Super Scribes 1 - Ray Bradbury
The first book I ever picked up from Ray Bradbury was when I was a teenager. It was The Illustrated Man, one of his collections of short stories. I read it from cover to cover within a couple hours, and then I went back to the beginning and read it again. This was the start of my love affair with Bradbury’s work, and an impetus for my own writing to this day. He is one of two authors who has greatly inspired my short stories, and I’m far from the only writer to find illumination in his work. He was pivotal in shaping the world of science fiction and fantasy into what it is today, from propelling it from the edge of literary awareness directly into the center of the limelight.
Born in 1920, Ray Bradbury spent half his formative years in Illinois. The other half was spent in Los Angeles, where he continued to reside for the rest of his life. His first paying gig for writing was in his early teens, and his first published short story was when he was 18. The Martian Chronicles was his first book, a collection of his short stories published in 1950. Although he continued on in his career to publish several celebrated novels, notably Fahrenheit 451 and Something Wicked This Way Comes, many of Bradbury’s most well-known works are short stories. Some of them have been novelized, with a narrative that loosely connects them together into a cohesive work, such as Dandelion Wine or From the Dust Returned. But from these short stories, he has become one of the most influential genre authors of the 20th century.
Bradbury was highly celebrated for his contributions to the field, both as a literary author and for his involvement in film. He won and/or was nominated for over a dozen prestigious honors, including the National Medal of Arts, an Emmy Award, World Fantasy Award, Hugo Award, Bram Stoker Award, Pulitzer Prize citation, Sir Arthur Clarke Award, and the Peabody Award. He is also the only science fiction author to receive a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.
He was a master at many aspects of storytelling, such as dialogue, suspenseful pacing, clear and yet often poetic description, and characters who jump off the page (often portrayed as realistic and complex, both likable and unlikable). While some of his work is dated, considering it was written nearly 70 years ago, a lot of it also is quite prescient in terms of foretelling items like holograms, cell phones, and certain other trends in technology. And the most telling part of all is what he didn’t say—a short story is about implication, rather than spelling everything out to the last letter. Things can happen off page, and yet the reader knows they’re happening. So much meaning is crammed into so few words, and each story of Bradbury’s makes you feel an emotion, whether it’s horror or anticipation, whether it’s joy or sadness. The images are powerful, the messages more so.
I’ll start out by talking a little bit about my favorite Ray Bradbury book, The Illustrated Man. It’s a collection of short stories loosely held together by the premise that all the stories are tattoos on a man’s skin, a man who gained his “illustrations” from a witch’s magic. The illustrations aren’t static, either—they are able to predict the future. A traveler spends a few hours watching the stories unfold on the man’s back, until one illustration in particular hits too close to home.
A lot of Bradbury’s stories from The Illustrated Man have stuck with me over the years, but the one that I return to again and again is the first of the collection, called “The Veldt.” In it, two children have a nursery room that has raised them more than their absent parents. The room can bring stories to 3-D life, and the children decide to make it into an African veldt. The parents begin to worry at the sound of screams coming from the nursery, since they haven’t seen their children in a while. But when they go into the nursery to find their kids, they realize why the screams sound so familiar—it’s the sound of their own screams when lions programmed by the nursery/their children attack them.
Like The Illustrated Man, Bradbury’s first book, The Martian Chronicles, is a series of interconnected stories. Set in chronological order on a Mars populated by Martians, the book’s main premise is the advent of people from Earth who want to colonize the planet. The stories follow several waves of settlers, in addition to exploring the clashes and connections between Martians and humans. Here is just one example of Bradbury’s lovely, poetic writing, highlighting the reader’s first introduction to the Martians:
They had a house of crystal pillars on the planet Mars by the edge of an empty
sea, and every morning you could see Mrs. K eating the golden fruits that grew
from the crystal walls, or cleaning the house with handfuls of magnetic dust
which, taking all dirt with it, blew away on the hot wind. Afternoons, when the
fossil sea was warm and motionless, and the wine trees stood stiff in the yard,
and the little distant Martian bone town was all enclosed, and no one drifted
out their doors, you could see Mr. K himself in his room, reading from a metal
book with raised hieroglyphs over which he brushed his hand, as one might
play a harp. And from the book, as his fingers stroked, a voice sang, a soft
ancient voice, which told tales of when the sea was red steam on the shore
and ancient men had carried clouds of metal insects and electric spiders into
Of course, no retrospective of Bradbury would be complete without touching on his most famous novel, Fahrenheit 451. A dystopian narrative, it foretells a future America where books are outlawed and burned whenever they are found. The main character, Guy Montag, is a “fireman” employed to burn books, but he begins to question his job and also why books are seen to have no value when it is the society’s hedonistic ways that seem valueless to him. It is a scathing commentary still relevant today, as it touches on the dichotomy between pleasure and responsibility, between warfare and the corruption that can pass for peace.
After searching out and reading as much of his writing as I could, and being filled with total hero-worship, I was lucky enough to meet Ray Bradbury in person when I was in my mid-twenties. It was at an annual event called Yuri’s Night, named after the astronaut Yuri Gagarin. When I attended in Los Angeles in 2004, there were a number of luminaries at this special event, including Nichelle Nichols (Uhura from Star Trek). She sat at the table behind me (I accidentally stepped on her foot when passing by the table—which I’m still apologetic for). But the big event, no matter how much of a Star Trek fan I still am today, was to meet my hero.
I have two regrets about that night. One is that I didn’t bring my original dog-eared copy of The Illustrated Man for him to sign, which I still have on my shelf today. It has a special place in my heart, and always will. My second regret? That I couldn’t open my mouth and say anything. I’m normally a bit shy, but my mind went completely blank when I finally came face to face with him, and I froze into a deer-in-the-headlights smile when he saw me.
I’m sure Mr. Bradbury was used to it. He was in a wheelchair at that point, since he was in his early eighties and had had a stroke in 1999. He simply looked up at me with his thick, dark-rimmed glasses and politely signed the books I had brought with me. (Since I had forgotten my copies of his books when flying down to LA to meet him, I had rushed out on the way to the event and bought several of his books from the store.) After he signed, he chatted with the other people around me, and I kicked myself for not being prepared to talk to one of my literary heroes.
Even today, over ten years later, I’m not sure what I would want to ask him if he were still available to ask (he passed away in 2012 at the age of 91). He was a prolific writer and ambassador for genre fiction, and very involved in many levels of creative endeavor. In addition to novels and short stories, he wrote poetry, plays, children’s stories, screenplays, essays, TV shows, movie adaptations… you name it, he wrote it.
Perhaps I would simply say, “Thank you.” He has done more for the genres I love than almost any other writer, and created windows of opportunity for people like me who might not be writing otherwise.
The sad part about genre fiction today is that the short form is no longer lauded in the same way as it was back when Bradbury was starting out. He built a career off short fiction, from his first published work being a story collection, to the majority of his work which was adapted to film and TV. Novel is King these days, and I wanted with this post to draw attention to a legendary writer who changed the world of genre fiction not only with his novels, but with his ideas themselves, whether they were in long or short form. Nowadays, no one can build a career out of stories (it just doesn’t pay well enough), and as several authors I know can attest, you can’t get a short story collection published to save your life (unless you self-publish).
But I’d like to hold up Ray Bradbury as an example of just what the short story can accomplish. To an amazing writer who has greatly influenced my writing career, I toast you wherever you may be today. Cheers, and thank you for being a true literary hero to writers like myself.