Gary K. Wolfe:
In the few days since his death, the myriad tributes to Ray Bradbury seem to have had one thing in common: a spontaneous eruption of very personal memories of first encountering Bradbury’s fiction, accompanied by an almost touching reluctance to move much beyond that moment of discovery in order to gain any sort of perspective on his overall career or influence. I felt it myself, finding surprisingly vivid memories of first encountering The Illustrated Man in a tattered Bantam paperback or — to this day — walking alone down a suburban street at night and occasionally glancing over my shoulder, wondering if the police were following me à la “The Pedestrian” (once they actually were, and asked me if my car had broken down — they could imagine no other reason for someone out walking at night). When I was on a radio program last week discussing Bradbury, all the callers had similar tales, about many different stories — “Ylla,” “There Will Come Soft Rains,” and of course Dandelion Wine and Fahrenheit 451, which seemed to generate the most comments. Bradbury seems to provoke a kind of visceral nostalgia that makes any effort to assess his place in science fiction or in literature almost irrelevant; he was at least as much a part of our personal histories as of literary and cultural history.
In one sense, though, it shouldn’t be difficult to assess his place at all: we’ve been doing it for about fifty years. It was exactly fifty years ago this month that Something Wicked This Way Comes was published, a novel that formed a significant watershed in Bradbury’s career and reputation. For nearly a decade readers had heard rumors of a major serious novel from Bradbury, not a fix-up of stories like The Martian Chronicles or Dandelion Wine nor an extended novella like Fahrenheit 451, important as those classics had been. But when it came it bore little relationship to the loosely imagined science fiction that had made Bradbury’s prior reputation, instead returning to the dark Gothic matter of the early stories that had been collected in Dark Carnival in 1947 and again in The October Country in 1955 (still my favorite Bradbury book). It would be more than twenty years before Bradbury would publish another adult novel, and by then he had turned his attention to murder mysteries. Short story collections continued to appear, some even including the occasional uncollected Martian story, but for the most part Bradbury had said his farewells to science fiction by the end of the 1950s.
And for the most part, his immediate influence within the genre was centered on the 1950s as well. Those writers who seemed most directly in the Bradbury tradition — Richard Matheson, Charles Beaumont, Rod Serling, and others — saw the bulk of their short-fiction careers in the ‘50s, and when Serling’s The Twilight Zone appeared at the end of that decade, it was awash in Bradbury sensibilities. It’s likely that nearly every science fiction, fantasy, or horror writer whose careers started later had internalized huge chunks of Bradbury (Dennis Etchison’s seminal 1982 collection The Dark Country is dedicated to him), and today we can ...read more