On June 6, 2012, Ray Bradbury, the Universe's writer, was called back to his galaxy. I had written this a year earlier to almost the day. I'm pushing it back to the front page in his honor.
One of the first purchases I made that was on my own impetus and that didn’t involve an adult was to sign up for the Science Fiction Book Club. This was no casual thing since it meant I had to buy four books in two years - a burden that seemed overwhelming to a serious-minded youth but it meant I also got four books for free for signing up which made it worth the stress investment. The first free book I chose was Ray Bradbury’s “Twice 22" a short story collection that had been in publication for a while but I had never read. All I knew was it sounded cool.
Prior to this, I hadn’t really read any adult scifi. I started with comic books, then got deeply into the adventures of the young scientist Tom Swift, then matriculated to some Ace Doubles (novellas two to a book) from the Army-Navy store across the street from my Dad’s grocery. Bradbury's was the first time I understood that science fiction had other, deeper meanings that I could sense but perhaps not fully comprehend yet.
Bradbury is often included in some school reading curriculums but there was a time when he was considered "only" a science fiction writer and they were just about the lowest, most common form of writer, barely above slug on the food chain of those who delivered prose. Bradbury was widely recognized as being one of the top story-tellers of the time but he was still considered less a writer than say Truman Capote or other men and women of his generation.
How times have changed for the better.
If there was a Heart and Soul Award to be given to science fiction writers Bradbury should get it. His stories are less about rockets and aliens and more about our hidden mindscapes. His worlds weren’t necessary these carefully crafted societies like Asimov's "Foundation" series, or David Niven’s “RingWorld” or the shoot ‘em up of early Heinlein spcae adventures but rather of familiar places in strange times with all-too-human emotions and unexpected results. He was more the “Twilight Zone” than say the “Outer Limits” and he was so effective at what he did with those pieces that people began to notice and give him awards for illuminating those dank places despite that they were set against a science fiction backdrop.
In my opinion, Bradbury was always a better short story writer than novelist but how could anyone dismiss such genius as “Farenheit 451?” I cannot, of course, but he didn’t write many of those. Instead, he turned his prodigious talents more to short form so that's what I tended to focus on.
Reading a Bradbury story is like sipping ice tea on a summer dusk when it’s warm and friendly - and then slowly beginning to notice that as it grows darker, it gets colder and those nice tree shapes are starting to look vaguely threatening in the pale light of the rising moon. You start to edge closer to the front door where you can eventually flee because dark thoughts have begun to infect your mind. As they fester you suddenly realize that you’ve been duped into treading into boggy, sickening places where no person has any business going.
Bradbury’s stories, his elegant prose, romances you like the endless blue of the ocean. You don’t realize how far out you are from shore until suddenly your feet no longer touch sand and there’s an undertow snatching at you, trying to drag you away to black waters. Before you fully understand what’s happening you’ve been pulled under and you can no longer breathe.
At his pinnacle, Bradbury was both brevity and languorous prose somehow skillfully combined for best effect - like an Egg McMuffin where you get a complete, albeit abbreviated breakfast stacked onto one biscuit - to go. I still don't see anyone with that unique combination anywhere out there. Resonant, complex brevity.
Such simple concepts and such profound results. “The Illustrated Man” where every picture tells a story; “The Martian Chronicles” a collection of stories where mankind’s worst and best are replicated on a far away place in contrast to the previously always-sunny stories about mankind making its way nobly to other planets.
Bradbury has steadfastedly refused to be pigeonholed as a writer. Early in his career he was hired by legendary dirrector John Huston to work on the script for a "Moby Dick" adaptation. And his novel "Farehheit 451" was directed by no less than François Truffaut. He's done television as a writer and had his work adapted to the small screen and re-adapted in movies and remakes. His non-fiction essays in "Zen in the Art of Writing" remains high on the list of must-reads for any serious writer looking to become a professional. His semi-autibiographical "Dandelion Wine" has nothing to do with science fiction but rather thematically presents a metaphor of packing the deliciious delight of those long summer days of schoolboy freedom into a single bottle of home-brewed wine to be drunk later in memory of that youth lost.
As good a writer as Mr. Bradbury is, he is an even better public speaker. At 91 (92 in August,) confined to a wheelchair and somewhat ravaged by age and minor strokes, he unfortunately no longer shows up in person to many venues. Those who have heard him speak, however, can never forget him. He is like a parish priest of the best stripe - he supports, inspires cajoles and indicts you for your writing sins. He challenges you to write as if your hands were on fire never worrying about your skill level because that will come with experience - a fact he understands in his very DNA.
He was and is a fearless writer and man who knows that to say “I wish...” is to lose immediately. As Yoda was probably inspired to say by him "Do or do not. There is no try."
A quote of his that I have carried in my wallet for decades best sums up this man’s indomitable spirit:
If we listened to our intellect, we'd never have a love affair. We'd never have a friendship. We'd never go into business, because we'd be cynical. Well, that's nonsense. You've got to jump off cliffs all the time and build your wings on the way down.
Ray Bradbury has written eleven novels, 297 short stories, has done sixty-five “Ray Bradbury Theater” episodes and countless other prose works with hundreds, perhaps thousands of awards of every kind and manner. He is imitated but will never be duplicated. He is as unique an American voice as Mark Twain and he will continue to impact the world long after he’s gone.
Would that there was some way to save his head in a glass jar like the dead presidents in “Futurerama” or to be given a new body so his mind could continue onward to even more flights of fancy. Or even perhaps synthesize his writerly essence into an android like his wonderful and still-heart rending “I Sing The Body Electric” which was adapted into one of my favorite “Twilight Zone” episodes.
So how exactly do you measure what this genius of a writer has brought to the world? I think it’s by the people he inspired to continue doing what he has loved and preached for over eight decades.
Bradbury was one of the reasons I became a writer and remains one of the reasons I am true to that ideal no matter how difficult the role of a professional writer, as I've experienced it, can become. Though I may never come close to his achievements I’m thrilled to be counted in the pantheon.
I'm sure thousands of men and women would agree with me that we are still jumping off cliffs and building our wings on the way down because he did it first and perhaps...best.
This is part of my series of writers who inspired me to become a writer.