Ray Bradbury’s passing, at the age of 91, evokes sadness and nostalgia for the lost world of my youth. I discovered him early on, before he became quite as famous as he is today, in the science-fiction magazines that were my earliest “serious” reading material. His stories featured real people, not the walking, talking clichés who inhabited the sci-fi landscape: The focus was on the plot and the inner lives of the characters, rather than on technology. His was a humanistic science fiction, one that may more accurately be described as speculative fiction.
Rereading the books one enjoyed as a youth can be a disappointing experience. Not so with Bradbury. Upon learning of his death, I dipped into Dandelion Wine and Something Wicked This Way Comes, my two favorites, and the magic took hold immediately.
Dandelion Wine is a series of short stories strung together to form a “novel.” They tell the story of a single summer in the life of Douglas Spaulding, a 12-year-old boy living in Green Town, Illinois, sometime in the 1920’s. For a couple of hours I beheld the world as seen through youthful eyes—that is, eyes not yet blind to its magical ambiguity and dark mystery.
In the blinding light of a summer in Green Town, there are dark shadows. The presidency of the Honeysuckle Ladies Lounge is a coveted prize, one Elmira Brown would dearly like to win; yet the powers of darkness are arrayed against her, or so she believes. Her husband, the mailman, reports that her chief rival for the office, Clara Goodwater, has recently received books on magic spells, and after a series of apparent mishaps Elmira becomes obsessed with the idea that Clara has deployed the enchanted arts. Elmira is not exactly a sympathetic character; she comes across as a paranoiac. Determined to fight fire with fire, Elmira concocts some potions of her own, even as her own mishaps continue—culminating in the night of the election, as she ascends the dais to make her speech in a state of physical and mental disorientation. She loses the election, and the story turns on a dime when Clara pulls out a voodoo doll stuck through with lots of pins. Elmira retreats to the ladies’ room and winds up falling down the stairs. The real success of this bit is its captivating ambiguity: Did Elmira fall down the stairs and nearly kill herself on account of her mental disorientation, or because of Clara’s malevolent magic? Was Clara merely mocking her suspicions of witchcraft when she pulled that doll out of her purse, or was she savoring her moment of magical triumph?
In Something Wicked This Way Comes, an actual novel, the scene is once again Green Town, Illinois, as seen through the eyes of a boy a bit older than Doug Spaulding. Autumn’s in the air, and yet a traveling carnival blows into town, luring the townsfolk with its promise to make real their secret fantasies.
These are not among Bradbury’s better-known works, but I believe they convey his essential vision as a writer. Better known are Fahrenheit 451 and The Martian Chronicles, which are really political novels, in the Orwellian dystopian sense—and I do put Bradbury up there with Orwell. Fahrenheit 451 prefigured the death of literature. As the publishing world collapses, and the lost art of reading—never mind writing—novels passes into history, a victim of technological “progress,” Bradbury’s novel is a prophecy fulfilled.
This sense that life is more complex than we can possibly imagine, and that science is not the be-all and end-all of human existence, set Bradbury apart from his fellow science-fiction writers and won him a wider audience. Yet it was not always so. As a young science-fiction fan, Bradbury was a fervent advocate of Technocracy, a crackpot movement whose founder and leader, Howard Scott, believed the world should be run by a scientific priesthood and elections should be dispensed with. “We can have the magnificent civilization of science-fiction dreams in twenty-five years once the Technate comes in,” Bradbury, the young technocrat, exulted. “This is no dream, no bit of word-weaving. It’s based on blueprinted facts, on charts . . . ”
There is no trace of the “magnificent civilization of science-fiction dreams” in The Martian Chronicles, in the course of which one of the characters says of Mars, “We’ll rip it up, rip the skin off, and change it to fit ourselves . . . We Earth Men have a talent for ruining big, beautiful things.” The very presence of humans all but wipes out the native Martians, who fall victim to smallpox. In the end, a nuclear war engulfs Earth, destroying all life. The last surviving colonists are the new Martians.
I read a lot of science fiction at a very young age, but Bradbury was the only science-fiction author whose personal success story really interested me. I was quite impressed by his feat of writing fiction continually over a period of months—and then burning the result. At this point, he had yet to break into the field as a professional writer. Only after he burned those charts and blueprints did he succeed.