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Ray Bradbury: science fiction writer (2nd tribute)BY: Tom Purdom 06.24.2012
Literary pundits embraced Ray Bradbury because they mistakenly saw him as someone who shared their distaste for technology. On the contrary, he was a science fiction writer to the core, captivated by technology and its implications for humanity’s future.
Can a serious writer
Ray Bradbury had to overcome some serious resistance when I first encountered his stories in 1950, shortly after I became a science fiction fan (and future science fiction writer) at age 14. Like many science fiction readers, I felt Bradbury labored under handicaps that would have condemned most writers to the outer darkness reserved for science fiction writers who slept through high school physics.
Bradbury’s biggest liability was his cavalier attitude toward the genre’s Prime Directive: the requirement that a story must limit itself to real possibilities. Of his two most famous works, Fahrenheit 451 is definitely a science fiction novel. It depicts an all-too-possible future.
The Martian Chronicles, on the other hand, rests on an outdated view of Mars that the astronomer Percival Lowell popularized in the early 20th Century. By 1950, we knew that Mars was a cold desert with a thin atmosphere that couldn’t possibly support the events depicted in Bradbury’s book. Real science fiction writers like Robert Heinlein and Arthur C. Clarke set their stories in that kind of environment when they wrote about the red planet.
Enthroned by the mavens
Bradbury’s other handicap was the irritating response of the literary establishment, which enthroned him as the only science fiction writer worth reading. A friend of mine who majored in English in the ’60s was given a list of subliterary fiction that included “all-science-fiction-except-Ray-Bradbury.” That was the standard attitude in the ’50s and ’60s among those people who set the agenda for literary discussion.
It wasn’t his fault. Bradbury never mocked other science fiction writers. But the adulation he received from the literary mavens reinforced the feeling that he wasn’t a hardcore member of our literary subculture, even though most of the stories in The Martian Chronicles had originally appeared in the science fiction pulp magazines despised by his upscale admirers.
So why did I devour Bradbury’s stories just as ardently as I gobbled up Heinlein and Clarke? How did he vanquish stigmata that would have condemned other science fiction writers to eternal oblivion?
The literary pundits embraced Bradbury partly because they believed he shared their distaste for technology. Clifton Fadiman summed up this attitude in a preface to The Martian Chronicles. Bradbury was telling us, Fadiman argued, that “the place for space travel is in a book.”
“Mr. Bradbury has caught hold of a simple, obvious but overwhelmingly important moral idea,” Fadiman wrote. “That idea… is that we are in the grip of a psychosis, a technology-mania, the final consequence of which can only be universal murder and quite conceivably the destruction of our planet.”
You could certainly build a case for an anti-technology message if you focused on the appropriate aspects of Bradbury’s work. Mechanical hounds chased hapless nonconformists. Crass humans threw Coke bottles into beautiful Martian canals. But the literary intellectuals overlooked Bradbury’s very un-intellectual attitude toward his art.
Poe vs. Puritans
Bradbury himself said he wrote for fun. He was obviously fascinated by stories— all kinds of stories. Shuddery stories. Sentimental stories. Gee-whiz marvel stories. His output encompassed the whole range.
Usher II pits an Edgar Allan Poe enthusiast against puritans who would obliterate literature that traffics in horror and depravity. King of the Gray Spaces captures the feelings of boys who build model rockets and dream of becoming astronauts.
Small Assassin depicts a murderous baby with the emotions of an infant and the cunning of an adult. Way in the Middle of the Air sends Southern blacks marching down rural roads toward the rockets that will carry them to a new life on Mars.
Icarus Montgolfier Wright celebrates all the heroes who have ridden experimental machines into the sky. There Will Come Soft Rains transforms the aftermath of nuclear war into an elegiac prose poem.
Defending Project Apollo
In Bradbury’s stories, technology was an endless source of monsters and marvels. The technology that defiled the Martian canals in one story could be exalted in another. He never outgrew the boy who shivered over classic horror tales and reveled in pulp space sagas.
In lyrical speeches and essays, he depicted space travel as our species’ bid for immortality. We would outlive the Earth by colonizing the Solar System. We would outlive the sun by expanding through the galaxy.
His literary supporters may have been surprised by this development, but I wasn’t. They had read the words, but they hadn’t heard the music I had heard when I read his stories as a teenager.
In 1950, I joined the ranks of the first young people to approach adulthood knowing that our species could leave its home planet, and would probably do it sooner than most of our elders realized. Heinlein and Clarke pulled out their slide rules and excited kids like me with visions based on real technological possibilities.
Bradbury skipped the slide rule phase, but he captured our allegiance because he loved science fiction and shared our feelings about its basic subjects. He was fascinated by the future. He had heard the call of the stars in his heart.♦
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