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Thursday, June 7, 2012

On reading, but not quite meeting, Ray Bradbury

Posted by on Thu, Jun 7, 2012 at 12:41 PM

In a way, I'll always regret that I never got a chance to tell Ray Bradbury what his work meant to my life. On the other hand, the reason I never got to do this was that the lines to meet him were always too long.

A rather bizarre Sunkist commercial from the 1960s where Bradbury (sort of) helps sell prunes.

There's not a lot of tragedy one can find in an author passing away at 91, particularly one who whose passing inspired tributes from no less than Barack Obama. One of the last stories I read by Bradbury was about a bibliophile to develops a time machine to go back and let the likes of Poe and Melville know their works have not been forgotten. Bradbury has never had that problem.

A scene from a documentary where Bradbury describes breaking in as a writer.

But it is easy to underrate him as an author. Even Bradbury was the first to admit there wasn't a lot of science in his science fiction, and his work was so rooted in the pulp tropes of rocket ships and Mars as to exclude him from being spoken of in the same breath as many literary greats. In an early episode of The Simpsons, brainiac Martin Prince runs for class president and proposes adding a science fiction section to the school library, naming the likes of Isaac Asimov and Alfred Bester. "What about Ray Bradbury?" peeps up a classmate. "I"m familiar with his work," Martin sniffs.

Bradbury didn't crave the reputation of the literati ("If I’d found out that Norman Mailer liked me, I’d have killed myself," he once quipped), but more than any other writer, he built a bridge between genre fiction and literature. His work explored the lyrics and poetry in SF and fantasy concepts, and just as often found the fantastic in everyday life.

I was familiar with his work even as a kid, thanks to his story "Switch on the Night" (no relation to Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark), but it wasn't until the seventh grade, when my English teacher encouraged me to read The Illustrated Man, that I developed an appreciation for his work.

Bradbury's great skill was using the fantastic as a window into everyday uneasiness. "The Veldt," the blood-chiller that opened The Illustrated Man, pre-dated the likes of video games and the Internet, but retains much of its power in its depiction of spoiled, over-stimulated children who prefer an artificial babysitter over their parents. The last line, "A cup of tea?" still makes me shiver.

The Illustrated Man made me want to be a writer, or at least aspire to write about more than the apes of the cartoons and comic books that constituted the vast majority of my psyche. I wrote heaps of Bradbury knockoffs, at least one of which won a student award. And I got more heavily into SF and fantasy, seeking out more writers whose prose could provide the visceral impact of Bradbury's work.

The opening to HBO's Ray Bradbury Theater, long a staple of basic cable reruns.

But while Bradbury's work could be found adapted into film, TV, radio, comic books and even a computer game of The Martian Chronicles, there was always a little something lost in translation when other artists brought their voice to his work. Bradbury was uniquely Bradbury. When he wrote of rockets blasting through air turning night to day, or tattoos coming to life to act out stories, the only theater you needed was your mind's eye.

The climax to an adaptation of Bradbury's story "The Jar" on The Alfred Hitchcock Hour, about a mysterious jar of materials that enraptures a rural community. The sound is off in this version (a regular one is on YouTube), but in a way it helps the eerie quality of the scene, as voiceover recounts the different memories and objects the townspeople perceive in the jar.

That's why Bradbury's Mars remains a favorite decades after science disproved his vision of golden-eyed Martians with bee guns. His tales weren't about Mars so much as the unknown, about colonization, about human folly. It's what's made his work such a staple, and what has kept people returning to it year after year.

Quest, a 1980s adapation of Bradbury's novella "Frost and Fire" by legendary film poster/title sequence creator Saul Bass. One of the better adaptations of Bradbury's work, despite the limited budget and a sequence that could at best be called "Laser Chess with Bigfoot."

And it's why I never got a chance to meet him: At San Diego Comic-Con years ago, I kept trying to get in line for his autograph, or meet him after a panel session, or attend a reading. And it was impossible. Lines were out the door, rooms were crowded out, with many of the attendees younger than myself. He was wheelchair-bound and in his late 80s at that point, but I could still hear his voice boom out from the packed meeting rooms, still full of childlike excitement and enthusiasm for life.

"All Summer in a Day," an adaptation of a classic Bradbury story about a perpetually-rainy Venus, and the children who get to experience a single day of sunshine. The tale always freaked this writer out as a kid.

So while I never got a chance to tell Ray Bradbury what he meant to me, in a way it was no great loss. Even if he didn't know, it wasn't anything he hadn't heard a thousand times before, and probably kept hearing right up until the end.

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