If science fiction is kids’ gateway drug to science—and it surely was mine— then Ray Bradbury is a major pusher, in the ranks of H. G. Wells, Jules Verne, Isaac Asimov, Robert Heinlein and Philip K. Dick. Although they made us curious and celebrated rational thought, they didn’t gloss over the ramifications of scientific discovery and technological progress. And they did give us Earthbound types places to go and worlds to explore and a future full of possibilities—and all of them as close as the nearest bookstore or library. Bradbury, who started as a writer for pulp fiction magazines, was one of the science fiction authors who made the genre “respectable” literature.
More than eight million copies of Bradbury’s books were sold in 36 languages—and this was without digitization. He wrote more than 500 works that included novels, plays, children’s books, screenplays and short stories . Strange how this prolific visionary, who died June 5 at 91, seemed to abhor e-words, preferring the printed page. Perhaps he was thinking that electronic words are more easily censored or deleted than written ones—at least the latter hold out until the temperature reaches Fahrenheit 451. And it may have just been his nature: as the mental constructor of spaceships, time machines and civilizations on other planets, he remained firmly grounded—he never traveled via plane until 1982 and had no driver’s license.
Bradbury stood with the great science fiction storytellers in his ability to superimpose the commonplace and the heinousness of reality over fantastic alien settings—or Earthly dystopias, such as in what some critics consider his greatest accomplishment, Fahrenheit 451, as well as his other works, such as Something Wicked This Way Comes (1983), It Came from Outer Space (1953), and on television shows including the Twilight Zone. And although he never won a Pulitzer, he did win a special citation from the committee in 2007. He also won the National Medal of Arts in 2004.
In high school, we were assigned to read The Martian Chronicles and would be tested on it. Bonus points for me—already a fan of science fiction, I had read it twice—yet like all great literature, I would realize as I matured that it was more than the space-set adventure I enjoyed, but rather a morality tale that unfolded as I learned more about history and watched real-life current events dutifully repeat it. Good authors are sneaky like that—they can sell any idea or parable, as long as it is gift wrapped in a good tale.
In The Illustrated Man, Bradbury used the frame narrative device employed by classics such as the The Decameron, or One Thousand and One Nights, which weaved unrelated short stories together. A young man meets an “illustrated man” who has tattoos that can tell stories. Some have ironic twists, such as the satiric, “The Concrete Mixer,” where a Martian invasion of Earth ends with the conquerors acculturated into and seduced by commercial American society, which then ends up taking over Mars. Another that stands out for me is “The Last Night of the World,” in which a person awakes from a dream that the world would end that night. Then he finds that every adult has had the same dream, yet people go about their day without changing their routines. The end is not due to war, famine or other calamity—it’s just “the closing of a book.” A wife asks her husband, “Do we deserve this?” He answers, “It’s not a matter of deserving; it’s just that things didn’t work out.” Sometimes the most dangerous apocalypse is the one that sneaks up on you. Any lessons to be learned here? As one who ponders apocalypse far too much (as I suspect most sci-fi readers do) I find his work a devious mix of the mundane, the alien and the terrifying that works so well in many his stories. After all, he could have just been playing on the fact that the characters in “Last Night” might be self-aware and know they live in a short story.
Of course in his 1953 novel, Fahrenheit 451, which stands with 1984 and Brave New World as harbingers, or at least warnings of possible and frightening destinies for humankind, the message is not so oblique: He tells of a totalitarian U.S. where all books are banned and burned. It seems obvious to us in the West, where we are in the midst of an information revolution, that unfettered access to knowledge is key to any open and democratic society, and that censoring any media or Internet site is a gross assault on our freedom. But efforts to filter the Internet in China, Iran and other authoritarian regimes shows that the censors’ fires still burn hot. Yet, Bradbury told the Times of London in 1993: “The real threat is not from Big Brother, but from little sister [and] all those groups, men and women, who want to impose their views from below. If you allow every minority to grab one book off the shelf, you’ll have nothing in the library.” Before we in the Free World get too righteous, we should look at home at such incidents as the attempts to ban the mention of evolution or global warming in textbooks in supposedly enlightened democracies.
The beauty of science fiction is born not simply of its predictive proclivities, but also of its festival of ideas, some fantastically outlandish, some horrifying, some so prescient that they now appear “outdated”—but only because they have come true. In expanding our minds with his imagination, Bradbury, who described himself as “a magician” and science fiction as “the art of the possible” (as opposed to the art of the impossible: fantasy) gave us a way to see humanity’s possibilities—both great and despicable. He also gave us the most important thing an author can bestow: really good stories.