I Want to Believe: Ray Bradbury and the Sci-Fi in the Everyday

I Want to Believe: Ray Bradbury and the Sci-Fi in the Everyday

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Ray Bradbury knew the power of words. He once claimed that he had been raised by libraries. When he died on June 5, 2012, at the age of 91, he left behind an incredible legacy.

That legacy has transcended the phenomenal number of books he sold (over eight million) as well as the names of fellow world-class science fiction writers such as Robert Heinlein, Arthur C. Clarke, and Isaac Asimov, with whom he was often categorized. Nicknamed “poet of the pulps,” the impressions he left in the minds of countless readers continue to propel positive memories of his work. We turn to his stories not simply because they are fantastical, but because they manage to touch upon the dark mysteries that lie at the heart of what it means to be human.

Bradbury’s claim regarding the influence of libraries in his life was not exaggeration. It’s a well-known fact that he wrote his classic novel Fahrenheit 451 on a rented typewriter in the basement of a university library. Originally published in a shorter version in Galaxy magazine in 1951, Fahrenheit 451, a dystopian tale about a future in which books have been outlawed, speaks both to his deep respect for the power of words and for the accessibility of his books. Fahrenheit 451 still appears on middle school and high school reading lists. Young readers, hooked early by Bradbury’s poetic prose, often go on to read more of his work as adults. Some of his other particularly well-known books include 1950’s short story collection The Martian Chronicles and his 1952 short story “A Sound of Thunder.”

The Martian Chronicles-smallBradbury’s work is well known partly because he made the leap from pulp to mainstream magazines and booksellers, a leap not every science-fiction writer manages. His accessible themes and clear prose are some of the likely reasons, but it may also have something to do with the fact that Bradbury, though writing within the science-fiction genre, didn’t allow that genre to derail his focus. He wrote good stories that anyone could enjoy, drawing inspiration from a childhood spent growing up in small-town America. The list of his writing influences is long, and while it contains other sci-fi writers like Jules Verne, it also includes Shakespeare, the Grimm Brothers, Frank L. Baum, and Edgar Allen Poe.

You could say Bradbury was storyteller first and sci-fi writer almost secondarily, though science fiction gave him a canvas to probe pressing questions and issues about humanity. Some issues he was drawn to in the 1950s, such as oppressive governments and mind control, have a timeless quality, especially in an age when an entertainment infused culture seems to threaten our ability to think deeply and creatively.

Though Bradbury could be chilled by the dangers of technology (he never wrote on a computer), he seemed most frightened by the idea of a world stripped of creativity. He loved to write about ordinary people battling things they didn’t fully understand. The fact that he found the world full of the miraculous infuses his stories with an ultimate optimism. It’s that optimism even in the face of hard questions that resonates with writers who proudly claim him as an influence today, including Steven Spielberg, Stephen King, and Neil Gaiman.

Beyond the page, Bradbury’s influence can also be found in network television and film. Beginning in the late 60’s, he worked with the producers of the Twilight Show, as well as Alfred Hitchcock, on multiple screenwriting projects. Today, the new ABC series “The Whispers” draws its inspiration from his 1951 short story “Zero Hour” from the collection The Illustrated Man (on ABC TV or online).  His cultural reach even extends to space; in 2012 NASA named the Mars landing site of their Curiosity rover after the iconic novelist.

With such a celebrated list of influences to his credit, and yet an equally celebrated list of those whom he himself influenced, Ray Bradbury’s continued mark on literary and popular culture seems assured.

Brandon Engel’s last article for us was 80′s Barbarian Showdown: Conan vs. Beastmaster.

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James McGlothlin

I surely haven’t read all, or even most, of Bradbury’s many works. So I defer to your judgment concerning this post.

However, I have to comment that I found the following claim to not cohere with my experience of reading Bradbury: “The fact that he found the world full of the miraculous infuses his stories with an ultimate optimism.”

It strikes me that the wonders in Bradbury’s stories are fairly indifferent to outright hostile. Though I wouldn’t classify Bradbury as a pessimist, his works don’t strike me as all that optimistic either.

For what it’s worth 🙂

Thomas Parker

For me, Bradbury’s most memorable and effective stories are the ones where the surface optimism is in tension with something darker underneath.

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