Like many, I was saddened to hear of Ray Bradbury’s death yesterday. Yes, he was 91 years old, which is a pretty decent run, and inasmuch as I don’t know anything about his personal life, he seemed to have led a full one. He certainly wrote a lot of great books that touched countless readers, influenced a lot of writers, and represented science fiction and fantasy at its very best–and will continue to do so for a long time to come, possibly for as long as print exists in some form and there are people to read it. That’s an incredible gift to leave us, and I’m forever grateful.
The URL of that NY Times article I linked above calls him a “popularizer of science fiction,” which at some point must have been changed to “master of science fiction” for the web metatext, because it doesn’t appear anywhere in the article; whether someone takes offense at this description or not, he did accomplish that. There weren’t many science fiction authors being taught in school when I was a kid, but Fahrenheit 451 was required reading in junior high school.
I never met Bradbury, so I don’t have a lot to add to the chorus of recollections of those who encountered him in person at one time or another. I wish I had, but I know I would have been awkward and starstruck. But I suspect we all still have very personal memories of his books and our relationship to them.
I vividly recall one day in middle school discovering a waterlogged book in the stairwell, resting on top of a warm radiator. I was late for class and in a hurry, but I stopped anyway, because it was a free book. It was a rainy day, so I imagined that it had been left outside and someone brought it in, and abandoned it there for some reason. I examined the drenched cover and discovered it was a science fiction book: The Martian Chronicles by Ray Bradbury. Score. I didn’t know who it belonged to and I didn’t think any class at my Catholic school would be teaching it, so I claimed it. I wanted to flip through it right away, and tried to, but the pulpy pages were stuck together and I didn’t want to damage them so I had to wait impatiently while it dried on my radiator at home.
When it was finally dry, the pages were rough and warped and the mass market paperback was about twice as thick as before, but it was legible–and more than readable, because I breezed through it from worn cover to cover. I had never encountered anything like it, and honestly, probably didn’t understand or appreciate it half as much as it deserves. It was the first novel of linked stories I had read (without even knowing that’s what it was), and other than short stories and excerpts in English classes over the years, it was probably my first real exposure to science fiction short stories. It has been a long time since I last read it, but I still think about it surprisingly often–mostly disconnected images, which still somehow have a lot of feelings tangled up with them. I remember the book as an experience rather than for its specific stories, but I know I loved those too.
The other day, I was browsing the Harvard Book Store and I encountered Farewell Summer, the sequel to Dandelion Wine, which I somehow didn’t know had been published. I found it comforting though that he was still publishing books and stories and essays, which is why I was dismayed by his death. It isn’t that he didn’t lead a good, long, productive life, but that we can’t look forward to new work from him. There will never be another Ray Bradbury. But it also happens that I haven’t yet read every one of his novels or short stories. (I was actually more familiar with his work from The Ray Bradbury Theater, which I loved since I am such a Twilight Zone fan.) So I will keep on reading and rereading him for a good long time–starting with his recent essay in the New Yorker, which I still haven’t gotten to–and I’ll keep on writing, because damn, I have some catching up to do.