Ray Bradbury, 1920 – 2012.
“Science-fiction author Ray Bradbury dead at 91,” The Chicago Tribune reported on June 6.
“Ray Bradbury brought literary respect to science fiction,” assessed the headline of David Colton’s encomium on USAToday.com the same day.
“The World’s Greatest Living Science-Fiction Writer,” proclaims the tagline under his name on the covers of Bantam paperback editions from the late 1960s.
Bradbury for over six decades has been regarded as one of the archbishops of the genre, along with Isaac Asimov, Arthur C. Clarke and Robert Heinlein. Unlike the others, who had scientific training, Bradbury didn’t have a college degree. Also unlike the others, he didn’t deal with science in his work, even in the stories whose locus is outer space. Yet, he’s considered to be the author who liberated science fiction from the ghetto of fan magazines and delivered it to the general reader. Truman Capote, Christopher Isherwood and Aldous Huxley were admirers.
Bradbury himself rejected the common description of him as a science-fiction writer, insisting that he was a writer of fantasy. (His first book, Dark Carnival, is a collection of horror stories). He was quoted as saying only one of his books belongs in the science-fiction category, Fahrenheit 451. Published in 1953, the novel is astonishing to read now because it dramatically draws attention to Bradbury’s prescience. He foresaw social media, reality TV and political correctness.
Although his novels and short-story collections are consigned to the science-fiction shelves in bookstores, Bradbury’s literary palette contains more colors than his reputation would suggest. For example, he wrote charming tales of ordinary life in Ireland, where he lived while writing the screenplay for John Huston’s adaptation of Moby-Dick, starring Gregory Peck. His short stories “The Big Black and White Game” (American Mercury, 1945) and “I See You Never” (The New Yorker, 1947) deal with, respectively, race relations in the context of small-town baseball and a Mexican immigrant’s deportation; both appear in The Golden Apples of the Sun, a collection published in 1953.
Science fiction and fantasy evoke the possibilities of the improbable and impossible. Bradbury’s work evokes a different kind of possibility: nostalgia’s ability to make fond memories come to life. In his writing, child-eyed sentimentality is a quality to be embraced, not disdained. The atmosphere is perpetually autumnal, as if the calendar knows only one month, October, even in a book like Dandelion Wine, which takes place during a miraculous summer as seen through the conjuring eyes of 12 year-old Douglas Spaulding (a stand-in for the author).
Bradbury’s lyricism has been accorded much attention, and indeed, a Romantic poetic strain courses through quite a bit of his prose. A particularly moving example is the following excerpt from the short story “And the Sailor, Home from the Sea” (The Machineries of Joy, 1964). The metaphorical paragraphs concern the death of the titular sea captain’s wife.
Of the two storms, one ended abruptly—the fever that raged in Kate and burned her to a white dust. A great silence moved in her body and then did not move at all.
The sail mender was brought to dress her for the sea. The motion of the needle flickering in the underwater light of the cabin was like a tropical fish, sharp, thin, infinitely patient, nibbling away at the shroud, skirting the dark, sealing the silence in.
Thank you, Ray. The pleasure has been ours.