Ray Bradbury

Dammit, Ray Bradbury died this morning, at 91. It’s the second time that the death of a science fiction/fantasy author knocked me off my pins early in the morning.

The first time, it was Douglas Adams, and the surprise came because he was just so damned young. Bradbury’s death took me by surprise because…well, it’s weird, but it seemed like Ray Bradbury was never going to go away, you know? I wasn’t expecting him to die, for the same reasons why I don’t expect to come home after a week of travel, walk through Copley Square, and find that Trinity Church isn’t there any more. It’s just so big, and familiar, and prized by so many people, and nobody can remember a time when it didn’t have this incredible presence…nothing could ever blot it out, right?

Ray Bradbury was one of the very first fantasy authors who really clicked with me. As a kid, I kept having science fiction thrust at me because, statistically speaking, it was a safe bet for someone of my obvious nerdy proclivities. I dug “2001” and checked out Arthur C. Clarke’s other books, but he kept disappointing me with livid explanations of how alien doorknobs worked while allowing the drives and personalities of human characters to go largely undocumented. Harlan Ellison was seriously unbalanced, capable of meh-inducing lows and massive highs that more than made up for them. I didn’t make it very far through a book of Richard Matheson short stories, though I couldn’t tell you why; maybe I ought to give him a long-overdue second look. I loved “The Hobbit” but abandoned “The Lord Of The Rings” early into the second volume.

Then I read “Fahrenheit 451” and that set the bar for me. It was a “Star Wars” moment…exciting, but with a powerful, human, emotional core. Ray Bradbury was smart enough to hold on the wide shot of Luke Skywalker as he encountered the bodies of his Uncle Owen and Aunt Beru, allowing us to watch, silently, as a farm kid’s world collapsed around him.

I think Arthur C. Clarke would have spent nine pages talking about the peculiar chemical composition of the Tattooine atmosphere caused by the planet’s twin suns. “…Which is why the smoke billowing from her skull had a purplish tinge to it. It flashed quickly to orange as it erupted from her eye sockets into the quinone-rich air…”

You might wish to argue with me about any of these opinions, and I will only say “Yes, of course, you’re right.” I can only speak about how these authors affected me.

The most important Bradbury book wasn’t one of his novels or short story anthologies. It was “Zen In The Art Of Writing.” “The Hitch-Hiker’s Guide To The Galaxy” showed me that writing could be fun. Bradbury’s book showed me that I could be a writer. I don’t think any other book about writing can top it.

The three takeaways from this slim book of essays are easy to understand and manifestly correct:

  • Love what you do.
  • Write in your own voice.
  • Work, work, work. This isn’t magic.

The whole thing is just Ray Bradbury telling stories about how he got into writing and what the process is like for him. Reading this book is like watching someone build a rowboat. Even if they’re not bothering to list the materials and the measurements, the experience of watching the pieces cut and assembled demystifies the whole process. By the end, you think “Gee, maybe I should try building a rowboat, too.” Start with a cool, two-word title and just see where that takes you.

“Zen” was one of several pushes that got me moving towards being a writer. It’s one of the reasons why my English grades dipped a little in high school, as I stopped just writing the essays that I knew my teachers wanted and experimented with different styles and opinions.

(And before I create the impression that I was penalized for my rebellious courage…many of those essays were awful. That’s why they’re called “experiments.”)

When I learned of Bradbury’s death, I went downstairs to the analog /usr/lib/ repository and retrieved my old copy of “Zen In The Art Of Writing.” I belatedly wondered if it was available as an ebook. Alas, no, but in searching for it on the Kindle store I encountered an interview with Ray Bradbury that amplified my appreciation for the man even more:

David Boyne: You’ve written how when you were a kid you wanted to be a magician, then a carnival performer, and then at an early age you settled on being a writer. What do you want to be now?

Ray Bradbury: Oh, God Almighty! I just want to go on being me! I’m on very good terms with myself. I’ve had a wonderful life, a terrific life. I’ve done all the things that I’ve wanted to do. When I was just out of high school I couldn’t do anything. I couldn’t write a decent poem, I couldn’t write a short story, I couldn’t write a play, I couldn’t write an essay, I couldn’t write a screenplay. So one by one, over the years, by staying in love, I became a poet, I became a short story writer, I became a novelist, I became a screenwriter—but it was all love, you see?

9 thoughts on “Ray Bradbury”

  1. I love all of the Big Four. But between Asimov, Heinlein, Clark and Bradbury, Bradbury was the one with the most heart. Hands down, no question.

  2. His stories showed that Bradbury loved words and treated each one as if it was a special, loved child. They beg to be read out loud, even if you’re all alone. And, as you said, he wrote from the *inside* of his characters, which makes all the difference.

  3. I had the honor of meeting him at the Sundance Festival in 1998, and I got his autograph. One of the few non-Star Wars related people whose autographs I treasure.

    He was there for the screening of “The Wonderful Ice Cream Suit”, which I wish had been a better movie. Except for the film version of “Fahrenheit 451”, I wish Hollywood had been kinder to Bradbury’s stories.

    “The Martian Chronicles” is a brilliant collection of short narratives, but doesn’t really work as a movie or miniseries, because the stories contradict each other. Adaptations of his stories for “Twilight Zone” and “Alfred Hitchcock Presents” played more to his strengths.

    I think you’re spot-on with your analysis, Asimov put the tech in science-fiction, but Bradbury always considered the human element. I haven’t read as much Bradbury as I have Clarke or Vonnegut (who maybe went too far with the craziness of his humans), but still, much respect.

  4. Zen in the Art of Writing had the same effect on my life. I’ve had the pleasure of meeting Ray many times over the years, and one of my prized possessions is an autographed copy of that book.

  5. Hi Andy – I think your Amazon link to _Zen_ is broken. It’s taking me to an animated gif ad, not to the book on Amazon. (Feel free to delete this comment when fixed!)

  6. I dearly loved Asimov, Bradbury & Clarke. Then along came Douglas Adams & changed the rules! I attended a “lecture” Bradbury gave in Denver, over 25 yrs ago, & loved it. Couldn’t get close to the man. I did get Adams’ autograph on Dirk Gently. My scifi world is crumbling.

  7. I’m so happy finally to hear of someone else who loved The Hobbit, but who refused to finish the trilogy.

    I got about 50 pages from the end of the third book, and suddenly realized, I didn’t care one whit who got the stupid ring and what they did with it. I was trying to like it because my friends had liked it.

    It felt so good to close it and never look back.

    I assume everyone died?

  8. Science Fiction is such a big tent, to hold Ray Bradbury and Asimov, Heinlein and Clarke in the same genre. But they’re not really, Bradbury was special, in a way that Harlon Ellison sometimes was, and Zenna Henderson had touches of. Wouldn’t abandon other writers to only read Bradbury, but it’s clearly time to look for that big anthology. Oh, and one should read LOTR, if only to better appreciate “Bored of the Ring”, and join the rest of us in saying “Peter Jackson, WTF!”.

  9. I loved any writer who wrote about how he wrote. Bradbury, Asimov – Piers Anthony seemed to put a letter to the reader in every novel.

    What they all seemed to have in common was the love of it all. It’s clear that the good ones would have written even if there was no money in it. Could you imagine the blogs of a young Bradbury or Asimov?

    Excuse me while I go visit Piers Anthony’s website…. before it’s too late.

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