A review that originally appeared in Dream #27, one that it pained me to write and more so to read now (I doubt I’d be so sniffy if I read the book again, but it’s not something I’m willing to put to the test):-
BRADBURY, RAY – The Toynbee Convector (Grafton pb, 277pp, £3.50)
Ray Bradbury is a giant in the related fields of science fiction and fantasy, with books to his name that are deservedly regarded as classics of their kind. For his legions of admiring fans the eighties have been famine years, with only “Death is a Lonely Business”, a not entirely successful and regrettably soft boiled detective novel, to slake their thirst for new gems from the master’s pen. Now as the decade turns we have a collection of twenty two new stories, plus “The Tombstone”, which originally appeared in his 1947 volume “Dark Carnival”. But is “The Toynbee Convector” worth the long wait?
At first blush it appears to be authentic Bradbury. The prose is recognisably his, if perhaps slightly diluted or on occasion overworked compared to former days. Many of the locations are instantly recognisable, from idyllic Green Town, Illinois where nothing ever really changes to the arid and beautiful landscape of Mars. Most of the characters are familiar; idealistic young men full of naïve optimism and rising zap; crusty octogenarians with a mischievous twinkle in their eyes, who feed you fanciful tales as panacea for the careworn soul; precocious children redeemed by their angelic innocence and human gullibility.
Underlying nearly all Bradbury’s work is a poet’s faith in imagination as the catalyst to transform reality. Believe in the miraculous and you can make it happen. Conversely, if all that you can see is the ordinary, humdrum, everyday world of cause and effect then that is all you deserve of life, and poor you. Dullness will out.
In “The Toynbee Convector” all the world’s problems have been solved, simply because one man went into the future and returned to tell people that it would be so. Whether he lied or not is irrelevant. What matters is that he was believed and people acted on that belief, which might seem ingenuous to many readers and ingenious to others. In “On the Orient, North” a ghost is saved from dissolution by being transplanted from his increasingly agnostic homeland to an atmosphere more conducive to belief in hauntings. Clara Peck, the protagonist of the tautly written “Trapdoor”, is so literal minded that she cannot bring herself to believe the dragging sounds she hears in the attic at night are anything more sinister than rodent infestation. A failure to believe in the possibility of happiness dooms “The Laurel and Hardy Love Affair” from outset.
These four stories, along with “The Tombstone” and a couple of others with trick endings, are the best in the book. They don’t measure up to Bradbury’s best work.
“Promises, Promises” is terribly earnest and will probably seem ludicrous to anyone without religious faith. “One for His Lordship, and One for the Road!” features a group of Irish scoundrels seen in earlier work, but lacks charm and has an ending that is predictable and reeks of seaside postcard vulgarity. “At Midnight, in the Month of June” takes a near perfect incident from Bradbury’s “Dandelion Wine” and tells it from another viewpoint, undermining the former work while adding nothing new. Worst of all though is “Junior”, which I found embarrassing to read. An elderly man wakes up with an erection after many years’ abstinence and calls three old flames round to witness the miraculous revival. Thankfully we’re spared an orgy. This must be the literary equivalent of incontinence in old age, and it’s sad to see Bradbury reduced to writing such execrable nonsense.
These four stories are the worst in the book and offhand I can’t recall him ever before producing anything so bad. The remaining twelve stories are indifferent, rehashes of ideas he’s used before. Bradbury’s invention is flagging and his prose no longer reaches the lyrical heights it used to scale, I loved his earlier work and would probably buy anything new by Bradbury, but can’t honestly recommend “The Toynbee Convector”.