For me, a Gen-Xr, cyberpunks were much more influential during my twentysomethings (my personal Big Three were Gibson, Sterling and Cadigan), but my formative years, my very first science fiction childhood and teen readings consisted of what we call here in Brazil the ABC of SF: Asimov, Bradbury and Clarke. The Martian Chronicles was my introduction to Bradbury when I was 14 or 15, and I couldn’t stop rereading it. Even though some critics pointed out the all-American, apple-pie nostalgia of his stories, I loved his Mars and I felt at home there, even not being an American. Mars was heaven indeed. Mars was for everyone.
Right after that, a friend of mine loaned me an anthology of SF stories which had “The Man”. This story blew my mind. It still does; I read it again every year, out of love for his prose and the melancholy in his characters. From there to other stories, like Fahrenheit 451 and The Illustrated Man, it was only natural.
I never tried to emulate Bradbury in my writings; that would be heresy. But maybe some of that nostalgia and melancholy has struck a chord in me, because that’s the feel of most of my stories. I owe the man a lot. Now, alas, I have something else to be nostalgic for.
Of the four writers that Jim mentions, Bradbury, Asimov, Heinlein, Clarke, Bradbury was the only one I could read extensively. The writing by the others was too flat for me to get to the ideas. Read most of Bradbury’s stuff when I was younger and really enjoyed it then, from maybe 10 to 15. I moved on and as the years passed formed an opinion about it much like Terry said, Science Fiction’s Norman Rockwell. In recent years, though, I started picking up his stories again, reading one here and there, and what I discovered was something wholly different than that easy, dismissive label would imply. True, some of the stories were sentimental, but there are some that are much more subtle and dark than one would think.
I believe for those who read Bradbury when they were younger, they are often bringing their own nostalgia to the works and seeing what they expect to find there. For instance a story like, “The Man Upstairs” in October Country contraverts that expectation if you let it. It’s a story where the protagonist of Dandelion Wine is reconfigured as a kind of sociopath. His favorite thing is to watch his grandmother cut up the chickens and when a woman is killed at the train station, he has no reaction. On a much later second reading, I discovered that it’s actually the kid who’s the monster. And then all that weird business of him taking these different colored jello type things out of the man’s body at the end. WTF? I don’t remember anything like that from Norman Rockwell. Weird story. And the one Jim mentioned, “There Will Come Soft Rains.” Poignant, sure, but at the same time bleak as hell. And a complex story to boot. Bradbury riffs on the idea of that chapter in House of the Seven Gables where the judge is dead, sitting in his study, and Hawthorne relates all of what he’d have been doing at a given time of day, and places it in the far future (for the time) of the “talking” house. Sure it’s poetic, but I don’t find it particularly nostalgiac. It’s the end of the world, and it’s your fault. Actually it’s creepier for the beauty of the writing. I suspect there are a lot more of these ageless gems in Bradbury’s short fiction, but a general reassessment is in order and I’m sure will take place.
As for the books, the structure of The Martian Chronicles and the way Science Fiction is presented in it was far more instructive than the sentimental failures of some of its parts. 451 is not a favorite read of mine, but will be a classic for a long time. Think about how the language is devalued just in this cycle of presidential politics. Or teachers prevented by law in Tennessee from using the word “gay” in a class. Law makers in Virginia prevented from using the term “climate change” or “sea level rise” by law. Add to all of these aspects Bradbury’s staggering output of imagination — scenes, characters, ideas — and the influence they’ve had on not just writers but also film makers and artists, etc. and it seems to me that Bradbury has been the most influential of the four writers Jim mentioned. I think if you’ve got the time and patience, Bradbury is worth a second look.
Also, I wanted to say, I don’t know if it’s actually true or not, and not necessarily in relation to Bradbury, but I really liked that last line of Karen Lord’s post just for the sake of itself.
Chronicles was my first literature. Adventure held no interest for me. Poetry was the engine. And it had to walk like prose. I was probably twelve (’54?). I was lucky enough to encounter Bradbury not by reputation but as a 25 cent paperback in a drugstore rack. An entirely new creature. My best friend Joe Billy and I wore them out like poems. (He later became Ky poet laureate.) My Rockwell comparison wasn’t meant to be entirely (or even mostly) dismissive. Not the sentimentality but the technique that unashamedly calls attention to itself. Words as words. It was the dream itself enchanted me. Unlike Jeffrey I never went back and perhaps should have. It’s probably the lasting fame of F. 451 that threw me off. It has never made a lick of sense to me.
Kathleen Ann Goonan
A bit off-topic, but I am meeting these characters right now in Terry’s Any Day Now and yes, the engine is indeed poetry, the beauty of language, into which Bradbury plays with great strength.
“There Will Come Soft Rains” gives students plenty to chew on in a short period of time. The beauty and economy of the language is a stark and haunting contrast to what one slowly realizes has happened. It’s hard for them to believe that we all thought the world could change suddenly and completely back then. Still could, for that matter.