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Monday 19 March 2018

Ray Bradbury

Fantasy writer whose work combined the Gothic and the pastoral, and who considered the internet a waste of time

RAY Bradbury, who has died aged 91, was, because of his best-known novel, Fahrenheit 451, routinely described as a science-fiction writer; in fact, his work was mostly fantasy which combined the Gothic and the pastoral in almost mythic depictions of childhood, innocence, corruption and -- above all else -- small-town America.

If anything, Bradbury was suspicious of the future, and sentimental about the past. In Fahrenheit 451 (1953) and several short stories he predicted radio telephone "ear thimbles" (anticipating Bluetooth headsets), which were cacophonous, isolating and socially disastrous. The arrival of technologies he had foreseen did nothing to change such views: in 2009 he described the internet as largely "a waste of time". He continued to use a typewriter rather than a computer. Most remarkably, he managed to live almost all his life in Los Angeles without learning to drive.

Despite its title, his short story Mars Is Heaven! (1948) illustrated Bradbury's lack of interest in rockets as anything other than vehicles for allegorical fantasy. Stepping out of their craft, astronauts discover not a desolate red planet, but Greentown, Illinois, homely, welcoming, and populated with their relatives and friends, including those who have died. They decide that it is paradise, only to discover that it is an illusion created by hellish monsters.

This blend of nostalgia and the macabre was a frequent quality of Bradbury's prolific and popular output, which was overwhelmingly in the short form. He published some 500 short stories and 11 novels. His preference for concision, and talent for imagery simultaneously homespun and poetic, owed much to L Frank Baum's Oz books and his own Midwestern upbringing, and occasionally led Bradbury into saccharine sentimentality and purple passages. But at its best, his dreamy yet lucid prose had, as Christopher Isherwood put it in his review of The Martian Chronicles (1950), "the profound psychological realism of a good fairy story".

Ray Douglas Bradbury was born on August 22, 1920 at Waukegan, on the western shore of Lake Michigan, Illinois. His father Leonard was a telephone and electrical lineman whose father and grandfather had been newspaper publishers.

Ray was introduced to Oz and the work of Edgar Rice Burroughs and Edgar Allen Poe by his Aunt Neva, who lived next door. He was an avid reader from an early age, spending most of his time in Waukegan's Carnegie library. Even before the reading bug bit, he had been a devotee of the Gothic, having been taken at the age of three by his Swedish mother to see Lon Chaney in a film of The Hunchback of Notre Dame. Magic tricks were another obsession.

The latter enthusiasm was reinforced by the Dill Brothers Sideshow and Carnival when he was 12. One of the acts, Mr Electrico, tapped him on the nose with an electrified sword which caused his hair to stand on end, and delivered the instruction: "Live Forever!" Young Ray was suitably impressed; he retained a boyish quality, and his boyish interests, well into extreme old age.

The family settled in California in 1934, where Ray attended Los Angeles High School. He left in 1938 to work nights selling newspapers on a street corner, spending his days in UCLA's Powell library reading and writing.

He began to publish stories in fan magazines and attend meetings of the Los Angeles Science Fiction Society. His sales were largely to genre magazines such as Astounding Science Fiction, Weird Tales and Dime Mysteries. Despite his publishers' later insistence on billing him as "The World's Greatest Living Science Fiction Writer!", Bradbury soon realised that his real talent was for fantasy and, in particular, for horror. His first collection, Dark Carnival (1947), included the stories The Jar, The Crowd and The Small Assassin, all now regarded as classics.

Many of his stories were adapted for EC Comics during the early Fifties. At the same time his work was finding a wider audience through television, where it was adapted for such shows as Suspense, Starlight Summer Theater and Alfred Hitchcock Presents. Two further collections, The Illustrated Man (1951) and The Golden Apples of the Sun (1953) followed.

The first included religious allegories such as The Man, The Fire Balloons, The Other Foot, and Rocket Man -- which inspired Elton John and Bernie Taupin's song.

A Sound of Thunder, Bradbury's best short story, imagines a 'Time Safari' which offers hunters the chance to shoot dinosaurs. On their return, they discover that one of them has stepped on a butterfly, that the world has changed irrevocably, and that a tyrant has become president. The description of the dead butterfly falling "to the floor, an exquisite thing, a small thing that could upset balances and knock down a line of small dominoes and then big dominoes and then gigantic dominoes, all down the years across Time" was credited with popularising the term 'Butterfly Effect' in chaos theory, through a conflation with the meteorologist Ed Lorenz's example of the potentially huge impact of the flapping of a seagull's wings.

By then The Martian Chronicles had made his name. It established Bradbury's principal themes: suspicion of progress, the loss of childhood innocence, the idealisation of small-town simplicity and a fascination with deception and shape-shifting.

The book brought Bradbury regular commissions from Collier's, Esquire, McCall's and the Saturday Evening Post. This reputation was cemented by Fahrenheit 451, his first novel proper.

During the following decade Bradbury produced two more novels, Dandelion Wine (1957) and Something Wicked This Way Comes (1962) and a number of short stories. Later collections seldom reached the heights of his early work.

Bradbury wrote more than 20 plays, and had his own theatre company, Pandemonium. But his dramatic successes were principally in film and television. The films It Came From Outer Space and The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms (both 1953) were based on his stories and, on television, adaptations of his work provided the basis for many shows, including several episodes of The Twilight Zone. He wrote the screenplay, with the director John Huston, for his film of Moby Dick (1956). From 1985 to 1992, he wrote and supervised much of the television series, The Ray Bradbury Theatre.

By coincidence an autobiographical piece about his childhood, Take Me Home, is published in the June 4 edition of the New Yorker.

Ray Bradbury married, in 1947, Marguerite McClure; she died in 2003. They had four daughters.

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