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Ray Bradbury, 1920 - 2012
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R.I.P. Ray Bradbury, Author of Fahrenheit 451 and The Martian Chronicles.

I have a lot of feelings about this, and I'm not even sure how to articulate all of them. I haven't read everything he's ever written; we had Fahrenheit 451 in high school, of course, but I liked Something Wicked This Way Comes a good bit more. I actually just reread The Martian Chronicles and Bradbury Stories last month (the latter isn't the Compleat Works of Ray Bradbury, but it's the biggest collection I've found). But when I was in high school, the school paid for a few interested students in my writing class to go to the Writing Today conference to see him speak. He did what I think was supposed to be a Q&A, but was mostly just him rambling on about anything he wanted for more than an hour, because that is a precious gift when you're Ray Bradbury; he was also the guest of honor at the luncheon, but I remember the morning session more clearly. Actually, since this was more than fifteen years ago, I only remember two specific things he said:

1) Never throw away the things you love, and never let anyone else throw them away for you. He still missed his childhood Buck Rogers comics. Since I had just thrown away a pile of clippings I had cherished for several years, this was resonant, validating, and bittersweet to hear, all at the same time.

2) Never talk about what you're writing; you won't feel the need to write it anymore. Even having heard him say that, sometimes I can't help myself. But he's always been right.

As for the books themselves, his real thematic passions as a writer seem to have been 1) the idylls of small-town childhood; 2) the joys of books (obviously), both as the building blocks of the soul and as something to be defended at all costs, and with outright rebellion if necessary; 3) and the magic of the rocket age. (There are others, but those are the ones that strike me the most strongly off the top of my head. I might throw in "the need and search for love," as well.) Particularly that last theme--so many of his short stories are about space travel, the idealized glamour and possibility of rockets, a longing for the new-world opportunities they offer, and sometimes even an anxiety about what they might herald. Bradbury's work embodies an era of sci-fi that's... really kind of past-tense now; I think it was superceded by the "space colonization" and "omg aliens will eat our faces and destroy the earth" genres, because we moved past the hope that we would someday land on the moon to the dread of, "Oh, shit... what next?" The modern age--well, let me back up. Every age is the modern age to the people living it. The hopeful, post-WWII Rocket Age was the modern age then. The next modern ages were colored more by disillusionment and anxiety, as far as I can tell, with upswings now and then. But the horror stories people have been telling the last few decades usually aren't about Unstoppable Blobs and Brains That Would Not Die and Creatures What Came from the Deep that cheerfully get vanquished by small-town heroes in the final reel. Even in, say, Independence Day, half the world is lovingly incinerated before the various damaged characters come together to redeem themselves and save the Earth, etc., etc., but you know, with those final shots of smoking crash sites, that civilization isn't quite going to be the same afterwards. It's going to have to cope with the knowledge of what happened, what turned out to be possible, long after they've rebuilt New York. (Honestly, Spielberg's War of the Worlds is one of the most traumatic movies, for me, at least, that I have ever seen, because it so viscerally tells you exactly how screwed we all would be.) People have to come to grips with the horrors of time and space in post-Rocket Age sci-fi; in a timely enough fashion, this is what the Alien movies, and I'm guessing Prometheus this weekend, are about.

But in Bradbury's cosmos, the gleaming rocket is a symbol of hope and opportunity--opportunity that humankind often wastes or destroys, humanity being what it is, with only the Jeff Spenders of the world to rail helplessly against the inevitable. On the other hand, you have the very pointed "Way in the Middle of the Air" (1950), for example, a story about African-Americans taking rockets to escape... well, the America of 1950, and start new lives on Mars, on their own terms. (In fact, I would say "people seeking to live on their own terms" is another big theme, and one often interwoven with the others.) As cynical as many of Bradbury's stories are regarding what a mess humans will make when they get to Mars (and of Earth itself back home), those stories are about hope wasted, which presupposes that there was hope and joy and opportunity in the first place. I feel like his writing wouldn't be so vivid and lyrical if there were not such a wellspring of old-fashioned hope at the center, so much he found worthy of protection. True-hearted rebellion that's more than just anarchy, after all, requires a world worth saving; a story like "The Toynbee Convector" posits not just that one man could change the entire course of civilization with nothing but a message of hope, but that humanity itself is capable of acting on it. (Which is, at a moment when the YA dystopia genre is huge and yet almost eclipsed by what's actually going on in America right now, a precious kind of magic.) And I think that's what his genre legacy is, a golden slice of crystallized possibility--he claimed most of his work was fantasy, not sci-fi. I would argue that they're just different ways of dreaming, and dreaming is the only way we move forward.

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So sad to hear. I've been a fan of his for 45 years, since I first read Something Wicked This Way Comes when I was ten; I've got nearly all his books.

The major theme in his writing that's always resonated most with me is the understanding and validation of the Weird; how lonely and difficult it is to live within a society without being part of it, and the wider illustration that everybody has their own difficulties with being part of a society. Not necessarily the search for love; often the search for (or flight from) some other thing that nobody else *gets*. Lots of unusual people passing for normal, or trying to pass. Lots of normal people having unusual stuff happening to them, with which they have no clue how to cope.

I particularly enjoy the stories of the Family, who are of such ancient, powerful and aristocratic Weird lineage that they aren't rejected for being Weird, but instead are perfect models of the classic Midwestern pioneer gentry: highly eccentric rich old people keeping themselves to themselves in their big old American Gothic houses on the far edge of Towns That Time Forgot. My mother's family pioneered Bennington, Nebraska, and back in the '60s and '70's it was exactly like that; the 19th century still lingering ghost-like in the middle of the 20th - my Cousin Jeannette's house could have come straight out of a Bradbury story,

Most of Bradbury's space aliens are more-or-less human. Not all, of course - The Well is definitely Alien with a capital A - but whenever his aliens are presented as people-who-talk, they seem to think pretty much like humans. This wasn't a flaw as far as the stories went, since his aliens were mostly illustrating some metaphorical point, but it did prevent them from ever becoming any distinguishables species or cultures. The Venusians probably come closest, but maybe only because we never actually see them, let alone get to know one. The Martians... who lives on Bradbury's Mars? Bradbury himself never decided; his Martians are so inconsistent that one can't even say if they're truly corporeal or not, because there's 'canon' to support either view.

Nor is there any consistent timeline for development of spacecraft and technology. What year did the Cup of Gold go to the Sun, and were the Sun Domes built on Venus yet? Did the "body electric" perfect robots come out before or after the holograms that can actually eat you? There's endless room for crossover fic within the body of Bradbury's own stories, because he apparently wrote most of them as stand-alones.

Anyway, I'm sorry he's gone; he was a rattlin' good writer.

Well said indeed. This is a wonderful tribute to him. Sad he's gone- even if you don't like all his stuff, his influence on the genre is indisputable, and some of his stories were quite prescient.

I loved that he reminded us to take humanity with us into the future, while we were dreaming of rockets and imagining the unimaginable.

**now ending overly writerly stuff**

I recommend his early 1950's pulp short stories. They are very much products of their day, and highly pulpie (pulp-esque?) but the memories of at least three of those give me shivers any time I think about them.

This is a gorgeous tribute, Cleo, and it pins down really well many of his themes, and how they evoke so many *feelings*. Bradbury's stories stand out from other sci-fi of the period because the tech is just tech, the rocketship is just the tool to carry us out there, and what matters--what will ultimately shape events--is the humanity we carry with us. And Bradbury was so, so good at pinpointing humanity's flaws against our possibilities.

I went through a Bradbury phase some years back, reading The Martian Chronicles and some short story collections. I read The Martian Chronicles pretty much all in one go, and it was--it was like having a fever dream in a book: everything was suddenly warm and nothing was quite real. Most of the sci-fi I'd been reading was hard stuff, tech stuff, and it was such a difference that I didn't just come up for air, I came up for reality. I remember that book like a dream, too--by feelings. The only other sci-fi author I've really had that with is Zelazny, mainly in his short stories. (Actually, there's something about short story sci-fi...but that's a ramble for another time.)

(My other big memory of this time is sitting in O'Hare Airport, waiting for my parents--who were very late--reading The October Country in the cold grey. It seemed really fitting.)

Bradbury also seemed to give really good writing advice. Aside from what he told your class--and the quote you RT'd on Twitter--I remember him most fondly for the "Write your story, then stick it in a drawer for a year and a day" comment. It was good, somehow, to hear about how perspective on writing takes time, and I always keep it in mind when going back to do edits these days.

Thank you again for this post, Cleo. You really say things so well <3

ETA: Oh shit, not that I really needed to ramble on, but I forgot about a point you made up there--about the shiny, happy future, and how it's just gone these days. Space exploration isn't going to bring us hope, it's going to bring us Cthulhu! And the interesting thing is how Bradbury and other guys of his time relentlessly explored that idea--and how it came to be sort of mainstream thought, with no sign of shiny rockets in sight.

Edited at 2012-06-06 10:05 pm (UTC)

*adding this post to memories*

Man. Bradbury is--not was, is--one of my all-time favorite authors. Reading his work just leaves me in awe, every single time.

And I'm using the present tense because I don't think anyone still living can ever take his place.

I have always liked Bradbury a lot. He was at the very first, tiny sf convention I ever went to. I drove him around for a few later conventions [he did not have a car] - and he was charming and endearing. He wrote one of my favorite books, 'The Hallowe'en Tree' [me being born on Hallowe'en and all].

I got to see Bradbury speak at UCLA. Technically he was hospitalized but they wheeled him down to the lecture room. He wore a shirt, tie and boxer shorts. He was in his 80s yet still writing three books a year, including a poetry collection. He was delightful and delighted, just thrilled to be in that room with the students. He made us all laugh and clap our hands and run out and do wonderful things. I'm so glad I have that memory.

It was his description of the Tyrannosaurus in "A Sound of Thunder" that got me, and countless other short stories besides... of course.

I've only read Something Wicked This Way Comes, but I've been aware of him for a long time. It's strange and sad to think that he's no longer with us.

Thanks Cleo, and all the commenters, for this tribute.

That "don't talk about what you write" idea is not one I've heard before, but in hindsight I can see that's been exactly my problem for my entire life. I've been writing since _kindergarten_ and yet can count on one hand the number of projects I've actually finished. I get so excited and I want to share with my super-supportive mom (bless her) and hash things out with my husband and I find that once I've done so, my energy for it is spent. The two times I attempted but failed NaNoWriMo were when I planned and outlined my story ahead of time, and the two times I've won were when I had no idea what I was doing.

So I'll have to take that bit of advice and meditate upon it and try to take it to heart.

MrCreepyPasta has done a reading of There Will Come Soft Rains.

It's here if you want to listen.

thinking that I didn't hear that he had died until days after and somehow it didn't feel real so I didn't write a story or light a bonfire or make someone a pair of wings in his honor, like I had wanted to. I was just regretting it when I looked up and saw my copy of The October Country on the shelf behind my mother's tiny wooden butter churn, where I'm quite sure I didn't put it. I remembered the lines from my favorite poem, Blue Door Option:

If you’re a decent magician, he once told you, when you die people will miss you. But if you’re a really great magician, they’ll always think you’re alive and in the middle of the best trick of all time. Even though you watched him fade in front
of a machine, heard his breathing disappear like a radio station slipping off the air, you still look for him. In the eyes of the teller at the bank, in the stands at minor league baseball games, in the credits of independent movies from Iceland—you suspect everyone. He was that good.