Posted by Michael A. Burstein on Jun 26, 2012 in Apex Publications Blog: Matters of SF, Fantasy, and Horror, Artist Musings | 1 comment
by Michael A. Burstein
I hadn’t planned on writing a tribute to Ray Bradbury. When word came out on the morning of Wednesday, June 6, that Bradbury had died the night before, there were already plenty of tributes starting to pop up from all over the world. Furthermore, many of those came from writers who are much more well-known or well-established than I am. What more could I possibly add to that torrent of tribute? Another reason for me to refrain was that when it came to fiction, Bradbury’s style and mine were extremely different. Bradbury was much more of a poet, with a facility for metaphor that I envy. I tend to write in a more straightforward style, modeling my work more on that of writers such as Isaac Asimov.
But then, the next day, I received an email from a friend, Martha Ingols, who encouraged me to write about Bradbury. I protested that I was unfamiliar with his complete oeuvre, that I had not published fiction myself in quite a while, and that what I had to say would be immaterial, irrelevant, and ignorable. Her reply pointed out to me that I still am a fellow SF writer and that I’ve often explored some of the same themes. So, knowing that at least one person out there would find my eulogy of Bradbury to be of interest, I decided to take the time to put my thoughts in order and tell the world how much Bradbury’s work had meant to me.
In Internet time, this tribute is probably too late; he’s been gone three weeks already! I suspect, though, that Ray Bradbury himself would have appreciated the irony. He was born in a world where news of someone’s death might take a long time to propagate even to those who knew the deceased well; but the week he died, the world had changed, with technology, imagined by writers such as he, that allowed for instantaneous communication of his loss.
I think almost anyone reading this would say they first heard of Bradbury’s death from some source over the Internet. I first discovered that Bradbury had died through a status update on Facebook. That’s probably not too surprising, given that I’m connected to a lot of people in the world of science fiction. What did surprise me, however, was that within the hour I had also heard the news of Bradbury’s passing through aNew York Times News Alert email message. I had fully expected Bradbury to get an obituary in theTimes, of course, but I hadn’t considered the possibility that his death would be judged important enough to warrant any sort of news alert.
I think that’s because I thought of him like many of us did, a member of our particular subculture. It was only after I started reading the obituaries and other tributes to Bradbury that I realized how important and influential he was. I would guess that almost no student in the United States graduated without being required to read something by Bradbury, most likely his classic novelFahrenheit 451. (Ironically, that was not the work of Bradbury’s I found myself required to read in school, but I’m getting ahead of myself here.)
If I recall this correctly, I first discovered Ray Bradbury’s work not through his writing, but through television. In 1980, NBC broadcast a three-part miniseries based onThe Martian Chronicles. By that time, I was already immersed in science fiction. I had enjoyed both Star Trek and Star Wars, read many of the short stories of Isaac Asimov’s, and had subscriptions toAnalog,Asimov’s,Amazing, andF&SF. Even though I was only a kid, I was a prime audience member for this miniseries. I eagerly watched it, the only member of my family to do so.
And it scared the crap out of me. I tended to avoid the more frightening stories of science fiction and fantasy, as I enjoyed being able to sleep at night. I don’t recall much of the miniseries now, but I still have a sense of the fear it inculcated in me. All I remember is that the Martians killed the human astronauts after creating illusions for them, and to this day that kind of mind warping disturbs me.
My next exposure to Bradbury’s work was through his short story collectionThe Illustrated Man later that year. My seventh-grade English teacher, Mrs. Peters, assigned the book in the spring, and I was delighted. Even as late as then, there were teachers who dismissed science fiction as trash. As a science fiction fan, I was pleased that I’d be able to read a work in my preferred genre for school. As it was, Mrs. Peters only had us read some of the stories in the book for discussion, but I eagerly devoured them all.
And once again, Ray Bradbury scared the crap out of me. Many of the stories in the book, from “The Veldt” to “The Long Rain,” were quite horrific. One of the unassigned stories I read, “The City,” ended with the corpses of astronauts being filled with spores, sewn up, and animated to return to Earth as a weapon to kill the rest of the human race. I couldn’t sleep for a week after reading that one. When I asked Mrs. Peters about the scary and depressing stories in the book, she used it as a springboard to point out that Bradbury had chosen to end the book with “The Rocket,” a sweet, more pastoral tale that feels more hopeful than much of the rest. I understood her point, but it didn’t take the edge off of the rest of the stories I had read.
Thinking back on it now, it’s possible that I would have avoided reading Bradbury in the future, but fortunately I didn’t. As frightening as his stories were, something about them stayed with me. They were, well, cool. I liked the way he could create details that stayed with me as a reader. For example, I’ll never forget how the time travelers give themselves away in “The Fox and the Forest.” And as unscientific as his settings were, his stories spoke to me.
“All Summer in a Day” is one such story. Anyone who had been bullied, whether a boy or a girl, will sympathize, nay, empathize, with Margot, locked in a closet by her classmates during the previous two hours of sunlight on a rain-soaked Venus. It doesn’t matter that Bradbury’s portrayal of Venus is unscientific, even at the time he wrote the story; he spoke a higher truth, one that readers such as myself needed to learn.
Bradbury also dealt expertly in metaphor, as I noted before. “There Will Come Soft Rains” is an awe-inspiring example of this. The empty house doesn’t just represent itself, but it goes through the entire life cycle of the people who once lived in it, perishing in conflagration just like the family it once cared for, who died in a nuclear holocaust. I grew up in the tail end of the Cold War, but the story still spoke to my generation, despite having been published decades before.
Of all Bradbury’s work, his most famous is probablyFahrenheit 451. I don’t recall the exact circumstances of why and how I ended up reading it, but I do know it was of my own accord. Gallons of ink (or should I now say megacoulombs of electrons?) have been spilled in analysis of this work, but as I was a science fiction fan that read it in 1984, it resonated to me in ways that it might not resonate with someone first reading it today. I could fill this tribute with images I remember from the book, but the one that stuck with me was that of people memorizing the great works of literature so they would not be lost. With that one scene, Bradbury showed the importance of reading.
I only saw Bradbury once in person. In 1996, I attended LAcon III, my first World Science Fiction Convention, where I was up for a Hugo Award and the John W. Campbell Award for Best New Writer. My wife and I had wandered outside the hotel with some friends, and as we stood in the heat, shielding our eyes from the sun, I spotted Ray Bradbury standing some distance away. He was at another hotel door, holding court over a handful of people. Someone asked if we wanted to go over to meet him, but I didn’t want to disturb the great man as I had little to say to him except, “Hi, my name is Michael and I like your stories.”
Looking back, I mildly regret not approaching him because there is one lesson I learned from him that I wanted him to know about. Bradbury used to tell the story, oft-repeated, of how the other kids made fun of him for collecting Buck Rogers comic strips. So he threw out all the strips he had cut out of the newspaper and stopped collecting them. And he was miserable. Finally, after about two weeks, he realized that it was the other kids who were wrong and that he was right, and he started to collect them again.
Bradbury taught me that it was okay for me to pursue my own interests, no matter what the people around me felt. It’s a lesson all of us should take to heart.
Godspeed, Ray Bradbury. I hope I’ll see you on Mars one day.
Michael A. Burstein, winner of the 1997 Campbell Award for Best New Writer, has earned ten Hugo nominations and four Nebula nominations for his short fiction, collected in I Remember the Future. Burstein lives with his wife Nomi and their twin daughters in the town of Brookline, Massachusetts, where he is an elected Town Meeting Member and Library Trustee. When not writing, he edits middle and high school Science textbooks. He has two degrees in Physics and attended the Clarion Workshop.
More information on Burstein and his work can be found on his webpage, http://www.mabfan.com.