Fiction's lessons

I was a year younger than my classmates when I began college. I was worried that I would not be able to keep up academically. The coping skill that I employed was to become a very focused reader. I gave up reading fiction entirely until, as a college junior, I took a literature class. It wasn’t even technically a literature class. Christian Faith and Contemporary Literature was listed as a Christian Thought class and taught by a religion professor. It did, however, get me to read a few novels. For the most part, however, I eschewed fiction during my college and graduate school years.

Fiction and storytelling, however, are important parts of our culture and have much to teach us about the nature of life. Looking back I realize that I allowed myself to get a bit out of balance in my reading choices for many years. One example of this is that I didn’t encounter science fiction at all during my ten and young adult years. At the time of life when many people enjoy reading science fiction and allow the stories to expand their imaginations, I was focused on nonfiction. There have been many articles, including one by Jimena Canales published in the New Yorker 5 years ago, that report how Albert Einstein enhanced his creative thinking through the enjoyment of science fiction, notably “The Stars and World History” by Felix Eberty.

I didn’t read anything written by Ray Bradbury until I was in my 50’s. I still haven’t read “The Martian Chronicles.” That book has inspired some pretty serious scientists. In fact there is a copy of the book on Mars these days. The digital copy along with other works by other science fiction legends was alone into space by NASA’s Phoenix spacecraft, which touched down on the Martian arctic plains in 2007. If space tourism expands to the point where a trip to Mars is possible in my lifetime, I promise to read the book before departing on the trip.

However, I will recommend a different novel by Ray Bradbury to my friends. This seems especially relevant in the light of renewed distress over the politics of our time. In the past week I’ve had several conversations with friends who seem to be near depression over the actions of our President who seems to be stirring up and encouraging the violence in the streets of our country. In a similar manner to his defense of nazis who marched in the streets of Charlottesville resulting in death, he has clearly taken sides in the protests that have become increasingly violent. There is widespread fear among many that in a way far more extreme than his embrace of Russian influence in the 2016 election he is willing to cheat in any way possible and to compromise the national security in order to avoid defeat in the fall election. Shutting down security briefings and crippling the nation’s security system are unprecedented actions, but somehow not unexpected with this administration.

Whether or not you agree with my political opinions I think that you can agree that we live in perilous times and that the pandemic is only one of the threats that our nation faces.

Politics aside, I think that the 1962 Ray Bradbury novel, “Something Wicked This Way Comes” might be an interesting read for people today. The story follows two friends, both young teenagers, when a carnival pulls into their small midwestern town in the middle of the night. Among the rides in the carnival is a carousel that has the power of time travel, going forward or backward, making people age or become younger. The carnival lures people with the sound of the calliope and the smell of cotton candy, but there is clearly something evil about its presence in the community. Mr. Dark, operator of the carnival, keeps promising the boys a ride on the carousel and eventually begins to spread out into the city streets in search of the boys.

The story has a lot more twists and turns and the sense of evil becomes evident from the start of the book when a lightning rod salesman tells the boys that a storm is coming their way.

Perhaps I am ruining the story by giving away a bit of the ending, but the book is so famous that it is easy to obtain plot summaries. In the end, the father of one of the boys, janitor at the town library, discovers the power of laughter to stem the waves of evil. Mr. Dark is conquered by affection because he cannot survive in close contact with someone who is happy. The life off one of the teens is saved by singing and dancing and laughing.

It is as I have said repeatedly. Love wins.

Whether it is inspired by reading a work of fiction or by studying the history of religion, the principle of love’s power over evil is critical to the times in which we are living. It is something we need to remember. It is something I need to remember. When we take to the streets to protest the misuse of power and the presence of racism in our society is is critical to remember that this is not a fight that can be pursued in the way of other fights. It is not a battle that can be won with a show of force. It is no place for angry words or weapons.

Evil is defeated by singing and dancing and laughing. If we lose our sense of humor, we run the risk of becoming Mr. Dark.

There is a lot about which to laugh when to stop to think about it. Although a two-year-old is a lot funnier than a 74-year-old who acts like a two-year-old, there is something ridiculous and laughable about the immature ways in which decisions are being made. Bullying is no fun when you are the victim of the bully, but laughing at bullies is a powerful way to stand up to them.

Whether or not you read Bradbury’s novel, I hope that you will find ways to sing and dance and laugh even in the midst of hard times and dark days. It is the key to our survival as a people.

Copyright (c) 2020 by Ted E. Huffman. I wrote this. If you would like to share it, please direct your friends to my web site. If you'd like permission to copy, please send me an email. Thanks!