Stars and Tennis Shoes: Ray Bradbury, 1920-2012

Certainly the highest posthumous praise that can be conferred upon any writer is the assertion that his or her writing permanently altered the literary landscape for the better, opening new textual doors and engaging new readers. That the author’s oeuvre was essential and irreplaceable and transformative. In short, that the work mattered, was unique and influential, was accepted and enjoyed, and will be preserved for future generations yet unborn. Bradbury, who died at the age of 91 on June 6, 2012, has unquestionably earned this accolade. It’s impossible to imagine twenty-first-century fantastika looking as it does without his immense contributions. His legion of fans continues to grow, with his work part of school curriculums everywhere. With the handy canonization of 100 of his tales into a hefty omnibus, a gateway volume stands ready for scholars and newbies alike. It’s plain that since his first professional publication in 1941 (the story “Pendulum”, co-authored with Henry Hasse) to his small nostalgic essay in the special Science Fiction issue of The New Yorker — a career of some seventy years — Bradbury succeeded in turning out a steady freshet of idiosyncratic fiction and non-fiction that expanded the reach and vernacular of fantastical literature and also connected deeply with a loving audience.

Yet Bradbury also achieved something that is much more rare: he made his life exemplary of a certain attitude of positivity and imagination, in the manner of, say, Thoreau or Emerson, kindred souls. He walked it like he talked it, an uncommon practice among shifty, fallible, disingenuous scribblers, however aesthetically perfect their productions might be. In this regard, he shone forth as one of the quintessential Americans of our best self-representational legends, a Rockwellian composite of the steadfast virtues and sensibilities of the Midwest (where he was raised till age thirteen) and a forward-looking, self-actualizing Californian can-do cheerfulness (he resided in Los Angeles from 1934 onward). Few other writers in the genre — maybe Jack Williamson and Clifford Simak — or outside it embodied this same stance, and none were as famous as Bradbury.

But before the public recognition came the outstanding fiction, necessarily so. No one would have paid any attention to Bradbury’s pronouncements or maxims without his worthy accomplishments. Nor would he have wanted such unearned attention. “Each of you, curious about creativity, wants to make contact with that thing in yourself that is truly original. You want fame and fortune, yes, but only as rewards for work well and truly done.” So the man said, away back in 1958, in his invaluable essay, “Zen and the Art of Writing”.

Part of Bradbury’s charm was his well-known Horatio-Alger-style fannish origins, and his perpetual reader’s enthusiasm, no matter how long and distinguished his CV grew. Starting as a total Depression-era fanboy, he worked hard at refining his innate talents, climbing a ladder that went from publishing a mimeographed fanzine to scripting for John Huston and helping Walter Cronkite anchor the first Moon landing for network TV. Still, he was forever quick to cite and praise all his formative loves, from Thomas Wolfe to Lon Chaney, Robert Louis Stevenson to Picasso. And somewhere along this path, he learned how to tap into archetypical dreams and nightmares, and fashion them into captivating tales. Simply to read some of his opening sentences is to see his power:

“He came out of the earth, hating.” (“Pillar of Fire”)

“A wind blew the long years away past their hot faces.” (“Time in Thy Flight”)

“To enter out into that silence that was the city at eight o’clock of a misty evening in November, to put your feet upon that buckling concrete walk, to step over grassy seams and make your way, hands in pockets, through the silences, that was what Mr. Leonard Mead most dearly loved to do.” (“The Pedestrian”)

“She took the great iron spoon and the mummified frog and gave it a bash and made dust of it, and talked to the dust while she ground it in her stony fists quickly.” (“Invisible Boy”)

All these are from just one single book, S is for Space, not even Bradbury’s finest collection.

So first came the work: poetic, scary, contrarian, empathetic, insightful — uplifting even when depicting mortality and despair, such as in “Kaliedoscope”, where the death by atmospheric re-entry of a drifting astronaut nonetheless provides a shooting-star epiphany for a small boy on the ground. Bradbury showed that science fiction could, and must, focus on matters of the heart and spirit, not just gadgets and the grand historical patterns of civilization. “This is a book about those stars and those tennis shoes,” he said in the introduction to R is for Rocket, thus symbolically uniting the cosmic and the quotidian, as he did in his fiction.

For so long, before the genre of fantastika merited book publication in the eyes of the big New York houses, science fiction and fantasy lived by the short story in their many magazines. It was also to Bradbury’s credit that he tweaked and prodded this succinct, abbreviated mode of writing more intensely than anyone since Poe, stretching its capacity and illustrating its potential. His prescience in focusing on this mode fits him for our abbreviated contemporary attention spans.

With seemingly boundless energy, he also of course inhabited longer forms, as well as plays and poems. Both The Martian Chronicles and Fahrenheit 451 remain sterling classics, the former inspiring the actual space program and the latter helping to forestall who knows how many actual book burnings. But it is undoubtedly on his shorter works that his fame rests and will continue to flourish.

With this solid foundation underneath him, Bradbury never lost a chance to testify with a preacher’s zeal whenever he got the public’s ear. He inveighed against censorship and for libraries, against sclerotic stultification and for an eternally youthful sense of wonder, against prejudice and for tolerance and acceptance of diversity: ethical and spiritual stances he put into practice. He became SF’s ambassador to the world at large, gleefully mocking the naysaying mandarins and always touting the virtues of the unfettered dream-making “machineries of joy.”  He could be seen boldly enjoying his life, grateful and proud, guffawing in the face of puritan gloom and repression.

Ephemeral and light as the butterfly in “A Sound of Thunder”, which, when crushed, precipitates  a change in history, Ray Bradbury was utterly consequential. Like the amatory klaxon in “The Fog Horn” that summoned a strange aquatic being from the Deeps, he drew out by his sheer bold presence unsuspected elements of our souls.


[Editor’s Note: Also of interest, BNR columnist Adam Kirsch reviews Jonathan R. Eller’s Becoming Ray Bradbury here.]

The Speculator

Paul Di Filippo’s column The Speculator appears monthly in the Barnes & Noble Review.  He is the author of several acclaimed novels and story collections, including Fractal Paisleys, Little Doors, Neutrino Drag, and Fuzzy Dice.