Ray Bradbury dies at 91; author lifted fantasy to literary heights
Ray Bradbury, the writer whose expansive flights of fantasy and vividly rendered space-scapes have provided the world with one of the most enduring speculative blueprints for the future, has died. He was 91.
Bradbury died Tuesday night in Los Angeles, his agent Michael Congdon confirmed. His family said in a statement that he had suffered from a long illness.
Author of more than 27 novels and story collections—most famously “The Martian Chronicles,” “Fahrenheit 451,” “Dandelion Wine” and “Something Wicked This Way Comes”—and more than 600 short stories, Bradbury has frequently been credited with elevating the often-maligned reputation of science fiction. Some say he singlehandedly helped to move the genre into the realm of literature.
“The only figure comparable to mention would be [Robert A.] Heinlein and then later [Arthur C.] Clarke,” said Gregory Benford, a UC Irvine physics professor who is also a Nebula award-winning science fiction writer. “But Bradbury, in the ‘40s and ‘50s, became the name brand.”
Much of Bradbury’s accessibility and ultimate popularity had to do with his gift as a stylist—his ability to write lyrically and evocatively of lands an imagination away, worlds he anchored in the here and now with a sense of visual clarity and small-town familiarity.
The late Sam Moskowitz, the preeminent historian of science fiction, once offered this assessment: “In style, few match him. And the uniqueness of a story of Mars or Venus told in the contrasting literary rhythms of Hemingway and Thomas Wolfe is enough to fascinate any critic.”
As influenced by George Bernard Shaw and William Shakespeare as he was by Jules Verne and Edgar Rice Burroughs, Bradbury was an expert of the taut tale, the last-sentence twist. And he was more celebrated for short fiction than his longer works.
“It’s telling that we read Bradbury for his short stories,” said Benford. “They are glimpses. The most important thing about writers is how they exist in our memories. Having read Bradbury is like having seen a striking glimpse out of a car window and then being whisked away.”
An example is from 1957’s “Dandelion Wine”:
“The sidewalks were haunted by dust ghosts all night as the furnace wind summoned them up, swung them about and gentled them down in a warm spice on the lawns. Trees, shaken by the footsteps of late-night strollers, sifted avalanches of dust. From midnight on, it seemed a volcano beyond the town was showering red-hot ashes everywhere, crusting slumberless night watchman and irritable dogs. Each house was a yellow attic smoldering with spontaneous combustion at three in the morning.”
Bradbury’s poetically drawn and atmospheric fictions—horror, fantasy, shadowy American gothics—explored life’s secret corners: what was hidden in the margins of the official family narrative, or the white noise whirring uncomfortably just below the placid surface. He offered a set of metaphors and life puzzles to ponder for the rocket age and beyond, and has influenced a wide swath of popular culture--from children’s writer R.L. Stine and singer Elton John (who penned his hit “Rocket Man” as an homage), to architect Jon Jerde who enlisted Bradbury to consider and offer suggestions about reimagining public spaces.
Bradbury frequently attempted to shrug out of the narrow “sci-fi” designation, not because he was put off by it, but rather because he believed it was imprecise.
“I’m not a science fiction writer,” he was frequently quoted as saying. “I’ve written only one book of science fiction [“Fahrenheit 451”]. All the others are fantasy. Fantasies are things that can’t happen, and science fiction is about things that can happen.”
It wasn’t merely semantics.
His stories were multi-layered and ambitious. Bradbury was far less concerned with mechanics—how many tanks of fuel it took to get to Mars and with what rocket—than what happened once the crew landed there, or what they would impose on their environment. “He had this flair for getting to really major issues,” said Paul Alkon, emeritus professor of English and American literature at USC.
“He wasn’t interested in current doctrines of political correctness or particular forms of society. Not what was wrong in ’58 or 2001 but the kinds of issues that are with us every year.”
Benford said Bradbury “emphasized rhetoric over reason and struck resonant notes with the bulk of the American readership—better than any other science fiction writer. Even [H.G.] Wells ... [Bradbury] anchored everything in relationships. Most science fiction doesn’t.”
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.”
He long maligned computers -- stubbornly holding on to his typewriter -- and hated the Internet. He said ebooks “smell like burned fuel” and refused to allow his publishers to release electronic versions of his works until last year, when he finally agreed that Simon & Schuster could release the first digital copy of “Fahrenheit 451.”
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.’ ”
Books like “Fahrenheit 451,” in which interactive TV spans three walls, and “The Illustrated Man” — the 1951 collection in which “The Veldt” appeared — not only became bestsellers and ultimately films but cautionary tales that became part of the American vernacular.
“The whole problem in ‘Fahrenheit’ centers around the debate whether technology will destroy us,” said George Slusser, curator emeritus of the J. Lloyd Eaton Collection of Science Fiction, Fantasy, Horror and Utopia at UC Riverside. “But there will always be a spirit that keeps things alive. In the case of ‘Fahrenheit,’ even though this totalitarian government is destroying the books, the people have memorized them. There are people who love the written word. That is true in most of his stories. He has deep faith in human culture.”
Besides books and short stories, Bradbury wrote poetry, plays, teleplays, even songs. In 1956, he was tapped by John Huston to write the screenplay for “Moby Dick.” In 1966, the French auteur director Francois Truffaut brought “Fahrenheit 451” to the screen. And in 1969 “The Illustrated Man” became a film starring Rod Steiger.
Bradbury’s profile soared.
But as he garnered respect in the mainstream, he lost some standing among science fiction purists. In these circles, Bradbury was often criticized for being “anti-science.” Instead of celebrating scientific breakthroughs, he was reserved, even cautious.
Bradbury had very strong opinions about what the future had become. In the drive to make their lives smart and efficient, humans, he feared, had lost touch with their souls. “We’ve got to dumb America up again,” he said.
Over the years he amassed a mantel full of honors. Among them: the National Book Foundation Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters (2000), the Los Angeles Times’ Robert Kirsch Lifetime Achievement Award (1998), the Nebula Award (1988), the Science Fiction Hall of Fame (1970), O. Henry Memorial Award (1947-48) and a special distinguished-career citation from the Pulitzer Prize board in 2007, which was “an enormous nod of respect from the mainstream media,” Lou Anders, editorial director of the science fiction and fantasy imprint PYR, told the New York Times.
Bradbury helped plan the Spaceship Earth at Disney’s Epcot Center in Orlando, Fla., as well as projects at Euro Disney in France. He was a creative consultant on architect Jerde’s projects, helping to design several Southern California shopping malls including the Glendale Galleria, Horton Plaza in San Diego and the Westside Pavilion in Los Angeles.
Even in his later years, Bradbury kept up his 1,000-words-a-day writing schedule, working on an electric typewriter even when technology had passed it by. “Why do I need a computer ... all a computer is is a typewriter.”
Though he didn’t drive, Bradbury could often be spotted out and about Los Angeles. A familiar figure with a wind-blown mane of white hair and heavy black-framed glasses, he’d browse the stacks of libraries and bookstores, his bicycle leaning against a store front or pole just outside.
A stroke in late 1999 slowed him but didn’t stop him.
He began dictating his work over the phone to one of his daughters, who helped to transcribe and edit. In 2007 he began pulling rare or unfinished pieces from his archives. “Now and Forever,” a collection of “Leviathan ‘99” and “Somewhere a Band Is Playing,” was published in 2007 and “We’ll Always Have Paris Stories” in 2009.
His 90th birthday, in 2010, was cause for a weeklong celebration in Los Angeles.
“All I can do is teach people to fall in love,” Bradbury told Time magazine that year. “My advice to them is, do what you love and love what you do. … If I can teach them that, I’ve done a great job.”
Most Americans make their acquaintance with Bradbury in junior high, and there are many who revisit certain works for a lifetime, his books evoking their own season.
In an interview in the Onion, Bradbury chalked up his stories’ relevance and resonance to this: “I deal in metaphors. All my stories are like the Greek and Roman myths, and the Egyptian myths, and the Old and New Testament.... If you write in metaphors, people can remember them.... I think that’s why I’m in the schools.”
Benford suggests something else—at once simple and seductive.
“Nostalgia is eternal. And Americans are often displaced from their origins and carry an anxious memory of it, of losing their origins. Bradbury reminds us of what we were and of what we could be,” Benford said.
“Like most creative people, he was still a child, His stories tell us: Hold on to your childhood. You don’t get another one. I don’t think he ever put that away.”
Bradbury is survived by his daughters Susan Nixon, Ramona Ostergren, Bettina Karapetian and Alexandra Bradbury; and eight grandchildren. His wife, Marguerite, died in 2003.
George is a former Times staff writer.
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