A Medicine For Mourning.

ill_man5.jpgAnything you dream is fiction, and anything you accomplish is science, the whole history of mankind is nothing but science fiction.”-Ray Bradbury

 

Ray Bradbury made me want to be a writer. It was, more than anything, his gorgeous, sensual phrases, wonderfully evocative little details giving magic to seemingly mundane things that made me want to write. I loved those details even more than the oh-so-ironic endings to so many of his stories. I wanted to capture the world in that same way. Here are some examples:

The gentle sprinkler rain filled the garden with falling light. (from There Will Come Soft Rains)

The hot straw smell of lion grass, the cool green smell of the hidden water hole, the great rusty smell of animals, the smell of dust like a red paprika in the hot air. (from The Veldt)

He felt his brain fill with boiling mercury. (from Fever Dream)

A cry came across a million years of water and mist. (from The Fog Horn)

It came on great oiled, resilient, striding legs. It towered thirty feet above half of the trees, a great evil god, folding its delicate watchmaker’s claws close to its oily reptilian chest. Each lower leg was a piston, a thousand pounds of white bone, sunk in thick ropes of muscle, sheathed over in a gleam of pebbled skin like the mail of a terrible warrior. Each thigh was a ton of meat, ivory, and steel mesh. And from the great breathing cage of the upper body those two delicate arms dangled out front, arms with hands which might pick up and examine men like toys, while the snake neck coiled. And the head itself, a ton of sculptured stone, lifted easily upon the sky. Its mouth gaped, exposing a fence of teeth like daggers. Its eyes rolled, ostrich eggs, empty of all expression save hunger. (from A Sound Of Thunder)

And the sand in the dying light was the color of molten copper on which was now slashed a message that any man in any time might read and savor down the years. (from In A Season Of Calm Weather)

I recognize that these are, at best, examples of overwriting; Bradbury sometimes tends to pile up metaphors and similes like a car wreck. There may have been a certain pragmatism in that; a lot of Bradbury’s early writing was done for pulps that paid by the word. It’s hard to say this, though, because, having revered him so much when I was young and now being acutely aware of Bradbury’s flaws as a writer, I feel a sense of loss. Ray Bradbury used to represent all I wanted to be. No other writer has ever come close to filling the void I created when I pushed him aside.

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In addition to my own stylistic tastes changing, I could never accept Bradbury’s pessimistic vision. While his story There Will Come Soft Rains is a masterpiece of economy, clarity, and skillful use of metaphors–a story that stands among the best short stories of the Twentieth Century, if not all time–expresses it well, it’s a nihilistic attitude. As a thirteen-year old devoted Bradbury-phile, holding him in greater esteem than any other writer I knew, I was completely turned off by Farenheit 451, supposedly Bradbury’s masterpiece. As young and nave as I was, I knew there was something smug and self-satisfied about his vision of a future divided into the saintly dreamers and preservers of books and the evil, self-destructive non-readers. His ultimate conclusion–that readers should withdraw from a world that doesn’t want them and let it destroy itself–was preaching that we should evade problems rather than confront them. In fact he went even further in a short story, Usher II, in which a devotee of Edgar Allan Poe murders those who suppress his works. I never thought murder was an effective way to counter censorship, and, growing up in the last throes of the Cold War in the 1980’s, although most of us didn’t realize how soon it would end, I hated Bradbury’s assumption that humanity wouldn’t be smart enough, possibly even wasn’t good enough, to save itself. Even without the pessimism I found it hard to get into Bradbury’s novels; Dandelion Wine and Something Wicked This Way Comes just didn’t do it for me. It was the short stories I really loved. In high school I used to either finish my work as fast as I could or I’d use research for a term paper as an excuse to go to the library and read Bradbury’s short stories. I also had an English teacher who, when he caught me reading some cheap paperback (not by Bradbury), couldn’t resist making a disparaging remark about science fiction. I said, “What about Bradbury?” And he said, “Oh, Bradbury’s good!” And then he quietly added, “Hey, could I borrow that book when you’re done with it?”

At the end of The Illustrated Man the unnamed narrator sees his own murder foretold in the illustrated man’s tattoos. The fact that he escapes, the fact that he lives to tell his story, leaves open the possibility that what he’s seen is only one possible future and that, having seen it, he has the power to change it. The power lies in knowing that the future is not fixed.

Hail and farewell, Mr. Bradbury.