When Ray Bradbury misses, he misses by a mile. This propensity springs, in large part, from the man’s amazing productivity. Ray Bradbury has been writing every day, at the pace of roughly a completed story per week, since 1932. He has never been the kind of guy who agonizes over revisions or censors his worst impulses. He writes stories, sets them free to sink or sail, and moves on. Some of the tales that proved seaworthy are among the greatest stories ever written in English.
In the beginning, he wrote this way because he wrote to eat. His earliest stories filled the pages of a self-published fanzine called Futuria Fantasia (which he produced in print runs of 100 or less and sold on street corners). Later, he started placing his stories in pulp story digests like Super Science Stories, Dime Mystery, and Weird Tales. In the 1940s, his stories were being anthologized, and in 1950 his first collection, The Martian Chronicles, was published. Ray had arrived.
But he never changed the way he wrote. The decades passed, the demands on his time multiplied exponentially, and Bradbury still wrote every day, still wrapped up a story more or less every week. This approach to writing is anathema to mainstream fiction writers today, who are taught to obsess over every participle and pronoun. Top-tier MFA programs teach writers to re-write and re-write and re-write, to workshop those results, and then re-write some more. The inevitable result of all this relentless fine-tuning and focus-grouping is a marketplace full of novels that all read the same.
Bradbury never sands the rough edges off his fiction. He is never dour or difficult or obscene for art’s sake. He never shies away from topics or themes that his more jaded contemporaries might deem too sentimental or maudlin. Even his worst stories convey the sense of an author who is absolutely unafraid of taking chances or of looking foolish. His stories always sound like Ray Bradbury and no one else.
That’s not what made him great, however. All of his best stories use a fantasy or science fiction context to get at the real matter at hand—the desire for something that’s gone or something that can never be. Thus, “The Fog Horn,” in which a lighthouse calls up a dinosaur from the depths of the sea, is really about the heart-rending loneliness inherent in being the last creature of your kind. “There Will Come Soft Rains” sums up all of the colossal tragic stupidity of mankind in the comical Rube-Goldberg-machine-like collapse of an empty house after the apocalypse. “The Last Night Of The World” accomplishes the same trick in the opposite way—by presenting the apocalypse in the context of a husband and wife quietly and simply tucking their children into bed.
“The Rocket Man” is defined, not by his exploits in space, but as an absence in his son’s life, an unknowable figure in a stark black head-to-toe uniform, empty as space itself. “The Sound Of Thunder,” ostensibly time-travel suspense about an encounter with a Tyrannosaurus Rex, is really a story of lost innocennce. (Yes, I know, I saw the movie, too. Go read the story.) “The Million-Year Picnic” is a story about Martians with no Martians in it—just the reflections of Mom and Dad and their children, staring up at them from the surface of a canal. The concept of Mars and Martians crops up all the time in Bradbury’s fiction, but you hardly ever encounter an actual Martian. Abandoned cities, buildings like empty skulls and dusty chess pieces, dry canals, discarded masks and scarves, half-heard whispers—that’s all you get. For Bradbury, Martians stand in for an unremembered past and an unrealized future; they’re about everything that’s been lost. In each case, and dozens upon dozens more, Bradbury’s stories are diligent explications of the workings of the human heart, dressed up as gee-whiz sci-fi.
All this summer, on clear nights, I’ve been taking my enormous Everyman’s Library copy of The Stories of Ray Bradbury out into the backyard. I lift the ribbon bookmark out of it, read a story or two before darkness falls, and then close it up again. One hundred stories, one-thousand-plus pages. I’m about halfway through it now, and I’ll set aside the second half of the book for next year. It’s mid-August now and summer is best for Bradbury.
I’ve heard it said that Ray Bradbury is for younger readers, that he’s something you outgrow as your tastes evolve. To me, Ray Bradbury seems like a writer you’d outgrow only as you become more cynical and world-weary, and your capacity for wonder withers away. I’ve been reading and re-reading him all my life; I make a point of re-reading Dandelion Wine and The Martian Chronicles every five or seven years or so.
Ray is still with us, still writing. The last of the great writers of science fiction’s golden age of the 1950s, he’s never driven a car and was never much impressed by computers. He has even less use for the Internet, which he characterizes as “distracting” and “meaningless.” He’ll probably never weigh in with an opinion on the viral YouTube video for Rachel Bloom’s “Fuck Me, Ray Bradbury.” I imagine that, somewhere in California, he’s putting the finishing touches on another story. He’ll be 90 years old on August 22, 2010. Happy 90th, Ray!