I’ve spent the majority of this morning reading obits for Ray Bradbury. He died yesterday, July 5, though the news mainly broke today. I’ve read the obits from the Huffington Post, CNN, io9, Washington Post, the New York Times, etc.
My favorite, though, might be the post my friend Will Ludwigsen put up on his personal site about being visited by Ray Bradbury in his dreams no less than four different times. I already told him earlier today that I’m a bit jealous about that. Beyond that, it’s a personal, intimate story of how Bradbury’s writing touched Will and changed both his writing and his thinking, his way of being, to the point that he “[took] him for granted everywhere but [his] dreams.”
I can’t help but feel the same way right now. I took Bradbury’s influence on me for granted, just because it was so ubiquitous. Who hasn’t he influenced in science fiction and fantasy, even if only through the most minor of tangents? He stripped down the mechanics of science fiction and fantasy to their most emotional, metaphorical cores, so that they came to represent emotions embodied in all of us. Because of Bradbury, science fiction and fantasy became languages of the human spirit. I guess I say that because they became the languages of my spirit, because of Bradbury. And now I won’t ever get to meet him in person or thank him, the way he deserved to be thanked.
So, this will have to do.
When I was a young boy fighting my way through grade school, using fiction as a way of escaping my troubles, I discovered that my school library had an extensive collection of Ray Bradbury’s books. I read everything they had on the shelves from him. I ignored countless homework assignments so I could read Fahrenheit 451, Dandelion Wine, Something Wicked This Way Comes, and countless short story collections, including The Illustrated Man and R is for Rocket.
When I read “All Summer in a Day,” I felt a strong sense of communion with the main character, a girl from Earth who moves to Venus with fresh memories of the sun, unwittingly imposing those memories upon the false memories of Venus children who have never seen the sun themselves since it only shows itself once every seven years. So, when the sun shows once again, they lock her in the classroom closet without a second thought until the sun disappears again. I consider it the quintessential story for bullied children. The story became a kind of totem for me, something I held close to my chest in times of great need (which happened quite often). I still hold it close.
I do love the classics, and Bradbury had a hell of a lot of classics – “The Veldt,” “A Medicine For Melancholy,” “The Fog Horn,” “Kaleidoscope,” “Fever Dream,” “Mars is Heaven,” “Skeleton,” and of course “There Will Come Soft Rains” – but I have bonded “All Summer in a Day” to my heart. You couldn’t rip it off with a pair of pliers.
My interest in Ray Bradbury waned in college, mostly because I wanted to discover other writers and not circle the same poor captives again and again. I also went through a bit of a Burn Your Idols phase. I realized that, much like the other writers I idolized, Bradbury wasn’t perfect. Not all of his stories hold up well to scrutiny decades later. Some of them are too-blatant transparent fictional veils of his own opinions regarding art and human behavior (“Sun and Shadow,” “The Watchful Poker Chip of H. Matisse”).
I also struggled with some of Bradbury’s opinions on things like technology and media, and I let those struggles dictate how I read his fiction, unfairly so. I remember reading the graphic novel adaptation of Fahrenheit 451 a year or two ago, which is actually a very faithful adaptation with wonderful art by Tim Hamilton. That said, I immediately put the book down during a monologue from a character disdaining movies and comic books for representing “dumbed down” tastes in audiences. It struck me as hypocritical at the time, having a comic book adaptation of a story that in part slams comic books. (I think I was too harsh, though; in retrospect, I think Bradbury merely objected to those mediums being used for insipid purposes. I have to admit to sympathizing with that view.) And I’ve never been as averse to technology has Bradbury has. I certainly don’t think it’s the heart of all that’s wrong with the world. I think technology only goes wrong so much as people let it go wrong.
While I was in my MFA program two years ago, though, I read the double-whammy of Zen in the Art of Writing and The Vintage Bradbury, after seeing the former on a list of required craft books on writing. Turns out I still loved Bradbury, even after all those years. His stories reminded me of what he did so wonderfully: capturing the essence of characters’ emotions and wiring them into the hearts of his readers, realizing that science fiction and fantasy could be a means of reaching people emotionally as well as intellectually. Reading his work with fresh eyes years later, I was struck by how intense and poetic his writing was. I wrote so many variations of “WOW!” off to the side while I took notes.
In reading his work again, something struck me: Ray Bradbury influenced me in ways I never gave credit for. At that time, I considered my holy trinity of writers to be Philip K. Dick, Jorge Luis Borges, and a revolving door most frequently strutted through by Harlan Ellison (my trinity has since undergone reconstruction into a pantheon). Reading Bradbury again made me feel like I’d discovered a long-lost grandfather. It never dawned on me until then that he may have been the true touchstone for me as a writer all along, bigger and more important than the people I thought were my biggest influences at the time. But it was evident, at that particular moment, looking at my writing and what I was doing, how much I was trying to be like him. I felt relieved to understand this, having discovered a lost branch of my heritage as a writer. More than that, I felt grateful.
And now I give thanks to Ray Bradbury, for being so patient all these years, waiting for my return and my realization that I carried his thumbprint all this time. I will carry it for a long time to come.