Ray Bradbury died last week. It was neither expected nor, given his age,91, a surprise. It was as if a light just went out in a house across the street. The world paused to consider the completion of a remarkable, genuinely original and particularly American life, but it did not stop, it moved on as it always does. Some people lit virtual candles at tributes.com, which seems like an even emptier version of the simulated grief of leaving bouquets of limp flowers and creased newspaper sheets against the chain link fences and doorsteps of the recently departed famous.
He was born less than a year after the first World War ended, the last great war to be fought mostly hand to hand, with rudimentary technology. He preceded radio and TV, in a time where there were parts of the world and indigenous peoples not yet known. One of his ancestors was burnt at the stake in Salem, as a witch. An exaggeration, discovered, it turns out, too late for her.
Bradbury claimed he'd rather be thought of as a magician than a science fiction writer, and that is definitely how he saw himself, and how he approached his story telling, with the child's wide-eyed sense of wonder and the adult's keen awareness of risk, but his science was LITERALLY fiction, written without even much attempt to be accurate or plausible. His Mars in "The Martin Chronicles" is as habitable as San Diego. Rockets just went places, like buses, unfussed by things like space radiation.
Despite his further protestations, he was also a philosopher, a grand one in the sweeping way of Mark Twain and Gabriel Garcia Marquez, spinning primal tales suspended in impossible air. For most science fiction writers it has always been essential to create authentic worlds. Bradbury dispensed with that tedious obligation and instead borrowed the real one we live in and simply relocated it to unreal ones. He burrowed in the most fertile and elastic, and perhaps scariest, of all ground, the human condition, where time, place and scale can be twisted to suit any narrative. His stories are beautiful in their strangeness.
Once, trying to make an important distinction about his work, he said:"I've written only one book of science fiction [Fahrenheit 451]. All the others are fantasy. Fantasies are things that can't happen, and science fiction is about things that CAN happen." Like his best peers, such as Philip K Dick and Aldous Huxley, he was both anxious and optimistic about the future. Fahrenheit 451, a dystopian masterpiece about a time when books are illegal, does not need invading aliens to be terrifying, because the aliens are us, when our worst instincts have escaped.
His writing was meticulous. Not crisp, writing is not meant to be crisp like lettuce, and potentially flavorless. Bradbury was the opposite of flavorless, his stories were rich with the fat of ordinary human behavior. But there was never a wasted word in his prose, never one not working, as if his vocabulary shared his Puritan heritage.
My favorite short story of his was one I read in a long-forgotten anthology, about a businessman who, on his way home on a train late at night, suddenly, irrationally, decides to get off at a stop in the middle of nowhere, a station used only to drop off light cargo. On the deserted platform he meets an old, skinny man who strikes up a peculiar conversation with him, not friendly or unfriendly, and follows him to town. The old man tells the newcomer that he's been waiting for years for someone to get off at that stop, so that he can kill him. At first the businessman thinks the old codger is just mad, but he comes to realize that he's serious, and tries, unsuccessfully, to get away from him. The old man's mission is clear and inexorable, ordained in some distant insanity. Finally, the younger man turns around, puts his hand in his pocket and says "What makes you think I don't have a weapon in here and didn't come to this town to find someone to kill myself?" The old man certainly hadn't considered that and says "So that's the way it's going to be is it?" and the other man, sensing his ploy is working, says "That's the way it's going to be." The old man thinks about this, and, defeated, walks away.
There's no science in that story and no more advanced technology than a street lamp. There's no view of the future and there's really no past either. Just darkness, a void, an unexhaled breath of menace. It's a tiny story, as wide as the Universe.
I knew Ray Bradbury briefly in the late 1970s. We met through OMNI magazine and struck up a friendship. He was passionate about everything, but particularly space travel and how important it was to revive the recently stopped manned missions to the Moon, and go as soon as possible to Mars. Once I was at dinner with both him and Isaac Asimov, two sweet, grandfatherly, unprepossessing men talking fervently of an amazing world that didn't exist then but does now, yet neither of them had ever flown on a plane or driven a car, and to the end Bradbury didn't use a computer.
One day, I called him up and asked him if I could come over to see him and discuss writing. In one word he gave me the most valuable lesson a young, aspiring writer could ever receive. He said "No."
Nothing followed. After a few seconds of silence I stammered something about not wishing to have been presumptuous and he, sensing I was crushed, said, in a kind voice: "You can't talk about writing, you have to just write."