Posted by: Neil Hollands
With the passing of Ray Bradbury last week, the Golden Age science fiction writers are almost all gone. The only SF writer that I can think of from that generation who is still living is Fred Pohl. Others like Ursula K. Le Guin, Robert Silverberg, and Larry Niven are a decade or so younger. It’s a sobering thought to me: the first generation of writers who brought thinking about the future into reading prominence has nearly aged off of our planet.
My appreciation for Bradbury should have started early. In high school, my creative writing teacher tried valiantly to instill the pleasures of Dandelion Wine, but for reasons I’ve forgotten, my classmates and I were not buying what she was selling.
My second encounter with Bradbury should have stuck. My alma mater, Weber State University (that’s Wee-ber, named after the trapper and explorer John Weber, not Karl Weber or any other academic types), has few claims to fame, but it can celebrate the National Undergraduate Literature Conference, which has been giving undergraduate writers a chance to present papers and creative work while rubbing elbows with some of the biggest names in literature for 27 years now. Raymond Carver, Norman Mailer, E. L. Doctorow, Richard Ford, Larry McMurtry, and this year, W. S. Merwin are just a few of the distinguished names on their list of past presenters. Bradbury was the lead presenter in one of the two years that I presented at the conference, but 23 years have robbed me of the details. He made a positive impression, but I guess I was a typical undergraduate, more wrapped up in the works I would present at the conference than my encounter with greatness.
Others will disagree, but despite the fact that his works are frequently part of school curricula, including mine, the pleasures of Bradbury were not this young person’s pleasures, especially in comparison to other genre writers whose works were filled with adventure, violence, and lusty relationships. But now, much of those other works are receding into a slick haze and the wonder of Bradbury is still there. The joys of Bradbury are more psychological, often subtle, and perhaps that’s why he didn’t stick with me until much more recently. Bradbury’s work is ultimately about people.
My love for Bradbury only blossomed in a more private setting, just a few years ago when The Martian Chronicles made a big impression and led me to seek out more of his work. It’s a book of science fiction stories about what happens when a near-utopian Martian civilization is conquered by humans. The earthlings somewhat casually wipe out their more civilized Martian counterparts, then proceed to wax wistfully, longingly, for the home planet that they had already ruined through neglect. In one droll, poetic little story after another, Bradbury skewers the uglier foibles of human nature. The violence is never explicit, the technology goes largely unexplained, but Bradbury understands where our behavior might take us, and the vision is powerful.
If you too were exposed too early to this important writer, try his work again. Share what you find at a book group meeting. Don’t expect science fiction action adventure and you’ll be more likely to appreciate the quiet miracles that happen in many of his best works. Start with selections from this list of his ten best books from the Christian Science Monitor. Wonderful remembrances of the man and his work are popping up all over the Internet right now. For instance, try the two at Salon, the one at NPR, the Washington Post, many at the Guardian, or New Yorker. Look at the comments and it becomes clear how many people–people famous and unknown, people too young for others to acknowledge–who Bradbury took the time to talk to personally and encourage. We’ve truly lost one of the great ones.