Guy Gavriel Kay
Stefan’s remarks are, as often, really interesting. I agree about the anxiety in Bradbury as to technology, the ‘future’. Some of that is generational. Aliens and technology weren’t necessarily good for a long time in anxious Cold War pop culture.
Some of Bradbury’s later-in-life politics may link to a Rockwell-like nostalgia, but his writing, it seems to me subverted it. Lifting the rock(well) as Stefan suggests. I may be wrong, but I don’t think art history treats Norman Rockwell as challenging or exposing the underbelly of ‘his’ America. But Bradbury showed the fear in a handful of dust, the scary side of beloved icons. I know I have never, to this day, seen a small carnival or circus, or even the posters for them (they are still around in France, going village to village in summer) without thinking of Ray Bradbury. That ability to become the filter for much later experiences in a reader is a mark of a writer with major impact. I do put him in the company (an illustrious one) of writers who must be read as a teen or pre-teen to have that kind of importance for a reader, and I’m not capable of judging whether he still can, for readers growing up today on Rowling, Riordan, Meyer, Collins… I think, as others have said, that some of what makes Bradbury resonate, is lyricism. Not sure how strong a card that remains today.
What Guy said, especially about the need to read Bradbury as a teen or pre-teen. Bradbury’s child’s-eye view of the world captured its terrors and its wonders in a way I never found in the work of other writers I was reading at the time. Going back and re-reading his stories as an adult, I’ve found that, rather than feeling I’ve outgrown them, most re-awaken that younger reader inside who first responded to them.
I’m told that the first generation to be profoundly influenced by Bradbury — writers such as Richard Matheson and Charles Beaumont — got tagged “little Bradburys,” but I think a lot of us, at times, consider ourselves little Bradburys. Certainly I do.
The October Country, The Martian Chronicles, and The Halloween Tree were the crucial Bradbury books for me, when I was a kid. The Halloween Tree was my first; I found it on our Batesburg, S.C., public library’s new-books shelf when it came out in 1972, with those fabulous Joseph Mugnaini illustrations. I was about 8 years old. Even then, I recognized that this small-town Halloween was a long-ago-and-far-away version of the Halloweens we had in my town — not until a lot later would I learn the word “nostalgic” — but that only made the book more strange and wonderful and seductive.
I’m pretty sure that Bradbury’s prose was the first that I routinely read aloud to myself. That had to be a big influence on my writing style.
Reading all these Bradbury obits made me realize just how very early in his career he leaped from the genre magazines and specialty publishers to the “slicks” and to what, for better or worse, is often called “the mainstream.” After all, The Martian Chronicles was published before any mass-market sf publishing lines existed; the success of that book must have influenced Ian Ballantine to launch Ballantine Books two years later.
Bradbury long rejected any claim that he was a thinker, an intellectual — for that matter, he often rejected adulthood, claiming that his success lay in never growing up — and on the “thinker” part, at least, he was right. In his final decades, he couldn’t turn around without someone asking him deep questions about politics, education, society, the future, and while his replies were sometimes witty and poetic, many of his off-the-cuff thoughts on these matters rambled from outdated through naive to simply stupid. His essays were a similarly mixed bag. At his best he was one of our field’s best writers, but he also may have been one of our worst thinkers — perhaps the worst to have the bully pulpit of worldwide fame thrust upon him. But I can’t blame him for dutifully answering all those questions, for having things to say on all those occasions when he was expected to say something. We all do the same, given the chance.
Moreover, I loved the man and his writing, and forgave him everything. When my first collection came out in 2000, I sent him a copy; Harlan Ellison, to whom I also had sent a copy, was kind enough to deliver Bradbury’s for me. I inscribed the book to Bradbury, with the usual thanks for the lifetime of inspiration — stuff he’d heard a million times, I’m sure. A few weeks later, he sent me a personal, signed thank-you letter, a few sentences long, in the postal mail. I still have it, of course, but of course can’t find it at the moment. What it said wasn’t so important; what mattered to me then and now was that he replied at all. Many other writers have similar stories of his graciousness and generosity.
I was in the room with him only once, with hundreds of others at the 2001 Nebula Awards banquet in Los Angeles. The event coincided with the Los Angeles Times Festival of Books, and Bradbury had been scheduled for a full day, signing at the festival in the afternoon and then speaking at the Nebulas that night. He was not in good health, and I was told that his signing went much longer than scheduled. Hundreds of people had shown up, and he was loath to say no to anyone. There was some question whether he would be able to make the banquet at all. But he did, was wheeled onto the stage to a standing ovation. He rose from the chair, with assistance, and stood at the lectern to deliver his short, lovely speech — again, I don’t remember what he said, just the waves of affection in the room, and how glad we were to see him. He finished to another standing ovation, and then a prolonged, awkward silence ensued, as he struggled to get seated in his wheelchair. He had help, but it was still painful to watch, as anyone who has spent time helping an aged loved one can attest. Halfway into the chair, he looked up, twinkled at us, and said loudly and clearly — without microphone — “Did you ever get the feeling you were being watched?” We all laughed loudly and applauded again, and the awkwardness was past, and he was wheeled out, waving, to go home and go to bed.
My other favorite Bradbury moment, another awkwardness defused, came during an interview on C-SPAN, around the same time, a live remote from another L.A. Times book festival. Bradbury sat facing the camera, with grass and crowds visible behind him, answering the questions of callers nationwide. He had a placid half-smile on his face, his fingers interlaced. Clearly he had heard all the questions before, but he gave his affable standard reply to each one. Late in the broadcast, the next caller said, “Mr. Bradbury, I’m a really big fan of your work, and I’ve just written a fantasy novel of my own, one that I know will be really successful but that I could really use some advice about. You’ve been such an influence on me, Mr. Bradbury, could I send you a copy of my manuscript, so that you could help me with it?” That’s a paraphrase; the actual question seemed to take much longer, but you get the gist. During all this, as I cringed and writhed on my sofa, Bradbury’s happy, calm expression didn’t falter in the least. When the interminable question finally ended, Bradbury simply smiled a little wider and cried, “No!” Whereupon the host quickly cut to the next caller. “You go, Ray,” I said aloud to the TV set. So THAT’S how a professional handles such things …
Question: I’ve read and heard so many tributes to Bradbury from people who first encountered his writing when they were children or adolescents. I’d be curious to hear from those who first read him when they were adults. Is he one of those writers you need to meet when you’re young?
Maureen Kincaid Speller
I came to Ray Bradbury as a post-adolescent. I exclusively read fantasy in those days, after a failed attempt by a school friend to convert me to science fiction by giving me Asimov and Clarke, neither of whose work I found particularly congenial (I have since revised my views on Clarke to an extent).
I used to make regular visits to a second-hand bookshop in town which had a really good selection of fantasy material, mostly sword and sorcery novels, a certain amount of Pan Ballantine fantasies, and battered old sf novels I didn’t look at. Out of the blue one day the proprietor, frankly a miserable old git, handed me a copy of The Silver Locusts and said something like ‘have you read this, you ought to’ so I bought it and took it home, and was hooked.
I regret I’ll never be able to read Bradbury in quite the same visceral way that I made some of my early reading discoveries. At the same time, it’s like learning to discriminate between rotgut wine and something far more classy. I was by then of an age to read more slowly and thoughtfully and Bradbury suited me then. I initially read The Silver Locusts as sf because I still hadn’t quite got the hang of metaphor and so on, but I don’t think it suffered for that, any more than Fahrenheit 451 suffers for being read as sf.
I probably learned from Bradbury as much as from any other writer that boundaries are porous or else to be climbed over and ignored.
Speaking of Bradbury and metaphor, I always liked the UK titling of The Martian Chronicles as The Silver Locusts: a wonderful image that conveys both the appearance of a fleet of rockets and the plague-like overrunning of Mars by humans.