In honor of SF icon Ray Bradbury’s recent passing, we thought a passage on his life and work from John Sutherland’s celebration of novel history’s giants, Lives of the Novelists: A History of Fiction in 294 Lives, would be only fitting. Don’t forget to enter the book giveaway on Goodreads before it closes at the end of the month!
Ray Bradbury was born in Waukengan, Illinois (the Green Town of his fiction), where his father worked as a telephone lineman. The family, uprooted by the Depression, moved nomadically during Ray’s childhood, mainly between Illinois and Arizona, a state whose desert landscape influenced the author’s later depictions of Mars. Bradbury claimed to have picked up his impressive learning from ‘Carnegies’ (public libraries) and his lifelong dedication to science fiction from coming across copies of Hugo Gernsback’s Amazing Stories at age six. Equally precociously, he was writing his own stories in the genre at eleven. As a child Ray was fascinated by magic and, like others of his generations, was entranced by the ‘Century of Progress’ exhibit at World’s Fair in Chicago, 1933.
Eventually the family settled in southern California in 1934. This was to be Bradbury’s home and literary base for the rest of his life. He left school at thirteen; there was no question of college. He haunted public libraries and sold newspapers on street corners. His first SF story was published in 1938 and in 1941 he attended a writing class run by Robert A. Heinlein, already a star of the genre. He would be, however, the least formulaic of writers in an overly formulaic genre. Bradbury’s philosophy was: ‘When writing, just jump off the cliff and build your wings on the way down.’ Forrest J. Ackerman was helpful at this stage in Bradbury’s career, promoting him on the fanzine and word-of-mouth networks which ‘SF’s number one fan’ (as Ackerman was called) had mobilised in the Los Angeles area – along with the world’s greatest collection of genre memorabilia. Bradbury was rejected for military service in the Second World War on the grounds of poor eyesight. Literature was the gainer. At the same period – 1942 – he took up writing full-time, turning out a string of short stories for the pulps and slicks which were booming during the war. A favourite outlet was Weird Tales, whose title neatly defines the Bradbury style.
Recognition of his talent came early – as it often does in SF, with its highly developed critical and word-of-mouth circuits. He won an O. Henry Award in 1948 and a ‘best author’ award from the National Fantasy Fan Federation a year later. In 1950 Bradbury broke through into international fame with The Martian Chronicles, a collection which was ‘made’ by an influential review from Christopher Isherwood. The stories in the volume compose a haunting panorama of pioneer life on a Mars which is alternately Edenic and horrific. Bradbury’s most famous novel, Fahrenheit 451 (1953), a fable of book-burning in the future, targeted the current McCarthyite witch-hunting in the United States and satirized the intellectually numbing spread of television, and its destruction, as Bradbury saw, of print culture. ‘I don’t try to describe the future. I try to prevent it,’ he said. He could also misunderstand it.
At this period Bradbury was recruited to work in film. Among other assignments, he wrote the screenplay for John Huston’s Moby Dick (1956). When he confessed to the director that he’d never read Melville’s novel, he was assured in was OK: the studio paid people to do that kind of thing for you. His own work was also successfully filmed, notably Fahrenheit 451, directed by François Truffaut, in 1966. In later life, Bradbury’s knees buckled with the honours with which SF loves to load its most admirable practitioners. His great achievement, particularly in the shorter fiction was to raise the quality of writing in the genre, opening the way to the literary experimentations of New Wave writers in the 1970s and 1980s. Bradbury liberated SF from the accusation made by Kurt Vonnegut (in the person of his SF hack ‘Klingore Trout’) that its writers had great ideas, but couldn’t write worth a damn.
In a genre preoccupied with technology and hardware, Bradbury was unusual in never having a driver’s license and not flying (and then very reluctantly) on an aeroplane until he was sixty-two. Arthur C. Clarke, an enthusiast for gadgetry, gave him a laptop computer, only to discover, as Bradbury’s biographer records that ‘he used it as a drink coaster.’ Bradbury suffered a devastating stroke in 1999, which left him able only to communicate by pen and pad. He none the less contrived to write fiction, even in this terminal condition. All he had ever needed was pen, paper, imagination, and a mental cliff to fall off of.
John Sutherland is Emeritus Lord Northcliffe Professor of Modern English at University College London. Excerpted from Lives of the Novelists: A History of Fiction in 294 Lives Copyright © 2011 by John Sutherland.