Ray Bradbury died this week. He is the last of the greatest generation of speculative fiction writers, a group that included Isaac Asimov, Phillip K.Dick, Douglas Adams, and Robert Heinlein, to name just a few. Bradbury was a Los Angeles writer, through and through, although his stories often centered on distant worlds and parallel universes. Much has been made of his time spent in the UCLA library typing his stories on rented machines, feeding dimes in as his pages came out. I have some tapes of him discussing his work where he talks about taking long walks on the beach at Santa Monica and dreaming up his fantastic and poetic tales. For many years, he was the main attraction at the Los Angeles Times Festival of Books. One of my students, an aspiring writer, once arrived in class on a Monday following the festival nearly incoherent with joy because Ray Bradbury had posed for a picture with him and signed his books.
Over the years, I’ve had the pleasure of teaching many of Bradbury’s books and short stories. I still consider the first sentence of his story, “Tomorrow’s Child,” to be one of the best in literature: “He did not want to be the father of a small blue pyramid.” Even now, I want to keep reading, regardless of the fact that I know how it ends and have read it a million times. That was the thing about Bradbury’s writing. His words twisted around and pulled you in. They were poetic and descriptive, but not at the expense of story. His poetry prose is what set him apart from other writers.
I think the best book about writing has to be Bradbury’s Zen In The Art of Writing: Essays On Creativity (Capra Press, 1989). “And what, you ask, does writing teach us?” he writes in the Preface. “First and foremost, it reminds us that we are alive and that is a gift and a privilege, not a right. We must earn life once it has been awarded us. Life asks for rewards back because it has favored us with animation.” He goes on to say that “Not to write, for many of us, is to die.” And write, he did.
My favorite Bradbury novel is Something Wicked This Way Comes (Avon Books, 1998). In it, a carnival comes to town, bringing a malevolence that threatens the very existence of the characters. In addition to the carnival tent, the games, the funhouse, a library also plays a major role in the plot. It is a thread running through all of Bradbury’s work: reading. Of course, Fahrenheit 451 (Del Rey, 1991) was a staple in my classroom when I taught high school. Los Angeles adopted the book as a One Book One City reading project several years ago. I still have my commemorative pin. According to Bradbury, he wrote only one science fiction book: Fahrenheit 451. “All the others are fantasy,” he said. “Fantasies are things that can’t happen, and science fiction is about things that can happen.”
Whatever the classification, Ray Bradbury’s work is literature, and should be included in the books kids should read before leaving high school, right up there with Shakespeare and Salinger, Twain and Tolstoy. Science fiction has long been considered a lesser art, but when done well, this literature is prophetic, insightful, and exciting. I find Bradbury’s work appeals to boys, especially, although I am loathe to classify literature as “boy books versus girl books.” How is it that stories set among aliens on a distant planet can reveal secrets of the human condition? How is it that we can recognize our humanity, or lack thereof, in characters so unlike us? Bradbury knew the secrets to those riddles.
“It is a wise writer who knows his own subconscious,” Bradbury writes at the end of Zen In The Art of Writing. “And not only knows it but lets it speak of the world as it and it alone has sensed it and shaped it to its own truth.” Ray Bradbury did all of that and more. His imagination, poetic use of language, his incredible insights into the human condition will continue to thrill audiences for years to come. Brother Ray, however, has journeyed on.