Ray Bradbury (1920 - 2012)

This quartet did more to screw up shape my lifethan any other four people on the planet. Forrest J Ackerman, Ray Harryhausen, Ray Bradbury, and Julie Schwartz; photo by Dave Truesdale

I remember distinctly my first exposure to the work of Ray Bradbury.  It was during storytime at the kindergarten run by a local Methodist church.

The teacher read us Switch On The Night, and while I didn't catch the author's name, I was riveted by this story of a young boy scared of the dark, so scared he uses a flashlight as a talisman, a magic wand, a light saber we'd say today.

Every night he fends off the encroaching dark...

...until...

...he meets some strange children, magical children yet utterly normal in every sense of the word, and they entice him into the world of the night, teach him to embrace the dark, find the wonder and beauty in it.

I'm sure the teacher saw it as a comforting story, not to be afraid of the bogey man.  I'm sure my classmates saw it the same way.

Me, I was gobsmacked.

I wasn’t alone.

*

Icarus.  Montgoflier.  Bradbury.

He was the “B” in the ABCs of sci-fi, flanked by Asimov and Clarke, with Heinlein orbiting out by himself.[1]

He was an odd middle-man.  The big names of sci-fi in the 40s and 50s were all nuts & bolts kinda guys.

They wrote good, solid, sturdy stories.

Bradbury…what the hell was that crap?  Some kinda weird, fancy, artsy-fartsy, wispy literary stuff.

Not really sci-fi.

I mean, c’mon, he appears in Planet Stories, the bottom feeder of the pulp market…

And comic books…

And women’s magazines…

And slicks, like Saturday Evening Post and the New Yorker.  Seriously, when was the last time you saw a decent sci-fi story in the Saturday Evening Post?

*

If you were my generation of sci-fi fan, there were two guys you copied when you started writing your own stories.

First was Lovecraft, with all his besmirched palpitating tendrils of horror and ennui lurking in the ethereal shadows between the eldritch worlds, await the burgeoning terror found in the forbidden pages of a cursed grimoire -- Pth’hyattha-fu’g’hyya![2].

Then was Bradbury.

I remember a fanzine parody of the era:

“Up!” said the captain.

“Up!” said Green to Brown.

“Up!” said Brown to White.

“Up!” said White to Black.

“Up!” said Black to Gray.

“We’re running out of fuel,” said Gray.

“Down!” said the captain…

But here’s the thing:  Easy to parody, impossible to emulate. You could ape, but you couldn’t copy.

He loved the movies, he loved the theater, he loved radio drama.

But there’s never been a satisfactory adaptation of his work to stage or screen, and there never will.

It works only on the page.

It looks like it should play great, adapt easily, but it doesn’t.

Oh, you can certainly transpose the plot and the dialog to the screen.  Ray Bradbury Theater proved that.  But Ray Bradbury Theater also proved the subject wouldn’t survive the transplant.  It was an okay low budget ersatz Twilight Zone, and it was nice that Ray got to play Rod Serling for his own stories, but it never sang, it never leaped off the screen at us.

The magic can be found only on the page.

*

Every great writer achieves greatness by taking us some place we’ve never been.

Ray took us into a magic realm readers had never visited before, some place they never even suspected to exist.

Ray took us into the soul of a Midwest boy.

*

He loved Buck Rogers.

He lived in the same bleak Arizona desert that inspired Edgar Rice Burroughs’ Martian tales.  It inspired Ray’s Martian stories as well, but where Burroughs took the stories of combat between cavalry and Apache and moved it to Mars, Ray found Mars in the hearts and minds of his neighbors.

The weird exterior landscape was nowhere near as strange and as wonderful as the interior one.

Ray took us to the red planet looking for Martians.

We peered in the canal, and saw ourselves reflected back.

*

You couldn’t really call him a novelist.  Short stories were always his oeuvre.

Fahrenheit 451 is a magnificent work, an Important Book, and will live on for centuries to come.

But it’s his only successful actual novel.  Something Wicked This Way Comes and The Martian Chronicles are wonderful books, magnificent books but they’re interrelated stories, not a single viable whole.

He was best at a short length.

Other writers of the era, particularly the sci-fi writers he rubbed shoulders with, viewed story as A Problem To Be Solved.

It only took the right hammer or screw driver or coat hanger and voila, hero saves the day again.

There are precious few heroes in Ray’s stories.

Oh, there are people.  Lots and lots of people.

But not a lot of problem solvers.

When I was a young fan we thought Ray was afraid of technology.

He wasn’t.  He loved it.  Read his stories of rockets and clockwork nightingales and delicate Chinese flying machines that can carry a man aloft and bring down an empire.

The problem wasn’t the machinery.

The problem was is us.

No matter where we go…

*

He wrote sci-fi[3] even though he claimed to be a fantasist.

The sci-fi…and the spooky tales of a haunted Midwest…and the chilling crime stories, they’re what made him famous.

But he wrote so much more.

It’s easy to look today on stories like “The Wonderful Ice Cream Suit” or “The Big Black And White Game” and call them “quaint” if we feel generous or “patronizing” if we don’t.

You have no idea how they hit white bread American in the 1950s and 60s, how they made us look and consider, not in an accusatory way, but in a sense of sharing something common among all of us.

There are no monsters in Ray’s work.  There are villains, and people capable of great evil, but they are people like us.  People who are us.

He taught us to love our victims.

He taught us to forgive ourselves.

*

He loved Moby Dick.  Specifically, he loved mad Ahab, consumed by his quest that was literally consuming him, limb by limb.

Ray had his own mad quest.

It’s easy to cast him as Peter Pan, easy to see him as a flighty genius traveling in a highly rarified atmosphere.

Bull-oney.

Ray Bradbury was one of the savviest practitioners of celebrity out there.  Oh, he pursued it to facilitate telling his stories, but he pursued it with an insight and an intensity that would shame a Hollywood star.

Ray deliberately crafted the Legend of Ray Bradbury.

Oh, it was not a false legend, nothing phony about it.

But he left nothing to chance.

And he rarely made a misstep.

We all know the story of William F. Gaines ripping him off in the pages of EC comics.

And Ray, with remarkable acuity, did not ignore the infraction, did not get angry.

Rather, he set out to get paid.

And when Gaines realized the letter from Hollywood was not threatening a lawsuit but merely asking for a mere $50 for two stories EC had ripped off…

…and not merely asking for the money but thanking Gaines & crew for doing such a good job with them…

…Gaines had to ask if Ray would mind if they adapted a few more.

“Sure, just make sure my name is on the cover,” said Ray.

There’s a reason he’s the only sci-fi writer everybody knows.

*

But Ray could also be relentless and utterly without pity.  There were many occasions when he refused to compromise.

Early in his writing career, when he rolled the last page of “The Lake” out of his typewriter and realized to himself “This one’s different” he took great pains to ensure his name was associated with only the finest quality.

He burned a box of early manuscripts -- thousands and thousands of pages – to make sure they would never see light of print.

No archives, no collection of papers in a university library, no doctorate thesis written on his evolving view of Martians as literary symbol.

He took all his crippled children and burned them.

*

It was my pleasure to work at Tokyo Movie Shinsha when Ray was contributing material to their glorious disaster, Little Nemo:  Adventures In Slumberland.[4]

We got to know each other, and in years to come when our orbital paths would intersect, it was always a pleasure to get caught up.

He was always kind and gracious and open in person.

Bradbury was a Christian, but not the kind to wear his faith on his sleeve.  There’s a hint of theology in some of his stories (notably “The Man”) but mostly his beliefs remained understated.

"At the center of religion is love," he once said. "I love you and I forgive you.  I am like you and you are like me.  I love all people.  I love the world.  I love creating.  Everything in our life should be based on love."

R.I.P., Ray.  You’ve earned it.

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[1]  Only much later did we add the D & E:  Dick and Ellison

[2]  Gesundheit.

[3]  Well, of course it’s sci-fi!  Why else would they put it on the shelves of the library marked “sci-fi”?

[4]  In a nutshell, the problem was this: Little Nemo In Slumberland works only as a weekly comic strip.  The gag is that just as Nemo’s dream gets good…he wakes up.  It was never meant to carry a sustained narrative, and despite top notch technical input, it failed to connect with audiences.

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