Ray Bradbury is dead. Now all the other science fiction writers can wonder if they are the best living SF author. They couldn’t wonder about that on Tuesday because Ray Bradbury was still alive on Tuesday.
I wept more for his passing than for the death of my own father. He was that much more important to me. Much of my emotional vision of America comes directly from his words. There was a time when I had no one, when my life was an endless chain of days in schools where I was not liked, and trailers and apartments where I knocked around alone because whichever reluctant relative I’d been shunted to was always working or away, when I cooked and cleaned and made do for myself. To escape that loneliness I lost myself in books. I read the comics and imagined myself as Spider-Man, or novels and dreamed of being witty like Archie Goodwin, or cold-blooded like Matt Helm. They were all fun and fine, but only Ray Bradbury could write a story that made me want to be me.
- At ten o’clock the house began to die.—There Will Come Soft Rains
He was the first SF writer to be claimed by the serious literary writers as one of their own. That’s because he was better than almost all of them. There was nothing precious or cute about his work; he was not pretentious or coy. He could be corny in the same way that E. B. White could be corny, the corn of real conviction and real emotion. His words could dazzle and dance on the page, but it was never done to show off his technical chops but was rather the honest means through which he might share his joy. He had no fear.
- He brought out a yellow nickel tablet. He brought out a yellow Ticonderoga pencil. He opened the tablet. He licked the pencil.
- “Tom,” he said, “you and your statistics gave me an idea. I’m going to do the same, keep track of things. For instance: you realize that every summer we do things over and over we did the whole darn summer before?”
- “Like what, Doug?”
- “Like making dandelion wine, like buying these new tennis shoes, like shooting off the first firecracker of the year, like making lemonade, like getting slivers in our feet, like picking wild fox grapes. Every year the same things, same way, no change, no difference. That’s one half of summer, Tom.”
- What’s the other half?”
- “Things we do for the first time ever.”—Dandelion Wine
Was he visionary? You tell me. From 1953.
- “More sports for everyone, group spirit, fun, and you don’t have to think, eh? Organize and organize and superorganize super-super sports. More cartoons in books. More pictures. The mind drinks less and less. Impatience. Highways full of crowds going somewhere, somewhere, somewhere, nowhere. The gasoline refugee. Towns turn into motels, people in nomadic surges from place to place, following the moon tides, living tonight in the room where you slept this noon and I the night before.”
- …”Now lets take up the minorities in our civilization, shall we? Bigger the population the more minorities. Don’t step on the toes of the dog lovers, doctors, lawyers, merchants, chiefs, Mormons, Baptists, Unitarians, second-generation Chinese, Swedes, Italians, Germans, Texans, Brooklynites, Irishmen, people from Oregon or Mexico. The people in this book, this play, this TV serial are not meant to represent any actual painters, cartographers, mechanics anywhere. The bigger your market, the less you handle controversy, remember that! All the minor minor minorities with their navels to be kept clean. Authors full of evil thoughts, lock up their typewriters. They did. Magazines became a nice blend of vanilla tapioca. Books, so the damned critics said, were dishwater. No wonder books stopped selling, the critics said. But the public, knowing what it wanted, spinning happily let the comic books survive. And the three-dimensional sex magazines, of course. There you have it, Montag. It didn’t come from the government down. There was no dictum, no declaration, no censorship, to start with, no! Technology, mass exploitation, and minority pressure turned the trick, thank God. Today, thanks to them, you can stay happy all the time.”—Farenheit 451
He could be irascible and strange. He could be inconsistent. He wrote of Mars but never flew because he was afraid of airplanes. But he inspired everyone. Rod Serling and his Twilight Zone might never have existed had Bradbury not been there to inspire the young screenwriter. And all of fantasy and SF owes him for showing that you could reach for glory in language and still tell a cracking good yarn.
- “Maybe once it was just one man walking across Europe, jingling his ankle bells, a lute on his shoulder making a hunchbacked shadow, before Columbus. Maybe a man walked around in a monkey skin a million years ago, stuffing himself with other people’s unhappiness, chewed their pain all day like spearmint gum, for the sweet savor, and trotted faster, revivified by personal disaster. Maybe his son after him refined his father’s deadfalls, mantraps, bone-crunchers, head-achers, flesh-twitchers, soul-skinners. These laid the scum on lonely ponds from which came vinegar gnats to snuff up noses, mosquitoes to ride summer-night flesh and sting forth those bumps that carnival phrenologists dearly love to fondle and prophesy upon. So from one man here, one man there, walking as swift as his oily glances, it became scuttles of dogmen begging gifts of trouble, pandering misery, seeking under carpets for centipede treads, watchful of night sweats, harkening by bedroom doors to hear men twist basting themselves with remorse and warm-water dreams.
- “The stuff of nightmare is their plain bread. They butter it with pain…”—Something Wicked This Way Comes
He wrote for pirates. He wrote for poets. He wrote because he could never stop writing. And he built for us all a body of work that we may visit again and again and again.
- “When I was a boy my grandfather died, and he was a sculptor. He was also a very kind man who had a lot of love to give to the world, and he helped clean up the slum in our town; and he made toys for us and he did a million things in his lifetime; and he was always busy with his hands. And when he died I suddenly realized I wasn’t crying for him at all, but for the things that he did. I cried because he would never do them again, he would never carve another piece of wood or help us raise doves and pigeons in the back-yard or play the violin the way he did, or tell us jokes the way he did. He was individual. He was an important man. I’ve never gotten over his death. Often I think what wonderful carvings never came to birth because he died. How many jokes are missing from the world, and how many homing pigeons untouched by his hands. He shaped the world. He did things to the world. The world was bankrupted of ten million fine actions the night he passed on.”—Farenheit 451
I have not been alone for a very long time now and that is good. My wife and I have been married going on thirty-seven years, and neither she nor my children hate me very much and that is good, too. But there is a part of me that is always that little boy, scared and lonely and a little sad. Bradbury knew very well we always keep that child inside us and hold him close for that is the closest thing to what we really are.
Ray Bradbury is dead and I am a little bit sad and there are no pictures in this blog today.
And no damned 3D, either.