Ray Bradbury, perhaps best-known for his novels and short story collections including Fahrenheit 451, The Martian Chronicles and Something Wicked This Way Comes, died in Los Angeles on 5th June 2012, at the age of 91. He wrote 27 novels and over 600 short stories, a bibliography and success that any writer would love to have to their name.
“When he was 12, Bradbury had a chance encounter with circus entertainer named “Mr. Electrico” who did a wild routine with static electricity. Twelve is an age when young men with imagination are especially impressionable, and Bradbury was enthralled by Mr. Electrico’s act.
At the conclusion, Mr. Electrico pointed his electrified sword at Bradbury and touched his nose, making his hair stand on end. As the sparks flew, Mr. Electrico exclaimed “Live forever!”
Bradbury said when he went home, he began to write his fiction, and he wrote every day for the rest of his life. He later realized that subconsciously, he had found the way to make Mr. Electrico’s command come true.
Through his literature, Ray Bradbury does live forever.”
– Lou Antonello, RIP Ray Bradbury; The Daily Tribune.
I first came across Bradbury just this year. But it’s incredible how one chance encounter with Fahrenheit 451 has changed my view of the landscape. Though I’d heard of it before, I didn’t quite know what the book was about, but the cover intrigued me, so I picked it up and scrolled through the blurb.
‘FAHREHEIT 451: the temperature at which book-paper catches fire and burns.’
That first line blazed away any preconceptions that this was just any other book. I read on: ‘Guy Montag is a fireman. His job is to burn books, which are forbidden, being the source of all discord and unhappiness.’ I didn’t need to read the rest of the blurb; this dystopian society was haunting and horrible instantly – and an extension of a few concerns that had been batting around in my head for a while.
The Times calls it: “A disturbing tale that explores the maxim, ‘ignorance is bliss.’” Kingsley Amis summed it up as “the most skilfully-drawn of all science fiction’s conformist hells.” Both those statements are true, of course. But to balance out the hell, there’s also great hope.
Guy is in it deep; certainly from the first few stunning paragraphs, he’s the Man Beyond Redemption. But for book-lovers (and who else would be reading it?), that world doesn’t feel right. In fact, for anyone, that world doesn’t feel right. But maybe book-lovers can feel it more. And we’re represented there, amidst the flames: a glowing dedication and love for this intangible force presented to us each time we open a cover.
I discussed this a few years ago in college. Why are stories important? They make us human. And Fahrenheit 451 is one of the most human books I’ve ever read.
Soon, I found The Illustrated Man, a collection of short stories with a bookending narrative about a man whose body is caressed with tattoos – tattoos that move and tell stories. Here, Bradbury presented me with fairytales and wonder, but tinged with a chilling sense of doom. (And notice I say me, not us. Because Ray’s books speak to you personally.) Truths we should all face up to. Here’s the perfect illustration of what Bradbury does:
“Yet the Illustrated Man has tried to burn the illustrations off. He’s tried sandpaper, acid and a knife. Because, as the sun sets, the pictures glow like charcoals, like scattered gems. They quiver and come to life. Tiny pink hands gesture, tiny mouths flicker as the figures enact their stories – voices rise, small and muted, predicting the future.”
Something terrible and magnificent at the same time. And this theme carries on throughout the book. Kaleidoscope gives us a beautiful image that might haunt our subconscious every time we look up at the stars. The Playground feels real and troubling, but also signals the brilliant bravery and love we feel around our family. The Long Rain is creepy and bleak, evaluating what life might be like when we step out onto other planets, but makes you realise how lucky we are.
I was surprised to see that Wikipedia list The Veldt (or The World the Children Made) as ‘children’s literature.’ Opening my edition of The Illustrated Man, it’s an incredible tale that shows what future technology might offer kids as they discover mortality. It’s genuinely shocking stuff.
I know certain themes run throughout Bradbury’s books, inevitably inspired by his life and, in particular, his childhood. This led Spiked! writer, Patrick West to say that:
“The great Bradbury longed for a future that would recapture the past.”
This nostalgia is just part of the rich tapestry that Ray weaves into his stories and, indeed, the world. To paraphrase a different genre of literacy, Sherlock Holmes says that we see, but we do not observe. But Ray Bradbury helps us observe.
Thank you, Ray.