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Ray Bradbury – The Passing of the Space Age Prophet

Ray Bradbury, Age 91, died peacefully in his sleep June 5. I don’t remember being as saddened as I was by anyone who was not a family member or an acquaintance but I felt as if I knew him well because I grew up with him through his books, short stories, TV shows and movies. He’s finally gone at 91, the last titan of the era when sci-fi fandom was a way of life. The maestros of that tight world were Isaac Asimov, Arthur C. Clarke, Robert Heinlein–and Ray Bradbury. You had to put Bradbury in that rank, even though your mom read him in the Saturday Evening Post. That could get embarrassing to those of us in the Sci-fi hard core.

Ray Bradbury was born August 22, 1920 in Waukegan, IL and used his memoires of this small town for settings in some of his best stories.

So begins a eulogy to Ray Bradbury by Bruce Sterling in the Saturday June 9th Wall Street Journal. Mr Sterling continues; His pedigree was impeccable, though he came from “Lassfuss”, the Los Angeles Science Fantasy Society, a primeval caldron of sci-fi geek culture, founded in 1934. In my own caldron of Austin, our literary mentor, Chad Oliver, came to us from Lassfuss. He told how he and Bradbury and the “Twilight Zone” screenwriter Charles Beaumont would hunt for all-night burger joints, talking sci-fi until dawn.

It sounded so wondrous that we never understood that we were hearing a hard-times story. This was depression-era California and the real Bradbury was displaced from the Midwest to Hollywood like a Steinbeck Okie, one of countless thousands who went West and inadvertently created a big chunk of postwar culture.

Ray Bradbury was born August 22, 1920 in Waukegan, IL and used his memoires of this small town for settings in some of his best stories. In 1934 his family settled in Los Angeles. There as a young boy he roller skated through Hollywood trying to spot celebrities. From 1938 to 1942 he was selling newspapers in the streets of L.A. He published his first paid work in 1941 a short story entitled “Pendulum” in the pulp magazine Super Science Stories. By the end of 1942 he had become a full time writer. That same year he married Marguerite McClure whom he met at a bookstore a year earlier. They had four daughters and eight grandchildren. He first shot to international fame after publication of his short story collection, The Martian Chronicles which was partially based on an idea from Ancient Greek and Roman Mythology.

His best known work Fahrenheit 451 was published in 1966. The film adaptation by director Francois Truffaut was a major hit starring Julie Christie. Many other novels and stories had been adapted to film and TV as well as radio, theatre and comic books. He wrote episodes for the Alfred Hitchcock Presents TV series. Total literary output is close to 600 short stories, more than 30 books and numerous poems and plays. It’s easy to forget that Bradbury wrote a lot of horror stories, too. Having been  through the Depression and war to emerge in the anonymity of postwar America, how could he not? An emptied world where the smart machinery grinds on, yakking inanely, as the mainstream consumers are nuclear blast shadows stenciled on the outside of their suburban home— a vision from a smiling guy in short pants who spoke reverently of Buck Rogers comics. People elided his dark, mournful side, because his affect was so brisk and boistrous. He was the sharpest of social critics, but never mean-tempered like Orwell or Huxley. He was rather, like that other great portraitist of hard–life Middle America, Edward Hopper, painting horror with an effect of stillness, bleakness, loneliness, bereavement  and deprivation.

He used to speak of a mystical experience: instead of attending a family funeral, he ran off to a carnival. He found a sideshow huckster named “Mr. Electrico,” who told him that he was not a 12-year-old but a reincarnated spirit. He hit him on the head with an electrical wand and told him to aspire to immortality. If it sounds like a half-hour fantasy TV episode, it’s probably because Bradbury wrote so many of those, years later. But as a way of life: departing a funereal mainstream culture to play techno-trips with the tattooed sideshow weirdos.

Mr. Sterling concludes: But if that was Bradbury’s origin myth, it’s also what he became. Wine from Dandelions, lowly yet highly evolved, borne by the wind into the last places,you’d expect to find them blooming. Exotic, yet common as the soil.

In 2004 he received a National Medal of Arts. Also a Star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. An asteroid is named in his honor “9766 Bradbury” and the Apollo Astronauts named a crater on the moon “Dandelion Crater” after his novel “Dandelion Wine“. Many of his short stories were published in PLAYBOY MAGAZINE and even a TV commercial for Sunsweet Prunes ran in the 1960’s. John Huston, a huge fan of Bradbury’s work asked him to write the screenplay for Huston’s film adaptation of “Moby Dick“. He submitted a working script to Huston in early 1954. By the time the film came out in 1956, Huston had listed himself as co-author. Bradbury protested Huston’s action to the Screen Writers Guild and initiallly was successful in having Huston removed as co-author but the powerful film maker had the decision over turned.  

 Ray Bradbury remained productive until the end. He has now departed and the world as he worried in 1979 is a much madder place. More reason to re-read Fahrenheit 451 including the afterword and oppose political correctness with the courage of the master himself.

For an overview on his 50- plus years career read “Ray Bradbury: The Life of Fiction” published by the Kent State University Press.

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