Ray Bradbury, The Space Age Prophet - by BRUCE STERLING
HE’S finally gone, at 91, the last titan of the era when sci-fi fandom was a way of life. The maestros of that tight world were Isaac Asimov, Arthur C. Clarke, Robert Heinlein — and Ray Bradbury. You had to put Bradbury in that rank, even though your mom read him in The Saturday Evening Post. That could get embarrassing for those of us in the sci-fi hard core.
His pedigree was impeccable, though. He came from “Lassfuss,” the Los Angeles Science Fantasy Society, a primeval caldron of sci-fi geek culture, founded in 1934. In my own caldron of Austin, our literary mentor, Chad Oliver, came to us from Lassfuss. He told how he and Bradbury and the “Twilight Zone” screenwriter Charles Beaumont would hunt for all-night burger joints, talking sci-fi until dawn.
It sounded so wondrous that we never understood that we were hearing a hard-times story. This was Depression-era California, and the real Bradbury was displaced from the Midwest to Hollywood, like a Steinbeck Okie, one of countless thousands who went West and inadvertently created a big chunk of postwar culture.
He was so poor that he used to borrow sci-fi magazines from kiosks, read and replace them. He wrote “Fahrenheit 451” on a coin-operated typewriter.
As Los Angeles boomed with aviation plants and TV aerials, he came into his own. Many writers in his world seemed men out of time and place, but there was no one better to speak for, and to, postwar California than Ray Bradbury.
He was always the bookworm fantasist, but never in the reclusive, shabby-genteel Lovecraft fashion. Despite his rough origins, or maybe because of them, he had the gift of easy gab. When rockets scraped the sky he was the space age prophet, authentic because he was unencumbered by authority, true because he was making everything up.
Bradbury’s basement office was his universe, crumbling pulp magazines, paperback originals, fantasy-movie memorabilia and similar Depression-kid comfort icons. And yet, as much a part of the culture as he was, he was also, always, outside of it, looking back. Eschewing that dominant school of geek-fantasy world-building where every elf has a butler and a serial number, he was deep into the daydreamy just-suppose.
For instance: just suppose that buildings are fireproof. What would firefighters (his beloved dead uncle was a firefighter) do? They’d set fire to things! They’d burn books! They’d burn culture, all the evidence that their absurd world was oppressive and unfit for humanity.
It’s easy to forget that Bradbury wrote a lot of horror stories, too. Having been through the Depression and war to emerge in the anonymity of postwar America, how could he not? An emptied world where the smart machinery grinds on, yakking inanely, as the mainstream consumers are nuclear blast shadows stenciled on the outside of their suburban home — a vision from a smiling guy in short pants who spoke reverently of Buck Rogers comics.
People elided his dark, mournful side, because his affect was so brisk and boisterous. He was the sharpest of social critics, but never mean-tempered, like Orwell or Huxley. He was, rather, like that other great portraitist of hard-life Middle America, Edward Hopper, painting horror with an affect of stillness, bleakness, loneliness, bereavement and deprivation.
He used to speak of a mystical experience: instead of attending a family funeral, he ran off to a carnival. He found a sideshow huckster named “Mr. Electrico,” who told him that he was not a 12-year-old but a reincarnated spirit. He hit him on the head with an electrical wand and told him to aspire to immortality.
If it sounds like a half-hour fantasy TV episode, it’s probably because Bradbury wrote so many of those, years later. But more important, it’s a metaphor for sci-fi as a way of life: departing a funereal mainstream culture to play techno-tricks with the tattooed sideshow weirdos.
But if that was Bradbury’s origin myth, it’s also what he became. Wine from dandelions, lowly yet highly evolved, borne by the wind into the last places you’d expect to find them blooming. Exotic, yet common as the soil.
Published in the New York Times on 8 June 2012