Although Ray Bradbury (August 22, 1920 – June 5, 2012) became arguably the best-known American science- fiction writer, the majority of his work, which ranges from gothic horror to social criticism, centers on humanistic themes. His best works are powerful indictments of the dangers of unrestrained scientific and technological progress. However, his works also foster the hope that humanity will deal creatively with the new worlds it seems driven to construct. Aficionados of the science-fiction genre have criticized his science-fiction stories for their scientific and technological inaccuracies, a criticism that Bradbury shrugs off, stating that his dominating concerns are social, cultural, and intellectual issues, not scientific verisimilitude. His stories, which often explore the dehumanizing pressures of technocracies and the mesmerizing power of the imagination, are widely anthologized and translated into many foreign languages.
Paradoxically, Bradbury’s stories look both backward and forward. For him, each story is a way of discovering a self, and the self found in one story is different from the self found in another. Bradbury, like all human beings, is made of time, and human beings, like rivers, flow and change. Adapting the ancient Greek philosopher Heraclitus’s famous statement that one cannot step into the same river twice, one could say that no person ever steps twice into the same self. Sometimes Bradbury discovered a self in the past, and sometimes, particularly in his science fiction, he discovered a self in the future. Several critics have pictured him as a frontiersman, ambivalently astride two worlds, who has alternately been attracted to an idealized past, timeless and nostalgic, and to a graphic future, chameleonic and threatening. This creative tension is present both in his own life and in the generation of Americans he liked to depict. It is also intimately connected with the genre—science fiction—with which he became so closely identified.
Bradbury has been called a Romantic, and his Romanticism often surfaces in the themes he investigates: the conflict between human vitality and spiritless mechanism, between the creative individual and the conforming group, between imagination and reason, between intuition and logic, between the innocence of childhood and the corruptions of adulthood, and between the shadow and light in every human soul. His stories make clear that, in all these conflicts, human beings, not machines, are at the center of his vision. An ambivalence about technology characterizes his life and work. For example, he never learned to drive, even while spending most of his life in Los Angeles, a city that has made the automobile not only an apparent necessity but also an object of worship. He also refused to use a computer, and he successfully avoided flying in an airplane for the first six decades of his life.
Each of these attitudes is rooted in some profoundly emotional experience; for example, he never learned to drive because, as a youth, he witnessed the horrible deaths of five people in an automobile accident. Because of his emphasis on basic human values against an uncritical embracing of technical progress, because of his affirmation of the human spirit against modern materialism, and because of his trust in the basic goodness of small-town life against the debilitating indifference of the cities, several critics have accused him of sentimentality and naïveté. Bradbury responded by saying that critics write from the head, whereas he writes from the heart.
The poetic style that Bradbury developed was admirably suited to the heartfelt themes that he explored in a cornucopia of highly imaginative stories. He cultivated this style through eclectic imitation and dogged determination. As an adolescent, he vowed to write several hundred words every day, for he believed that quantity would eventually lead to quality. Experience and the example of other writers would teach him what to leave out. According to Bradbury, his style was influenced by such writers as Charles Dickens, Mark Twain, ThomasWolfe, and Ernest Hemingway. On another occasion, however, he stated that his style came as much from silent-film actor Charles Chaplin as from Aldous Huxley, as much from TomSwift as from George Orwell, as much from cowboy actor Tom Mix as from Bertrand Russell, and as much from Edgar Rice Burroughs as from C. S. Lewis. Bradbury was also influenced by such poets as Alexander Pope, Gerard Manley Hopkins, and Dylan Thomas, and such dramatists as William Shakespeare and George Bernard Shaw. Furthermore and surprisingly, such painters as El Greco and Tintoretto and such composers as Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and Franz Joseph Haydn showed him how to add color and rhythm to his writing.
According to Bradbury, all these influences—writers, poets, painters, and musicians— gloried in the joy of creating, and their works overflow with animal vigor and intellectual vitality. Their ardor and delight are contagious, and their honest response to the materials at hand calls forth a similar response in their readers, viewers, and listeners. This enchanting of the audience, similar to casting a magic spell, is what Bradbury attempted to do with his kaleidoscopic style: to transform colourful pieces of reality into a glittering picture that will emotionally intensify the lives of his readers.
Bradbury’s writing is profoundly autobiographical, and childhood, adolescent, and adult experiences generated many of his stories. Graham Greene once said that there is always one moment in childhood when the door opens and lets the future in. Actually, for Bradbury, there were many such moments. He once said that everything he had ever done—all his activities, loves, and fears—were created by the primitive experiences of monsters and angels he had when he was five years old. He also said, however, that the most important event in his childhood occurred when he was twelve years old, at a carnival, when the performance of a magician, Mr. Electrico, so energized his imagination that he began to write stories to communicate his fervid visions to others.
Numerous Bradbury stories, including several in his first collection, Dark Carnival, have as their provenance specific childhood events. For example, “The Small Assassin,” which metamorphoses some of his childhood experiences and fears, tells of a newborn infant, terrified at finding himself thrust into a hostile world, taking revenge on his parents by first terrorizing, then murdering them. This story also reveals that Bradbury’s view of childhood innocence is more complex than many critics realize, for, in Bradbury’s view, beneath the façade of innocence lies a cauldron of sin—a dark vision of the human condition that some critics have called Calvinistic. Another tale, “The Lake,” is based on Bradbury’s experience as a seven-year-old, when his cousin nearly drowned in Lake Michigan. These and other early stories, which he published in such pulp magazines as Weird Tales, Amazing Stories, and Astounding Science Fiction, served as his apprenticeship, an opportunity to perfect his style, deepen his vision, and develop the themes on which he would play variations in his later, more accomplished short stories, novels, poems, and dramas.
One of these early themes that also haunted his later fiction is alienation. Bradbury himself experienced cultural alienation when he traveled to Mexico in 1945. Americans were then mostly Protestant, individualistic, and preoccupied with getting ahead. Mexicans, on the other hand, were mostly Roman Catholic, communalistic, and preoccupied with death. On his trip to Guanajuato, northwest of Mexico City, Bradbury was both horrified and fascinated by the catacombs with their rows of propped-up mummified bodies. A story collected in Dark Carnival, “The Next in Line,” grew out of this experience. In this story, a young American wife finds herself, after her traumatic ordeal in the Guanajuato crypts, alienated both from the strange Mexican society and from her own body, which she obsessively realizes is a potential mummy. Bradbury uses the metaphor of death to help the reader comprehend one reality, life, in terms of another, death. Metaphor thus becomes a medicine, a way of healing ourselves by envisioning ourselves into new modes of experiencing, learning, and surviving.
Despite his forays into long fiction, Bradbury’s forte is the short story, and three major collections of his tales appeared during the 1980’s and 1990’s: The Toynbee Convector, Quicker than the Eye, and Driving Blind. Many of the later stories are either slightly camouflaged, grossly exaggerated, or an “absolutely accurate” detailing of events in the author’s own life. Whatever the source of these stories, they are part of what Bradbury calls “the history of ideas.” In the afterword to Quicker than the Eye, he confesses that he is not a writer of science fiction, fantasy, or Magical Realism; rather, he sees himself as a word magician who does not really “write these stories, they write me.” He calculated that he had written close to five hundred stories, but he believed that “there must be at least 1,000 more . . . waiting to be discovered.”
Several critics during the late 1980’s and the 1990’s detected a decline in the quality of Bradbury’s later work, but the standard he set during the 1950’s was very high. Because his work took so many different literary forms, and because, within each of these forms, his treatment of a potpourri of subjects was equally variegated, it is difficult to make neat generalizations about his oeuvre. The public has recognized him as a science-fiction writer, but only a third of his work has been in this genre. Certainly, his science-fiction stories have revealed that cultivated and craftsmanlike writing is possible in what was seen, before him, as a vulgar genre. Within the science-fiction community, however, a sharp difference of opinion exists about Bradbury’s contributions. A sizable segment sees his work as reactionary, antitechnological, and antiutopian. As one of these critics put it, Bradbury is a science-fiction writer for people who do not really like science fiction. On the other hand, a large group, which includes a significant segment of the literary community (viewing him as one of their own), sees him as a humanist and a regional writer. This group draws some good arguments from Bradbury’s stories: For example, even when he writes about Mars, the planet symbolizes for him the geography—emotional and intellectual—of the American Midwest. In this sense, his regionalism is one of the mind and heart.
Actually, both sides of this debate can find evidence for their views in Bradbury’s motley work. He can be both enthusiastic about a future transformed by technology and critical of the dangers posed by technocracies. Ultimately, for him, technology is a human creation, and it is therefore subject to the labyrinthine goods and evils of the human heart. Although his best work is deeply humanistic and includes a strong critique of unrestrained technology, he is no Luddite. It is true that the technological society has produced many problems—pollution, for example—but human beings love to solve problems; it is a defining characteristic of the species.
Those who see only Bradbury’s critique of technology view him as a pessimistic writer. In the proper light, however, his work is really profoundly optimistic. His fiction may rest upon the gloomy foundation of the Fall, but, in traditional theology, the counterpart of the Fall is Redemption, and Bradbury believes that human beings will renew themselves, particularly in space, which he sees as modern humanity’s religious quest. Space, then, is Bradbury’s new wilderness, with an infinity of new challenges. In that inexhaustible wilderness, human beings will find themselves and be saved.
The Martian Chronicles
By placing normal humanAlthough, at first glance, many of Bradbury’s early stories seem notable for their great variety, he did deal, especially in his stories about Mars, with a set of conflicts that had a common theme, and so, when an editor suggested in 1949 that he compose a continuous narrative, he took advantage of the opportunity, since several of his stories about the colonization of Mars by Earthlings lent themselves to just such a treatment. Using the chronological frame of 1999 to 2026, Bradbury stitched these stories together with bridge passages that gave the book a semblance of unity (it also presented categorizers of his works with a problem: Some have listed the book as a novel, others as a short-story collection). Many critics have called The Martian Chronicles Bradbury’s masterpiece, a magical and insightful account of the exploitation of a new frontier, Mars, by Earthlings whose personalities appear to have been nurtured in small midwestern American towns. By placing normal human beings in an extraordinary setting, Bradbury was able to use the strange light of an alien world to illuminate the dark regions of human nature. The apparatus of conventional science fiction makes an appearance, including monsters and supermachines, but Bradbury’s basic intent is to explore the conflicts that were troubling postwar America: imperialism, alienation, pollution, racism, and nuclear war. He therefore depicts not a comforting human progress but a disquieting cycle of rises and falls. He also sees the Martian environment, itself transformed by human ingenuity, transforming the settlers. Thus, his ultimate view seems optimistic: Humanity will, through creative adaptation, not only survive but thrive. In The Martian Chronicles Earthlings metamorphose into Martians, an action that serves as a Bradburian metaphor for the human condition, which is to be always in the process of becoming something else.
Even though scientists criticized The Martian Chronicles for its portrayal of Mars as a planet with a breathable atmosphere, water, and canals (known by astronomers in 1950 to be untrue), and even though science-fiction devotees found Bradbury’s portrayal of Martian colonies implausible, the book was a triumphant success, largely, some have suggested, because of these “weaknesses.” Bradbury’s Mars mirrored the present and served as the stage upon which his eccentric characters—the misfits, opportunists, and romantics—could remake Mars in their own images (only to find themselves remade by Mars in the process). The Martian Chronicles has proved to be enduringly popular. It has passed through several editions, sold millions of copies, and been translated into more than thirty foreign languages.
The Illustrated Man
Another book of interlinked stories, The Illustrated Man, followed soon after the publication of The Martian Chronicles. In The Illustrated Man the device linking the stories together is the tattoos on the skin of one of the characters. Bradbury sets some of his stories on Mars, and a few bear some relation to the cycle of stories in The Martian Chronicles. By the early 1950’s, Bradbury was a well-established writer, able to place his stories in both pulp and popular magazines and able to profit again when his collections of these stories were published as books. His fourth collection, The Golden Apples of the Sun, abandoned the frame narrative that he had been using and instead simply juxtaposed stories from a wide variety of genres—science fiction, fantasy, crime, and comedy.
During this most prolific period in Bradbury’s literary life, he also published the book that would generate, along with The Martian Chronicles, his greatest success and influence. The story that came to be called Fahrenheit 451 went through several transformations. In 1947 he had written a short story, “Bright Phoenix,” in which the residents of a small town counter government book-burning edicts by memorizing the banned books. In 1951 he expanded this idea into a long story, “The Fireman,” which appeared in Galaxy Science Fiction. A fire chief informed him that book paper first bursts into flame at 451 degrees Fahrenheit, which gave him the title for his novel-length story set in a future totalitarian state. Some critics interpreted this dystopian novel as an attack against McCarthyism, then at the height of its power, but the book also attacks the tyrannical domination of mass culture, especially in this culture’s tendency to eschew complexity of thought and to embrace the simple sentiments of pressure groups. The central irony of the novel concerns firemen whose job is to set fires (burn books) rather than to put them out. Bradbury, a lifelong book lover, used his novel to show how important books are to freedom, morality, and the search for truth. His novel concludes with Montag, a fireman who has rejected his role as book burner, joining a community that strives to preserve books by memorizing them. Some critics have pointed out that this new society, where individuals abandon their identities to “become” the books they have memorized, inculcates a mass behavior as conformist as the one from which they and Montag have escaped, but Bradbury would respond that this new culture allows for a multiplicity of ideas and attitudes and thus provides the opportunity for human creativity to shape a hopeful legacy for the next generation.
From the mid-1950’s to the mid-1960’s, Bradbury’s writings tended to center on his midwestern childhood, without being camouflaged by a sciencefiction or fantasy setting. His novel Dandelion Wine is a nostalgic account of a small Illinois town in the summer of 1928. Again, as in so much of his earlier work, his novel was composed of previously published stories, and the superficial unity he imposed on this material was not sufficiently coherent to satisfy several critics. Another similarity to his previous work was his theme of the twin attractions of the past and the future. The twelve-year-old hero finds himself between the secure, uncomplicated world of childhood and the frightening, complex world of adulthood. Despite the loneliness, disease, and death that seem to plague adults, the young man, like the colonists in The Martian Chronicles, must transform his past to create his future. Critics accused Bradbury of sentimentality in Dandelion Wine, pointing out how depressed and ugly Waukegan, Illinois (the model for Green Town), was at this time. Bradbury answered that he was telling his story from the viewpoint of the child, and factories, trains, pollution, and poverty are not ugly to children. Adults teach children what is ugly, and their judgments about ugliness are not always sound. For a child, as for Bradbury, Green Town was like William Butler Yeats’s Byzantium, a vision of creativity and a dream for action.
Something Wicked This Way Comes
Bradbury returned to some of these themes in another novel, Something Wicked This Way Comes, in which a father tries to save his son and his son’s friend from the evil embodied in a mysterious traveling carnival. The friend, Jim Nightshade (a name indicative of the symbolic burden the characters in this novel must bear), is particularly susceptible to the carnival’s temptations, since his shadow side is so powerful. The father ultimately achieves victory by using the power of laughter as his weapon; however, the father also points out that human victories are never final and that each individual must constantly struggle never to permit the good that is in him or her to become a passive rather than an activating force. The potential for evil exists in every human being (a Christian idea, original sin, that surfaces in many of Bradbury’s stories), and unless humans keep their goodness fit through creativity, evil will take over. For Bradbury, love is the best humanizing force that human beings possess.
Something Wicked This Way Comes marked a turning point in Bradbury’s career. After this work failed to enhance his status as a significant American novelist, he turned increasingly to plays, poems, and essays. His turn to drama was essentially a return, since he had acted, as a boy, on the stage and on radio, and because he had written several plays when he was young (they were so bad that he vowed never to write plays again until he learned to write competently in other forms). Many of his plays are adaptations of his stories, and most of them have been staged in California, though a few have had productions Off-Broadway in New York. The majority of his plays have been published. His first collection, The Anthem Sprinters and Other Antics, appeared in 1963 (the “anthem sprinters” are Irishmen who flee from motion-picture theaters before the national anthem is played). Although his short-story writing diminished during the 1960’s, it did not vanish, and in 1969 he published another collection, I Sing the Body Electric!, which was a miscellany of science-fiction and fantasy stories. Throughout his life, Bradbury has also been an avid reader of poetry. He often made use of poetic diction in his stories, but, as in the case of his playwriting, he refrained from publishing his poetry until late in his career, because he wanted it to be accomplished and stylistically refined. Heavily indebted to Gerard Manley Hopkins, Dylan Thomas, Walt Whitman, and others, his poetry has not had the success of his stories. Much of the poetry, whimsical in tone, can be categorized as light verse
Death Is a Lonely Business
During the 1980’s and 1990’s, Bradbury’s audacious approach to writing continued with new twists on such old forms as short and long fiction, poetry, and plays, but he also found himself in such new roles as librettist for a musical and an opera. Though his poetry was collected as The Complete Poems of Ray Bradbury in 1982, this did not prevent him from publishing new volumes of poetry during the late 1980’s and into the 1990’s. In 1985 he published his first novel in twenty-three years, Death Is a Lonely Business, which also marked his entry into a new genre, the detective story, though its offbeat characters and elements of fantasy give it a distinctly Bradburian slant. Some reviewers considered the clash between the hard-boiled and the fantastic disconcerting and frustrating, but others found his recreation of a bygone era in Southern California history appealing.
A Graveyard for Lunatics
Bradbury’s next novel, A Graveyard for Lunatics: Another Tale of Two Cities, used the same unnamed narrator and several other characters as Death Is a Lonely Business. The two cities of the subtitle are Venice and Hollywood, and the narrator, who is a young writer of stories for fantasy and detective magazines, has many adventures in the “graveyard” of Maximus Films, “the most successful studio in history,” which also serves as a burial ground for the fantastic schemes of several eccentrics the narrator meets.
Green Shadows, White Whale
Green Shadows, White Whale represented Bradbury’s fictionalization of the experiences he had more than forty years before, when he travelled to Ireland to write the screenplay for Moby Dick for director John Huston. He recounts entertaining incidents with a customs inspector, a priest, and the habitual denizens of an Irish pub, but Bradbury’s exaggerated and barbed depiction of director Huston is what actually holds the book together.
Other Major Works
Short fiction: Dark Carnival, 1947; The Martian Chronicles, 1950; The Illustrated Man, 1951; The Golden Apples of the Sun, 1953; The October Country, 1955; A Medicine for Melancholy, 1959; Twice Twenty-two, 1959; The Machineries of Joy, 1964; Autumn People, 1965; Vintage Bradbury, 1965; Tomorrow Midnight, 1966; I Sing the Body Electric!, 1969; Long After Midnight, 1976; “The Last Circus,” and “The Electrocution,” 1980; The Stories of Ray Bradbury, 1980; Dinosaur Tales, 1983; A Memory of Murder, 1984; The Toynbee Convector, 1988; Quicker than the Eye, 1996; Driving Blind, 1997; One More for the Road: A New Short Story Collection, 2002; Bradbury Stories: One Hundred of His Most Celebrated Tales, 2003; The Best of Ray Bradbury: The Graphic Novel, 2003; The Cat’s Pajamas, 2004.
Plays: The Anthem Sprinters and Other Antics, pb. 1963; The World of Ray Bradbury: Three Fables of the Future, pr. 1964; The Day It Rained Forever, pb. 1966; The Pedestrian, pb. 1966; Dandelion Wine, pr. 1967 (adaptation of his novel); Madrigals for the Space Age, pb. 1972; The Wonderful Ice Cream Suit, and Other Plays, pb. 1972; Pillar of Fire, and Other Plays for Today, Tomorrow, and Beyond Tomorrow, pb. 1975; That Ghost, That Bride of Time: Excerpts from a Play-in-Progress, pb. 1976; The Martian Chronicles, pr. 1977; Fahrenheit 451, pr. 1979 (musical); A Device Out of Time, pb. 1986; On Stage: A Chrestomathy of His Plays, pb. 1991.
Screenplays: It Came from Outer Space, 1952 (with David Schwartz); Moby Dick, 1956 (with John Huston); Icarus Montgolfier Wright, 1961 (with George C. Johnson); The Picasso Summer, 1969 (with Ed Weinberger). poetry: Old Ahab’s Friend, and Friend to Noah, Speaks His Piece: A Celebration, 1971; When Elephants Last in the Dooryard Bloomed: Celebrations for Almost Any Day in the Year, 1973; Where Robot Mice and Robot Men Run Round in Robot Towns: New Poems, Both Light and Dark, 1977; The Bike Repairman, 1978; Twin Hieroglyphs That Swim the River Dust, 1978; The Aqueduct, 1979; The Haunted Computer and the Android Pope, 1981; The Complete Poems of Ray Bradbury, 1982; Forever and the Earth, 1984; Death Has Lost Its Charm for Me, 1987; Dogs Think That Every Day Is Christmas, 1997; With Cat for Comforter, 1997 (with Loise Max); I Live by the Invisible: New and Selected Poems, 2002.
Nonfiction: Teacher’s Guide to Science Fiction, 1968 (with Lewy Olfson); “Zen and the Art of Writing” and “The Joy of Writing”: Two Essays, 1973; Mars and the Mind of Man, 1973; The Mummies of Guanajuato, 1978; The Art of the Playboy, 1985; Zen in the Art of Writing: Essays on Creativity, 1989; Yestermorrow: Obvious Answers to Impossible Futures, 1991; Bradbury Speaks: Too Soon from the Cave, Too Far from the Stars, 2005.
Children’s literature: Switch on the Night, 1955; R Is for Rocket, 1962; S Is for Space, 1966; The Halloween Tree, 1972; Fever Dream, 1987; Ahmed and the Oblivion Machines: A Fable, 1998.
Edited texts: Timeless Stories for Today and Tomorrow, 1952; The Circus of Dr. Lao, and Other Improbable Stories, 1956.
Source: Notable American Novelists Revised Edition Volume 1 James Agee — Ernest J. Gaines Edited by Carl Rollyson Salem Press, Inc 2008.