'My stories have led me through my life': An appreciation of Ray Bradbury
'My stories have led me through my life': An appreciation of Ray Bradbury
Ray Bradbury died a month ago.
It has taken me this long to process that fact and accept it. It has taken me this long to try to put into words how I feel about his work and attempt to describe his achievements as a writer.
I first discovered Ray Bradbury very young, without actually realising it at the time. When I was about nine or ten, my father brought me a collection of science fiction stories from the local library. It was a dazzling, head-spinning, mind-expanding, dream-inspiring collection, filled with ideas, with lyricism, colour, warmth, wit, humour, thrills, chills, and above all with stories.
A cornucopia of wonderful stories, so varied in tone, in mood, in style, in subject, filled with so many astonishing concepts and visions that for years I mistakenly believed the book to be an anthology of work by various authors.
And then, years later, I found a copy in a charity shop. The same edition I had read as a child. I recognised the cover at once. I recognised the name: “S” Is For Space. And I discovered something. All of the stories were by one man: Ray Bradbury.
I guess I should not really have been surprised by this. I had long since discovered Bradbury a second time, as it were, and had devoured everything I could find by him. So I knew how fertile his imagination was, how wide-ranging his storytelling skills, how diverse the moods he could conjure, the narrative approaches he was capable of.
I knew that as a writer he could do pretty much anything. Even so, I was stunned that my memory had played me false in this way. But that is the magic of Ray Bradbury. He is not one writer, but many. Multitudes, in fact. And as a result he is impossible to pigeonhole, impossible to characterise - except by superlatives.
Any assertion made about where his skills lie, what his major themes may be, will almost invariably lead to the realisation that such an assertion, while true, is only partly so. It is a fraction of the truth, in fact. A fraction of the worlds, the universes of Ray Bradbury’s fiction. Please bear this in mind as you read what follows…
Though he is commonly described as being a writer of Science Fiction, it is worth noting that Bradbury himself was uncomfortable with the label.
Not because he feared being ghettoised - he loved Science Fiction - but because he knew that what he wrote was generally not scientifically based. Then again, as he wryly observed: “Anything you dream is fiction, and anything you accomplish is science, the whole history of mankind is nothing but science fiction.”
And it is only in this specific sense that he would have accepted the label of “Science Fiction Author”. His interest as a writer was in people, in the experience of life itself. And in the sheer joy of a good, well-told tale.
Open any collection of Bradbury stories, and you will find lyrical fantasy jostling with ghoulish body horror, penetrating studies of human nature alongside droll EC-comics-style twist-in-the-tale shockers, rose-tinted recollections of a pastoral childhood balanced against eerie excursions into backwoods rural gothic.
He is as at home writing about the depths of space as he is the heart of the American Midwest.
But if there is a recurring mood in all of Bradbury’s work, it might be termed a kind of “Dark Nostalgia” - an awareness of what would be lost on a trip to the stars, or into the past or wherever. Not simply the loss of one’s own home, but the damage wrought in the process to the homes and environments of others. This may stem from Bradbury’s own small-town upbringing, in Waukegan, Illinois, a place which featured in fictionalised, fantastic form as Green Town in several of his novels and short stories.
It was a place he was nostalgic for, and felt the loss of, but remained clear-eyed about. He knew better than most that, in Thomas Wolfe’s famous phrase, “You Can’t Go Home Again”. This idea permeates his work.
His celebrated “Martian Chronicles” were written at a time when Mars was already known to be uninhabited, and were intended as fables, allegories about America’s own oft-questionable pioneer history.
Bradbury chose Mars as a location precisely because it had already been the focus of so much fantasy, so much speculation; because the Red Planet had such a grasp on the collective imagination that, even now that it was known to be uninhabited, the fantasies persisted - nostalgic fantasies, tinged with frustrated longing and regret.
Bradbury had been captivated in boyhood by the “Barsoom” stories of Edgar Rice Burroughs, with their thinly-disguised depiction of American imperialism in action, as former Confederate soldier John Carter finds himself transported Mars, and proceeds to make the planet his own by right of conquest.
More influential on the evolution of the Martian Chronicles, however, were the extraordinary Martian planetary romances of Leigh Brackett, with their depiction of a dying, decaying culture, striving to preserve itself as colonists and traders from Earth start to take over and reshape the world to their own ends.
Indeed, the young Bradbury absorbed and assimilated Brackett’s style, narrative sense and creative vision so thoroughly that, when Brackett was called to Hollywood to work on the screenplay of The Big Sleep, he was able to continue and seamlessly complete her half-finished novella Lorelei of The Red Mist, even though she had left no notes about how she intended the story to end. Reading the novella now, it is virtually impossible to detect, even when one knows, the point at which Bradbury takes over the writing.
Bradbury’s own vision of Mars, while very different to Brackett’s and worlds away from Burroughs’ is nevertheless clearly informed by them. His Mars, too, is a landscape being colonised, wherein Mankind is brought face to face both with an alien culture he does not understand, and with his own inadequacies, doubts and fears.
Bradbury’s attitude to this colonisation process is clearly indicated by his preferred title for the original collection of “Martian Chronicles” - The Silver Locusts. Bradbury’s colonists will destroy what they encounter, not out of malice, or cruelty, or greed, but because they can only survive by eradicating what is there already.
The colonisation of Mars takes place as the Earth teeters on the brink of war. Having brought one planet to the brink of destruction, Mankind moves on to another, but is in danger of learning nothing in the process.
The mood of the stories is characterised throughout by a sense of loss, of regret. In the haunting “Mars Is Heaven!”, a group of settlers are trapped and destroyed by Martians who have drawn on nostalgic memories of the settlers’ own long-lost Midwestern childhood homes.
In “And The Moon Be Still As Bright”, a subsequent exhibition discovers that the Martians have been wiped out by an epidemic of chickenpox brought to the planet by the previous expedition - a reference both to the common cold which kills off the Martian invaders in HG Wells’ War of The Worlds, and also more pertinently to the devastation caused to the Native American population by smallpox.
In “The Settlers”, an archaeologist declares himself “The Last Martian,” turning on his fellow settlers, killing them because he sees the damage they are already doing to Mars in colonising it.
As the sequence progresses, Earth is destroyed and Mars changed irrevocably, and for the worse. Though the final story in the sequence, “The Million Year Picnic” ends with some hope for the future, it is a vague, bleak hope at best .
A family escapes from the nuclear devastation of earth to set up home on the now largely-abandoned Mars. They survive by burning documents from Earth. Finally the father introduces his young sons to “the Martians” by showing them their own reflections in a canal. Earth is gone, the Native Martians are gone, and the future is in the hands of the survivors, who have a chance to build something from the ashes and rubble…
This sequence and the classic dystopian novel Fahrenheit 451 are the closest Bradbury ever came to writing anything that might be termed “Science Fiction”, but in reality they are, to borrow the title of a short story collection by one of his admirers, J. G. Ballard, “Myths of The Near Future”. Indeed Bradbury himself likened his Martian tales to Greek Myths.
He knew better than most authors that Science Fiction is never really about the future, but about the time in which it is written, and so opted very consciously to distance himself from any claims of scientific plausibility from the outset, to set his stories in the realm of the fantastic, from which it is a short step into the mythological.
The Martian Stories were not intended to be read as a realistic vision of the future, but an allegorical exploration of what possibilities and pressures that future might bring, and how these might relate to the current world. Fahrenheit 451 is a novel of ideas, akin to Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four, dealing with one of Bradbury’s own darkest fears - the devaluing of books.
The novel is usually interpreted as an Orwellian parable about State Censorship and the eradication of ideas perceived as dangerous to the state, but Bradbury saw it as being just as much about how TV and mass media would break down people’s attention spans, their ability to process and retain information, replacing facts and knowledge with what he contemptuously termed “factoids”.
He saw TV as having an extraordinary potential to serve as an opiate for the masses, far more potent than religion. And he was cruelly aware that people would more than gladly accept that televisual opiate, rather than read a book and be challenged by an idea that might offend their sensibilities or challenge their preconceptions.
As he said himself: “You don’t have to burn books to destroy a culture. Just get people to stop reading them.”
For Bradbury, books define a culture. Access to them had made him the person he was. A product of the Depression, unable to afford college, he was largely self-educated: “Libraries raised me… I couldn’t go to college, so I went to the library three days a week for ten years.” Indeed, he actually wrote Fahrenheit 451 on a rented typewriter on one of the study rooms in the Powell Library at UCLA, surrounded by books.
Bradbury was largely self-educated. He taught himself to write by reading other great writers. Writing seems to have been as natural to him as breathing. He loves words, and uses them un-self-consciously, unsparingly. There is an enthusiasm, a joy in language, that has led some to criticise him for occasional lapses into purple prose.
But any lapses of this kind (if lapses they are, which I would dispute), are more than balanced by the spare minimalism employed elsewhere. This, for example, is how he begins his bone-chilling rural gothic tale, “The Scythe”:
“Suddenly, there was no more road. It ran down the valley like any other road, between slopes of barren, stony ground and live oak trees, and then past a broad field of wheat standing alone in the wilderness. It came up beside the small white house that belonged to the wheat field and then just faded out, as though there was no more use for it.”
Terse, understated, precise. It could almost be a passage from Hemingway or O’Hara. And yet, too, there is a sense of something oddly threatening here. A sense of terminus, of the end of something, that hints, however subtly, at what is to come. “The Scythe” is one of Bradbury’s darkest, most disturbing tales, culminating in gory nightmare, but it begins quietly with an image right out of a Walker Evans photograph of depression era rural America.
Bradbury knew this world well. It was the world of his own childhood. He could revisit it in nostalgia, but he could also use it to ground his most disturbing visions in a solid reality. He did not invent the form of writing known as Southern Gothic, but he may well have been the first to transplant it to the rural Midwest, to draw on his own memories and the visions of Evans, and painters such as Andrew Wyeth and Grant Wood, and mix these with altogether more fantastic elements.
His only real precursor is Charles G. Finney, whose classic novel The Circus of Dr Lao, with its depiction of a magical circus unleashing strange forces in an Arizona backwater, Bradbury greatly admired and drew inspiration from.
Bradbury’s own classic Something Wicked This Way Comes reworks elements of Finney’s mischievous satiric fantasy, together with others taken from Davis Grubb’s masterful Southern Gothic Noir The Night of The Hunter into a terrifying fairytale about loss of childhood innocence and the dangerous nature of long-cherished dreams and fancies.
It is a book that can be read by young and old alike, and will haunt them all equally. And its influence on American horror writing is both seminal and wide-ranging. The novels of Stephen King, from Salem’s Lot to Needful Things, are unthinkable without it, as are Charles L. Grant’s sequence of novels set in the fictional town of Oxrun Station. But there isn’t anyone working in the field of fantastic fiction today who hasn’t drawn some inspiration from Bradbury’s work. Sometimes it seems as if there isn’t an author alive who hasn’t been touched by him.
He is a writer’s writer, just as much as he is a popular one - as quickly became apparent from the literary who’s who of authors who lined up to pay tribute.
Ray Bradbury is gone now. He will write no more of those astonishing stories.
The only consolation is that his legacy remains for his admirers to revisit and for others still to discover. He was as prolific as he was brilliant, so there is much to savour, there are many worlds to get lost in, and the best tribute I, or anyone else, can pay to this extraordinary writer is simply to open one of his books and READ.