If you’ve read any science fiction at all, you’ve heard of Ray Bradbury. Even if your only exposure to science fiction has been limited to seeing “Avatar” (or “Star Wars”), you’re probably familiar with his ideas.
One of his most influential works, Bradbury’s 1953 novel “Fahrenheit 451,” described a future in which “firemen” burn books because owning them has become illegal. (Bradbury was reportedly annoyed when filmmaker Michael Moore co-opted the title for his 2005 film “Fahrenheit 9/11”).
Many of his 600+ short stories—“The Fog Horn” (in which the horn on an isolated lighthouse summons a sea monster) and “The Pedestrian” (a man is arrested for the simple act of taking a walk)—were staples of high school English courses in the 1970s.
Bradbury’s stories were deceptive: easy to read, but packed with ideas that provoked thought and deep emotion in readers of any age group.
But Bradbury, who died Wednesday at age 91 in his California home, wrote in a variety of genres and didn’t consider himself a science fiction writer at all.
“First of all, I don't write science fiction,” he told an interviewer in 1999. “Science fiction is a depiction of the real. Fantasy is a depiction of the unreal.”
Bradbury wrote fantasies of humans colonizing Mars (“The Martian Chronicles”), a haunted carnival (“Something Wicked This Way Comes”), and magical summer happenings in small-town America (“Dandelion Wine”).
He also wrote the screenplay for John Huston’s 1956 film adaptation of “Moby Dick,” and a semi-fictionalized account of the film’s production, “Green Shadows, White Whale.” He even wrote a mystery novel, “Death is a Lonely Business,” featuring a detective named Elmo Crumley.
What stands out in Bradbury’s work is a sweeping imagination, a deep knowledge and understanding of people, and a poetic writing style that brought the unreal to life whether he was talking about Martians, monsters, or, if memory serves correctly, the denizens of an Irish pub attempting to sprint for the door at closing time (“The Anthem Sprinters,” in the 1964 collection “The Machineries of Joy”).
The stories may have been fantasy; the feelings were real. And his influence on science fiction, and literature in general, has been immense. He is credited with having elevated the reputation of science fiction and fantasy above the realm of bug-eyed monsters and into genuine respectability, paving the way for such writers as Kurt Vonnegut Jr., who used science fiction themes in several novels. And Bradbury did all of it without ever getting a driver’s license.
As a boy living in Waukegan, Ill., the young Ray Bradbury visited a carnival where he saw a performance by a magician who went by the name “Mr. Electro.” As part of his act, Mr. Electro sat in an electric chair and was electrocuted in front of the audience. With the power surging through his body he “knighted” all the children sitting in the front row with a sword. Bradbury wrote in 2001:
“When he reached me, he pointed his sword at my head and touched my brow. The electricity rushed down the sword, inside my skull, made my hair stand up and sparks fly out of my ears. He then shouted at me, ‘Live forever!’”
Bradbury wondered: “I thought that was a wonderful idea, but how did you do it?”
It appears that he found a way.
John Cowan edits many of Ragan Communication's management-related publications. He's also an aspiring science fiction author whose short story, "Oracle," won the Illinois Science Fiction in Chicago (ISFiC) writing contest in 2009.