On Tuesday, June 7th 2012, a Magician died. His name was Ray Bradbury, and though everyone knew him as a writer of science fiction and fantasy, he preferred the label magician.
"People call me a science fiction writer,” Bradbury wrote in an essay, "but I don't think that's quite true. I think that I'm a magician who is capable of making things appear and disappear right in front of you and you don't know how it happened."
That’s exactly what he did to me, standing before me when I was fifteen years old and reaching into his silk hat to pull out dinosaurs and rocketships and Halloween Trees. And just like everyone else, I wanted to know how he did it, how he pulled off the trick, because Ray made it look like the greatest thing ever, and I knew then and there that I would never want to be anything else as much as I wanted to be a writer.
I didn’t know Ray Bradbury personally, and I missed two opportunities to meet him, at the 1986 Atlanta WorldCon (before I even knew what a WorldCon was, let alone that there were other people like me who liked weird and crazy stuff) and Dragon*Con 1996, I think it was. But I can talk about how his work made me feel. If that’s not personal, what is?
I remember when I first discovered Ray Bradbury, when I was learning about real science fiction, the science fiction in books. I wanted to write this stuff, so I needed to know what was good, which novels and short stories were universally heralded as the Canon. Ray Bradbury immediately popped to the surface.
I still remember the Christmas his novel Fahrenheit 451 was waiting for me under the tree. I read that famous first line "It was a pleasure to burn." and was hooked. The story of a fireman in a dystopian future who is paid to burn books, Fahrenheit 451 is one of the most important novels about censorship ever written, and should be required reading for everyone. It is my favorite novel and, I think, Bradbury’s finest.
But Bradbury was also an amazing short story writer. This was, after all, how he cut his writerly teeth and quickly moved from the ghetto of the pulps (he sold his first short story "The Lake" to Weird Tales for $20) to the sunlight world of "respectable" literature in mags such as Harper’s and Collier’s. But it was from the pulps, and writers such as Edgar Rice Burroughs and Edgar Allan Poe, that he drew his inspiration, and the lens through which he channeled his childhood experiences and frights to create his tales.
Poetic, lyrical, his stories are actually prose-poems that take us on flights of fancy to the hidden places we all know and fear, yet are tinged with nostalgia for circuses and carnivals, and small towns such as Waukegan, Illinois, where Bradbury grew up, appearing in many of his tales as Greentown. Here then, because I didn’t know Bradbury, and because to know his stories is to know him, are a few of my favorites.
The Emissary: A sick boy sends his dog out to come back with autumn leaves and other bits of the town in his fur. One night he visits the cemetery and brings someone back with him.
The Fog Horn: Two men tend a lighthouse and the thunderous foghorn there, when the sound it creates attracts something from the deep who has mistaken the horn for its lost love. This story inspired director John Huston to hire a young Bradbury to write the screenplay for his film version of Moby Dick.
The Murderer: The previous generation of science fiction writers is famous for their disdain of most new technology, and Bradbury was no different. A political conservative who never learned to drive and was afraid of flying, Bradbury often wrote about the perils of technology, writing not to predict the future, but to "prevent it," as he said of Fahrenheit 451. In "The Murderer," a psychologist assigned to a troubled man jailed for killing an annoying machine, finds himself growing angry and impatient with all the beeping, chirping, interrupting devices all around him as well.
The lapel phones of the story bear eerie resemblance to the cell phone.
He may have disliked cell phones and the Internet, and resisted the conversion of his books into e-format, but Bradbury was in love with the grand idea that we could, and someday should, go into space. "We must move into the universe," he wrote. “Mankind must save itself. We must escape the danger of war and politics. We must become astronauts and go out into the universe and discover the God in ourselves."
He wrote about these ideas in The Martian Chronicles, and the short story collections R is for Rocket, S is for Space, and The Golden Apples of the Sun.
What Bradbury was really doing was attempting to do what a long-ago magician named Mr. Electrico commanded him to do when he was a boy: "Live forever!" the man told him. He wasn’t able to do it in a physical sense, but Bradbury achieved immortality through his words.
May they still have the power to reach out and grab us, as they did my fifteen year-old self, shake us, and command us to Run! Jump! Do!