RIP Ray Bradbury
One mark of a great writer is that you can go back to their books years later and still have the same experience, be immersed in the same feelings and images, that you had the very first time you read them. They endure. The list of writers I can honestly say this about, that each time I read them is like the first time, is a very short list; it includes, among a few others, Virginia Woolf, Jorge Luis Borges, and Ray Bradbury.
For me, there have been only a few writers who ever successfully conveyed the experience of being a young teen boy in small-town Midwestern towns in summer as well as Bradbury did. His novel Dandelion Wine is one of the best novels I have read more than ten times, each time as fresh as the last. Something Wicked This Way Comes was a novel that actively terrified me when I read it as a teenager; and it remains compellingly scary. His essential short novel for young adults, The Halloween Tree, is a great adventure story that also is a detailed history of the roots and origins of the festivities of All Hallow's. Many people know Bradbury best for his themed collections of short stories, many of which have been made into movies, including The Martian Chronicles and The Illustrated Man. And then there's Fahrenheit 451, an Orwellian novel about a repressive future society in which literacy itself is banned.
Bradbury has often been ahead of the literary curve, writing in styles or exploring subject matters that other writers only came to decades later. His short story "A Sound of Thunder," about the dangerous changes in history that can be caused by tiny careless mistakes made by time travelers, has been adapted into more than one movie, has turned up in the literature again and again, been the premise of TV shows, and even has a connection to the origins of chaos theory and fractal mathematics. The principal known as the butterfly effect is what I'm talking about here. This is so common a theme in speculative literature now that it's become an archetype itself.
When I was a young reader, already having read lots of Isaac Asimov, Arthur C. Clarke, and other "hard SF" writers before encountering Bradbury, and already having had some science training myself, I was at times put off by Bradbury's relaxed interest in accurate scientific detail; he openly admitted that he was interested in the human stories first and foremost, and often skated on the technical details. But my initial doubts about the details of his stories were quickly overwhelmed by the sheer intense and powerful beauty of his language, and I was quickly won over. What Bradbury was, was a master storyteller. Sometimes his stories were set amidst the trappings of science fiction, such as rocket ships, and trips to other planets, but they were always human stories. He made you think, and his stories remain in memory long afterwards. I can think of several of his stories that are clear in my memory still, in many different genres.
Dandelion Wine is technically magical realism—written long before that term was coined to apply to Latin America authors such as Garcia Marquez; so in a way Bradbury invented the style—but what is so incredibly engaging about Bradbury's novel is how emotionally real it is. It is incredibly personal. You know people like the characters in Dandelion Wine. Perhaps you've even been those people, at some point in your life. The episode in the novel, that was originally published as a short story called "The Sound of Summer Running," is one absolutely vivid in my imagination, because it perfectly conveyed the total experience of getting new sneakers at the beginning of summer, and what that meant to a boy just freed from school for the season—right down to the smells.
So I'm feeling sad tonight. I will miss not seeing more new stories from Ray Bradbury, who wrote every day for decades. I will miss Bradbury not only for his fiction but also for his commentaries on life. His book on writing, Zen in the Art of Writing, is essential reading for every writer. It's one of the most genuinely inspirational books on writing that I've ever read.
Finally, I will let the master speak for himself. Here is an excerpt or two from Bradbury's Paris Review interview:
Why do you write science fiction?
Science fiction is the fiction of ideas. Ideas excite me, and as soon as I get excited, the adrenaline gets going and the next thing I know I’m borrowing energy from the ideas themselves. Science fiction is any idea that occurs in the head and doesn’t exist yet, but soon will, and will change everything for everybody, and nothing will ever be the same again. As soon as you have an idea that changes some small part of the world you are writing science fiction. It is always the art of the possible, never the impossible.
Imagine if sixty years ago, at the start of my writing career, I had thought to write a story about a woman who swallowed a pill and destroyed the Catholic Church, causing the advent of women’s liberation. That story probably would have been laughed at, but it was within the realm of the possible and would have made great science fiction. If I’d lived in the late eighteen hundreds I might have written a story predicting that strange vehicles would soon move across the landscape of the United States and would kill two million people in a period of seventy years. Science fiction is not just the art of the possible, but of the obvious. Once the automobile appeared you could have predicted that it would destroy as many people as it did.
Does science fiction satisfy something that mainstream writing does not?
Yes, it does, because the mainstream hasn’t been paying attention to all the changes in our culture during the last fifty years. The major ideas of our time—developments in medicine, the importance of space exploration to advance our species—have been neglected. The critics are generally wrong, or they’re fifteen, twenty years late. It’s a great shame. They miss out on a lot. Why the fiction of ideas should be so neglected is beyond me. I can’t explain it, except in terms of intellectual snobbery.