Whether describing a fledgling Earthling colony bullying its way on Mars (" -- And the Moon Be Still as Bright" in 1948) or a virtual-reality baby-sitting tool turned macabre monster ("The Veldt" in 1950), Bradbury wanted his readers to consider the consequences of their actions: "I'm not a futurist. People ask me to predict the future, when all I want to do is prevent it."
Ray Douglas Bradbury was born Aug. 22, 1920, in Waukegan, Ill., to Leonard Spaulding Bradbury and the former Esther Marie Moberg. As a child he soaked up the ambience of small-town life — wraparound porches, fireflies and the soft, golden light of late afternoon — that would later become a hallmark of much of his fiction.
"When I was born in 1920," he told the New York Times Magazine in 2000, "the auto was only 20 years old. Radio didn't exist. TV didn't exist. I was born at just the right time to write about all of these things."
The cusp of what was and what would be -- that was Bradbury's perfect perch. "He's a poet of the expanding world view of the 20th century," Benford said. "He coupled the American love of machines to the love of frontiers."
As a child, Bradbury was romanced by fantasy in its many forms— Grimms Fairy Tales and L. Frank Baum(the author of "The Wonderful Wizard of Oz"), the world's fairs and Lon Chaney Sr., Buck Rogers and "Amazing Stories."
But with the magic came the nightmares. Bradbury spoke often of the night visions that kept him sweating and sleepless in the first decade of his life.
Writing became a release valve of sorts. He often told, and elaborately embroidered, the story of the epiphany that led him to become a writer. A visit to the carnival at 12 brought him face to face with Mr. Electrico, a magician who awakened Bradbury to the notions of reincarnation and immortality.
"He was a miracle of magic, seated at the electric chair, swathed in black velvet robes, his face burning like white phosphor, blue sparks hissing from his fingertips," he recalled in interviews. "He pointed at me, touched me with his electric sword—my hair stood on end—and said, 'Live forever.' " Transfixed, Bradbury returned day after day. "He took me down to the lake shore and talked his small philosophies and I talked my big ones," Bradbury said. "He said we met before. 'You were my best friend. You died in my arms in 1918, in France.' I knew something special had happened in my life. I stood by the carousel and wept."
From then on, he spent at least four hours a day every day, unleashing those night visions in stories he wrote on butcher paper.
After a series of moves, the Bradbury family settled in Los Angeles in 1934. Ray dabbled in drama and journalism, fell in love with the movies and periodically sent jokes to the George Burns and Gracie Allen radio show. He read constantly and his writing output steadily increased and improved. While at Los Angeles High, Bradbury became involved with the Los Angeles Science Fantasy Society where he met and got critiques of his work from science fiction writers Heinlein, Henry Kuttner and Jack Williamson.
"It's a wonder that he survived because we were all ready to strangle him," the late Forrest J. Ackerman, a founder of the society, said in a 1988 Times story. "He was such an obnoxious youth -- which he would be the first to admit. He was loud and boisterous and liked to do a W.C. Fields act and Hitler imitations. He would pull all sorts of pranks."
Bradbury graduated in 1938, with not enough money for college. Poor eyesight kept him out of the military, but he kept writing.
His stories began to appear in small genre pulps. Among the first was "Hollerbochen's Dilemma," which was published by Imagination! magazine in 1939. That year he also began putting out his own mimeographed fan magazine, Futuria Fantasia. In 1941, Bradbury sold his first story, "Pendulum," a collaboration with Henry Hasse that appeared in Super Science Stories. Soon his solo work found buyers: "The Piper" appeared in 1941 in "Thrilling Wonder Stories," followed by a string of sales to other pulp magazines.
In 1945, "The Big Black and White Game," published in the American Mercury, opened the doors to other mainstream publications including Saturday Evening Post, Vogue and Colliers. "A young assistant [at Mademoiselle] found one of my stories in the 'slush pile.' It was about a family of vampires [and] called 'The Homecoming.' " Bradbury told the Christian Science Monitor in 1991. "He gave it to the story editor and said, 'You must publish this!' " That young assistant was Truman Capote, whose own"Homecoming" brought him renown.
Bradbury married Marguerite McClure in 1947, the same year he published his first collection of short stories — "Dark Carnival" (Arkham House) — a series of vignettes that revisited his childhood hauntings.
His first big break came in 1950, when Doubleday collected some new and previously published Martian stories in a volume titled "The Martian Chronicles." A progression of pieces that were at once adventures and allegories taking on such freighted issues as censorship, racism and technology, the book established him as an author of particular insight and note. And a rave review from novelist Christopher Isherwood in Tomorrow magazine helped Bradbury step over the threshold from genre writer to mainstream visionary.
"The Martian Chronicles" incorporated themes that Bradbury would continue to revisit for the rest of his life. "Lost love. Love interrupted by the vicissitudes of time and space. Human condition in the large perspective and definition of what is human," said Benford. "He saw ... the problems that the new technologies presented — from robots to the super-intelligent house to the time machine -- that called into question our comfy definitions of human."
Bradbury's follow-up bestseller, 1953's "Fahrenheit 451," was based on two earlier short stories and written in the basement of the UCLA library, where he fed the typewriter 10 cents every half-hour. "You'd type like hell," he often recalled. "I spent $9.80 and in nine days I had 'Fahrenheit 451.' "