Fairy Tales about the Modern World

Fairy Tales about the Modern World
This is the first of two installments of memorial tributes to Ray Bradbury, who died on June 5, produced by major critics and authors in the science fiction and fantasy field. The second will be posted tomorrow.


Jonathan R. Eller:

Ray Bradbury was a child of the Midwest, a small-town dreamer who was determined to become a writer from the age of twelve. He realized these dreams in Los Angeles, where his parents found a new life in 1934, the fifth year of the Great Depression. Ray turned fourteen that summer, and went on to graduate from Los Angeles High School in 1938. But the core of his education came from library books; he would spend his long life celebrating the written word, and safeguarding the books and libraries that define us and our values.

He hated intolerance and those who deny the existence of intolerance. He was not afraid to write about and condemn the evils of prejudice and racial inequality at a time when such stories were hard to publish in America. In 1953, his tales about societies that destroy the precious gifts of imagination and creativity by destroying books culminated in Fahrenheit 451, a modern classic that, more than any other book, has come to symbolize the importance of preserving literacy and literature in an age dominated by multimedia entertainments.

Ray Bradbury's enduring early story collections and novels, often transcending genre boundaries, have remained in print for more than half a century. Aldous Huxley called him a prose poet, recognizing his rich metaphorical language and lyric style. Four generations of school children have read his stories; many of today's astronauts and scientists first turned their eyes to the skies after reading The Martian Chronicles and such stories as "R is for Rocket" and "The Golden Apples of the Sun."

All his life Ray Bradbury firmly believed that humanity is destined to reach the stars. He would often tell students that his job was "to find the metaphor that explains the Space Age, and along the way to write stories." Above all, he celebrated the celestial grandeur of the Cosmos, and called us all to consider our place in it. In June 2000, he urged Caltech's graduating class "to witness, to celebrate, and to be part of this universe ... you're here one time, you're not coming back. And you owe, don't you? You owe back for the gift of life."

He had a compelling cosmic vision, but he always kept his feet firmly planted on Planet Earth. He often wrote about the people in his life, giving many of them a form of immortality through his fiction. In Dandelion Wine, he gave his great-grandmother everyday words to describe life's great genetic triumph over death: "I'm not really dying today. No person ever died that had a family. I'll be around a long time. A thousand years from now a whole township of my offspring will be biting sour apples in the gumwood shade. That's my answer to anyone [who] asks big questions." With these words the ninety-year-old matriarch slowly resumes the eternal dream she had left for the briefest moment — just the flicker of an eye — on the day she was born.

Throughout his long career, Ray Bradbury's poetic and metaphor-rich style reflected his abiding conviction that emotional truth is far more important than genre conventions. He made this clear in the first fiction anthology he ever edited, 1952's Timeless Stories for Today and Tomorrow: "I have had nothing but my emotions to go on.... I am compensated by allowing myself to believe that while the scientific man can tell you the exact size, location, pulse, musculature and color of the heart, we emotionalists can find and touch it quicker." The heart may now be stilled, but its metaphorical legacy lives on.


Neil Gaiman:

Reprinted from The Guardian (June 6, 2012)

Yesterday afternoon I was in a studio recording an audiobook version of a short story I had written for Ray Bradbury's 90th birthday. It's a monologue called "The Man Who Forgot Ray Bradbury," and it was a way of talking about the impact that Ray Bradbury had on me as a boy, and as an adult, and, as far as I could, about what he had done to the world. And I wrote it last year as a love letter and as a thank you and as a birthday present for an author who made me dream, taught me about words and what they could accomplish, and who never let me down as a reader or as a person as I grew up.

Last week, at dinner, a friend told me that when he was a boy of eleven or twelve, he met Ray Bradbury. When Bradbury found out that he wanted to be a writer, he invited him to his office and spent half a day telling him the important stuff: if you want to be a writer, you have to write. Every day. Whether you feel like it or not. That you can't write one book and stop. That it's work, but the best kind of work. My friend grew up to be a writer, the kind who writes and supports himself through writing.

Ray Bradbury was the kind of person who would give half a day to a kid who wanted to be a writer when he grew up.

I encountered Ray Bradbury's stories as a boy. The first one I read was "Homecoming," about a human child in a world of Addams Family-style monsters, who wanted to fit in. It was the first time anyone had ever written a story that spoke to me personally. There was a copy of The Silver Locusts (the UK title of The Martian Chronicles) knocking about my house. I read it, loved it, and bought all the Bradbury books I could from the traveling bookshop that set up once a term in my school. I learned about Poe from Bradbury. There was poetry in the short stories, and it didn't matter that I was missing so much as a boy: what I took from the stories was enough.

Some authors I read and loved as a boy disappointed me as I aged. Bradbury never did. His horror stories remained as chilling, his dark fantasies as darkly fantastic, his science fiction (he never cared about the science, only about the people, which was why the stories worked so well) as much of an exploration of the sense of wonder, as they had when I was a child.

He was a good writer, and he wrote well in many disciplines. He was one of the first SF writers to escape the pulp magazines and to be published in slicks like Collier's and The Saturday Evening Post. He wrote scripts for Hollywood films. Good films were made from his novels and stories. Long before I was a writer, Bradbury was one of the writers that other writers aspired to become. And none of them ever did.

A Ray Bradbury story meant something on its own — it told you nothing about what the story would be about, but it told you about atmosphere, about language, about some sort of magic escaping into the world. Death is a Lonely Business, his detective novel, is as much a Bradbury story as Something Wicked This Way Comes or Fahrenheit 451 or any of the horror, or science fiction, or magical realism, or realism you'll find in the short story collections. He was a genre on his own, and on his own terms. A young man from Waukegan, Illinois, who went to Los Angeles, educated himself in libraries, and wrote until he got good, then transcended genre and became a genre of one; often emulated, absolutely inimitable.

I met him first when I was a young writer and he was in the UK for his 70th birthday celebrations, held at the Natural History Museum. We became friends in an odd, upside-down way, sitting beside each other at book-signings, at events. I would be there when Ray spoke in public over the years. Sometimes I'd introduce him to the audience. I was the master of ceremonies when Ray was given his grand master award, by the Science Fiction Writers of America: he told them about a child he had watched, teased by his friends for wanting to enter a toyshop because they said it was too young for him, and how much Ray had wanted to persuade the child to ignore his friends and play with the toys.

He'd speak about the practicalities of a writer's life ("You have to write!" he would tell people. "You have to write every day! I still write every day!") and about being a child inside (he said he had a photographic memory, going back to babyhood, and perhaps he did), about joy, about love.

He was kind, and gentle, with that Midwestern niceness that's a positive thing rather than an absence of character. He was enthusiastic, and it seemed that that enthusiasm would keep him going forever. He genuinely liked people. He left the world a better place, and left better places in it: the red sands and canals of Mars, the Midwestern Halloweens and small towns and dark carnivals. And he kept writing.

"Looking back over a lifetime, you see that love was the answer to everything," Ray said once, in an interview. He gave people so many reasons to love him. And we did.


Robin Anne Reid:

I was in my office on June 6, 2012, when Liz Goodwin at Yahoo!News called me to ask if I had a comment on Ray Bradbury's death. I had not heard the news. My first response was: "The universe is a little emptier right now."

His work is still with us: his novels, short stories, plays, screenplays, and poetry, as well as essays, essays which were among the first things I read that told me I could be a writer. His joy in writing, his joy in talking about his writing, the joy that I see as a part of his writing carried over into other endeavors such as his work as a design consultant for the World's Fair and for Disney World. His work has been recognized by every possible award and honor from writer's organizations dedicated to fantasy, horror, and science fiction, as well as from film associations, including Emmys and an Oscar nomination. But the honor that is dearest to my heart, and I think must have been important to him, is the Apollo 15's crew naming a crater on the moon "Dandelion Crater" in 1971.

I read constantly as a child, in any genre I could get my hands on, but science fiction and fantasy has always been closest to my heart. Bradbury was important to me, both as a child and an adult. His stories about childhood are some of the most scarily accurate of any I've read. I do not know if I love his work because I love libraries, the physical spaces of them, the feel of the books around me, the smells of print and bindings, the buzz of all that thought, or if I came to love libraries because of how he wrote about them. When I was an undergraduate English major, I could point to his work in the 1970s as proof that yes, indeed, SF/F could produce "real" literature — i.e., stylistically complex and dense prose that could bear up well under academic scrutiny. Finally, he is one of several authors, along with J.R.R. Tolkien and Joanna Russ, whose writing made me want to write, and who gave me the space to stand outside general condemnation of SF/F as trash genres by some in academia and in intellectual circles.

The book most cited as his most important is Fahrenheit 451. It was chosen for the National Endowment of the Arts 2012 "Big Read" Program, and I was lucky enough to be asked to give a talk on Bradbury, and the novel, in San Angelo, Texas, at the Tom Green Public Library in fall 2011. That talk gave me the chance to revisit not only this novel but his other work. F451 is the poster child for the American Library Association's Banned Book Weeks, and I've often presented on it, and the 1966 François Truffaut adaptation of it (which Bradbury said was his favorite of all the adaptations of his work)

F451 is my favorite dystopian novel (odd as that may sound!), but it's actually not my favorite Bradbury: Dandelion Wine and Something Wicked This Way Comes are. I re-read them regularly, each in the appropriate month (June and October, respectively). I admire F451, however, because it is unique, standing out in important ways from his fantasy (both dark and light) and science fiction (especially the Martian Chronicles) — although there are overarching themes many of his works share. The novel has been in print continuously since its 1953 publication, and is widely taught, and has been adapted multiple times. I'd place it with Arthur Miller's drama The Crucible as one of the most important artistic responses to major political and ideological debates in the United States. Additionally, I see the novel as even more relevant today, especially in the light of the current and ongoing attempts by Arizona politicians to censor Mexican-American curricula and authors in Tucson schools. The image of school employees going into classrooms during the day and taking books away from children could have been torn straight from F451; the official story is that the books are stored, not burned, but I'm not sure the effect is any different.

Ray Bradbury was not only a published author; his roots were deep in SF fandom (true for many of his generation). He was a founding member of the Los Angeles Science Fiction League along with Forrest J. Ackerman and Ray Harryhausen. He participated in the culture of urban American SF fandom, which allowed for ongoing interactions between fans and writers, with many fans publishing first in the amateur 'zines, then submitting to the so-called "prozines" (i.e., professional magazines). Bradbury's writing life reflects that movement of fan to published author. He published in fanzines, and started his own in 1939. He went to a writing workshop run by Robert A. Heinlein, and then collaborated with Leigh Brackett. Bradbury was the first science fiction writer who broke into the higher-paying "slick" magazines (printed on better quality paper, perceived to publish better quality literary works, and paying more money, than did the genre pulps where he began publishing).

He began publishing when he was 15, and was actively working and publishing throughout his life. The power of his creative works are important to remember, but one of the things that is most important to me is his belief that anybody could write, and should write, and that writing should become a part of daily life: I try to teach my students that philosophy in every creative writing class I teach. It has become such a foundation in my own life that I did not often credit Bradbury with it. I am glad to have this opportunity to thank him for it.


William F. Touponce:

In the 1950s, when he first became influential and widely known in America and Europe, Ray Bradbury believed that we now live in an Age of Information, where facts replace facts at an alarming speed in our minds, destroying the roots of any coherent experience. Experience itself, he felt, had been narrowed down by our technological civilization to what was thought important: scientific knowledge expressed in facts. People no longer had or took the time to find powerful metaphors — their own or discovered in the writings of others — to express their inner emotional lives, which were largely being replaced by the products of the entertainment industry. They felt no need for authentic poetry.

This in summary is the dire situation to be found in Fahrenheit 451, Bradbury's most famous book, which he insisted is not really about censorship at all but rather about the effects of mass culture (i.e., television) on people. At several points in the story, Bradbury evokes a pervasive melancholy among the citizens of this future world (interpreted in Truffaut's 1966 film as a kind of narcissism). People no longer seem capable of experiencing anything deeply. In the opening pages, the protagonist Montag is given a dandelion test by his teenage neighbor, Clarisse, to see if he is in love. He's not. The turning point of the book comes about when Montag the fireman, in an open act of rebellion, switches off the wall-sized telescreen and reads from Matthew Arnold's "Dover Beach" to a group of numb people — who suddenly, because of the effect of the poem's powerful figurations of war, ignorant armies, and the melancholy withdrawal of faith and love from the world, begin to remember their feelings and their pain, and a bit of the trauma of their recent history (since Bradbury so thoroughly personifies books in Fahrenheit 451, the burning of books can be understood as a kind of holocaust). Bradbury obviously felt that there was something important for our survival as human beings in the slow reading of books, and in examining an author's unique figures of expression.

In one way or another, in everything he wrote, in whatever genre he wrote in, from The Martian Chronicles to Dandelion Wine and especially in his many short story collections, Bradbury engaged in an attempt to recover and preserve some of the richness of human experience. He sought to broaden and indeed reinvent the wonder and terror of modern experience in an age that sought to narrow it. In the introduction to his own 1952 collection of modern fantasy, Timeless Stories for Today and Tomorrow, Bradbury characterized himself simply as an "emotionalist," unfortunately risking being misunderstood as an anti-intellectual. Later on in his career he described himself as a storyteller who wrote fairy tales about the modern world, which is a closer formulation of his talent and lyrical appeal. But I think that these two self-descriptions taken together provide a clear indication of what Bradbury's legacy is and will continue to be. Bradbury has written hundreds of emotionally charged stories that give a shape and a name to feelings that are on the wane, feelings that go much deeper and are much more nuanced than simple nostalgia and sentimentality, of which he is sometimes accused.

Consider "Hail and Farewell" (collected in The Golden Apples of the Sun), which is among my personal favorites. It tells of a young boy of twelve who is immortal and never ages in appearance, of his moving on from town to town and from family to family where there is need of a child, until the unsuspecting parents discover his true nature, and he must move on again. The story deals with the emotional problems of containing the old man of experience within the young boy's body, and with the difficulty of always having to make an end of happiness and then to begin again somewhere else, somewhere new. This particular story alludes not to the common dandelion, but to Wordsworth's poem about the daffodils as a metaphor for the paradoxes of innocence and experience.

One can take this story to be a kind of parable indicating how Bradbury's stories in general will travel and will survive. Living on throughout the world in whatever language they are encountered, they will help people give a shape and a name to the finer emotions that are disappearing in the continuing crisis of experience. In modernity there is no permanent happiness or sadness, the story reveals, but there may be a certain immortality to be found in the aesthetic moment. That is beautifully done, Mr. Bradbury. Hail and Farewell.

Recommended Reading:

LARB Contributors

William F. Touponce is Professor of English at Indiana University (Indianapolis), in the Institute for American Thought. He is the author of several critical studies on science fiction authors (including Frank Herbert and Isaac Asimov, in addition to three books on Ray Bradbury) and is editor of The New Ray Bradbury Review, published by Kent State University Press. In 2007 he co-founded The Center for Ray Bradbury Studies, establishing the Review and then The Collected Stories of Ray Bradbury (the first volume of which was released in 2010) as ongoing collaborative scholarly projects concerned with the legacy of Bradbury's writings. He is currently writing for The Scarecrow Press a study of the tradition of storytelling in modern fantasy in the works of Lord Dunsany, H.P. Lovecraft, Bradbury, and Thomas Ligotti.     


Robin Anne Reid is a Professor of Literature and Languages at Texas A&M University-Commerce where she teaches creative writing, critical theory, and as much science fiction and fantasy as she can. Her publications include poetry, critical introductions to Arthur C. Clarke and Ray Bradbury (both from Greenwood Press), and the first encyclopedia on women in science fiction and fantasy. Since her geologist father introduced her to SF/F in the early 1960s, she's been a reader and a fan. Bradbury and Tolkien were two of the earliest influences on her scholarship, her creative work (especially her poetry), and her love for teaching creative writing, which she has done for nearly twenty years.


Neil Gaiman is a major author of fantasy and science fiction in multiple media. His 2001 novel American Gods won both Hugo and Nebula Awards, and his comic book series The Sandman ran for 75 issues from 1989 until 1996. He has also written for film and television, including scripting the 1996 BBC series Neverwhere, as well as episodes of Babylon 5, Doctor Who, and The Simpsons.

Jonathan R. Eller is Professor of English, Director of the Center for Ray Bradbury Studies, and Senior Textual Editor of the Institute for American Thought at Indiana University. He co-founded the Bradbury Center within the Institute for American Thought in 2007, and became the Center's director in August 2011.

In 1993 Eller retired from a twenty-year Air Force career. Since 2000 he has edited or co-edited several limited press editions of Ray Bradbury's fiction, including The Halloween Tree in 2005, Dandelion Wine in 2007, and two collections of stories and precursors related to Bradbury's publication of Fahrenheit 451 in 1953: Match to Flame (2006) and A Pleasure to Burn (2010). In 2004 he co-authored (with William F. Touponce) Ray Bradbury: The Life of Fiction. Eller's most recent book, Becoming Ray Bradbury (2011), centers on Bradbury's early life and development as a writer. He is presently working on a companion volume focusing on the middle decades of Bradbury's career and his rise to cultural prominence.



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