Ray Bradbury died today.
He hadn’t been well, a stroke many years ago left him damaged, doubtless uncomfortable. But he hung around, the world gave him a few more awards, celebrated him in the small and varied corners where writers of moment get celebrated. Some people probably thought he’d died already, years past.
But, ironically, he published an essay in the New Yorker a few days ago, autobiographical. I say ironic because of the title.
I met Ray Bradbury a couple of times. On neither occasion was it enough to become first-name basis camaraderie. But he was gracious, friendly, and generous with his time. The first occasion was at the 1986 World Science Fiction Convention in Atlanta, Confederation, where he was guest of honor.
The main hotel, the Peachtree Marriott, was something out of Asimov’s Foundation stories, and the entire sixth floor, if I remember right, was an open deck given over to the hospitality suite. One evening Ray came bounding through, jogging shorts and a t-shirt, grinning, signing autographs, and talking to people. I ended up in a small group with him.
One young man wore a dragon on his shoulder. It was quite a piece of work, with a long neck, all made out of some rubbery material, and he had run tubes through it connected to an air bulb in his pocket. When he squeezed, the neck stretched and twisted, the little thing looked inquisitive, and Ray was delighted.
All of a sudden he says, “Did you make that?” When the young man said yes, Ray said, “Do you know Ray Harryhausen? He’s a friend of mine, he does special effects. He’s always looking for new talent, an apprentice. I’m going to tell him about you. You should call him. Here.”
Phone numbers were exchanged. It was…amazing. I don’t know if that kid ever followed through, we watched a career in the making.
Did I say generous?
I don’t know what to call Ray Bradbury’s fiction. Except for a few stories, it isn’t science fiction. Nor is it really fantasy. Harlan Ellison likes the term fantasist, so I’ll go with that. Bradbury wrote stories that spun webs in the cracks between categories, filled in the gaps in the mind left by tales too one thing or the other to suffice. His Mars only exists as a metaphor, based on nothing but the childish nightmares, daydreams, and fanciful speculations filtered through a gifted artist. His rockets weren’t really space worthy, but boy were they voyage worthy. He was romantic according to some. He was the lineal descendent of Scheherezade. As long as he was telling the story, everyone had one more day to live.
On a more analytic note, he captured mood better than 99% of anyone else. I don’t even think his midwest ever really existed, except for one day, lazily drifting through the mind of a passerby who thought he saw Camelot in a farmhouse. But that state of mind…yeah, that was real, that lived. Despite its elegiac pace, there was an urgency to it. It said “Don’t waste time—dream!”
For me it was the Martians that had me. The Martian Chronicles is one of the few books I’ve read more than once. It served as the springboard for one of the better homages, Desolation Road, but Ian McDonald did something else with it, unable or unwilling to follow Bradbury. For Ray, settling Mars was the West, the frontier, and he populated it the way the Rockies stood sentry over the encroachment of the nearer plains. Only then, everyone left.
Except the dreamers. The true Martians.
Others will write about his life, his views, his other books. No doubt someone will point out that he wrote the screenplay for John Huston’s Moby Dick. All I’ll mention is some of my favorite titles, most of which I read between the ages of 12 and 18.
Something Wicked This Way Comes, The Martian Chronicles, The Illustrated Man, R Is For Rocket, S Is For Space, Dandelion Wine, I Sing The Body Electric, and of course Fahrenheit 451.
It’s the words, my friends, the words.
And then, quite suddenly, summer was over.
He knew it first when walking downtown. Tom grabbed his arm and pointed gasping, at the dime-store window. They stood there unable to move because of the things from another world displayed so neatly, so innocently, so frighteningly, there.
“Pencils, Doug, ten thousand pencils!”
“Oh, my gosh!”
“Nickle tablets, dime tablets, notebooks, erasers, water colors, rulers, compasses, a hundred thousand of them!”
“Don’t look. Maybe it’s just a mirage.”
Quite suddenly, summer is over.