to know that this unlikely story was beautifully adapted into a Twilight Zone episode. It lacks the spine-tingling twists of traditional episodes written by the illustrious Rod Serling, but it no doubt fits perfectly into the realm of the imagination.