Ahmed and the Oblivion Machines
Reviewed by Steven H Silver
Ray Bradbury's latest book is a short fable, Ahmed and the Oblivion Machines, about a young Arab boy who falls from the back of a camel. His father's caravan continues, not realizing that Ahmed has fallen behind. As the young boy wonders, lost, alone and scared in the desert, he comes across a buried statue which his tears bring to life. The statue turns out to be the long lost god Gonn-ben-Allah who tries to teach Ahmed while rescuing him from the desert.
As the fable Bradbury claims it to be, Ahmed and the Oblivion Machines is a little obtuse, although some of Bradbury's meaning does come through. The desert in which Ahmed is lost reveals itself to be the spiritual wasteland of the twentieth century. Buried beneath the sands, along with Gonn-ben-Allah, Ahmed learns, are other lost gods as well as vanquished cities which man has forgotten. But the wasteland does more than hide the lost history and faith of man, it also conceals the possible future beliefs and history of mankind. Ahmed begins to see these possibilities, but of course, much is still hidden by the drifting dunes.
Like the twentieth century, Ahmed begins firmly attached to the ground, although he looks up at the birds in the sky and asks his father about the ability to fly. His father replies that the bird was lost, but has now found its way and that shortly man would be able to fly. Like the bird, when Ahmed is given to power of flight by Gonn-ben-Allah, he is able to begin to find his way and is no longer lost, either spiritually or physically.
At the same time, Gonn-ben-Allah teaches Ahmed the age-old coming-of-age lesson of self reliance. Attempting to return to his father, Ahmed is told "He is your past, You must be your future. Put him away." But Ahmed's father is more than simply his father, he also represents adherence to tradition, for Gonn, Ahmed's new guide/god, continues "Remove him from my limbs, my heart, my head." It is only after Ahmed figuratively renounces his father (and his father's ways) that the reborn god Gonn can come into his own to give guidance to Ahmed.
Gonn's guidance can only permit Ahmed to try, not necessarily to succeed. To reinforce this, Gonn shows Ahmed sights of others who attempted Ahmed's dream of flight, beginning with Icarus, who flew too close to the sun, and continuing through balloon attempts to hang gliders. Eventually, Ahmed is given a glimpse of the future which, Gonn tells him, is the same as prayer. Once Ahmed comes to terms with who he is as an individual, he is ready to return to his father. Ahmed will then be able to be his own person, independent of, but not immune to, outside influences.
Unfortunately, Bradbury's imagery and symbolism get in the way of the story. The reader who tries to read Ahmed and the Oblivion Machines for plot alone, as can be done in great fables, will find themselves enterring an almost Becket-esque world of the absurd. Bradbury has proven, time and again, that he knows how to spin a good fable, not least of which is his early book The Martian Chronicles. However, that work, made up of several short pieces, contained a plot to carry the reader's interest, the ingredient sadly lacking from his newest fable.
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