Thursday, June 7, 2012
Ray of Light
Logged onto the Internet yesterday and discovered an era had ended: Ray Bradbury, last of the grand masters of science fiction, had passed away at the age of 91. His life was a passionate love affair with the written word, which he was kind enough to share with the rest of us mere mortals.
A poet in prose, Ray approached language with playfulness and reverence. He could turn the description of an automated house slowing running down into a story to rival Greek tragedies. He could break your heart in 500 words. Some writers are natural storytellers but leaden in the prose department. Others can write beautifully descriptive sentences but can’t tell a moving story. Ray was one of those rare masters who could do both, and do it wonderfully.
Like many writers of the ‘30s and ‘40s, Ray began with stories in the science fiction pulps, but he didn’t go for the hard science, “clanky” plots. He wrote literary fiction set on Mars or in the distant future, and explored the darkness in the closet, around the corner, and within the human heart. His characters lived in a Midwest that probably never existed outside of a Norman Rockwell painting, and what a scary, wonderful, magical place it was. No ray guns and fight scenes and stuff blowing up for Mr. Bradbury; his stories were quiet little gut-punches of the type best whispered around a campfire while stealing nervous glances at the shadows.
His titles will be familiar even with those who don’t like or read science fiction: The Martian Chronicles, Something Wicked This Way Comes, Farenheit 451 (which wasn’t about book burning, but about the impact of technology and social media on society—written in 1956), “A Sound of Thunder” (for God’s sake, never step on the butterfly when you go time-traveling!) and dozens on dozens of others. Most are still in print, and will probably stay in print for years to come.
For a writer who got his start in SF, Ray was a notorious technophobe. He had no use for computers or the Internet. He never learned how to drive a car. Ray never graduated from high school. He always said he graduated from the library. He went in and read his way through the stacks and ten years later emerged with all the learning he needed. He seems to have done okay for himself. Take that, public school system.
My favorite story about Ray involves his early days as a writer. Being a writer, he was of course poor and had no typewriter. The library proved typewriters for 10 cents an hour. Ray would go in with a handful of dimes and start typing, feeding coins into the machine. With luck, he’d complete his story before the dimes ran out. Now that’s dedication.
Though Stephen King remains my favorite writer, Ray Bradbury holds the position of God. To me, his prose is the gold standard which we can admire and aim for and maybe, just maybe come close to achieving. I imagine he’s got his little room in paradise with a typewriter, a stack of paper and an endless supply of dimes, and is still turning out stories because writing was the thing he loved. We loved your writing, Ray, and we’ll be forever grateful that you chose to share that love with us. Rest in peace.