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Ray Bradbury: His Life and Work

Profiled by Galen Strickland
Posted October 18, 2000, with later edits

RIP: Ray Bradbury (1920-2012)

Born in Waukegan, Illinois, much of his work reflects the sensibilities of a small-town, Midwestern pastoral setting, even though the writer has been a resident of the Los Angeles area since his early teens. Another recurring theme in his work is that of the autumnal season, most especially the traditions surrounding Halloween, so it was almost inevitable that I would think about him at this time of the year. Perhaps best described as a fantasist, although many of his stories are closer to the horror genre than they are to traditional fantasy. He is probably more widely known for the SFnal The Martian Chronicles and Fahrenheit 451, and although I have seen references to him as an anti-technologist, he is still highly regarded by the majority of the SF community. This may have more to do with the lyrical quality of his prose rather than any scientific content - or lack thereof - in his stories.

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He began writing at an early age and was also an avid reader of the pulps. He and several of his close friends (Henry Kuttner, Ray Harryhausen, Forrest Ackerman) became active in SF fandom. Bradbury himself published his own fanzine - Futuria Fantasia - in which appeared some of his own stories and poems. His first professional sale came in 1941 with "Pendulum," a collaboration with Henry Hasse, an earlier version having appeared in his 'zine. UPDATE: You can now read the four issues of this 'zine, thanks to Project Gutenberg. They are available for download in several formats, for Kindle, Nook, or as HTML or plain text file.

The majority of his early stories appeared in Weird Tales, and many of them were featured in his first book collection Dark Carnival in 1947. He did produce infrequent SF tales, usually printed in either Thrilling Wonder Stories or Planet Stories. One of these, "The Million Year Picnic" from 1946 would later become the concluding chapter in his best known and most critically praised work. The Martian Chronicles is generally credited as being a novel but it is actually a collection of short stories, many of which were revised for book publication to create a more cohesive and thematically consistent tone. Most rely considerably on allegory and have as much to do with man's conquest of the North American continent and the subjugation of its original inhabitants as they do with a conquest of Mars. One of Bradbury's most macabre stories, "Usher II," was deleted from some subsequent reprints of this book, and even though it is a good story it is not a detriment to the book, as it originally had no connection to any of the other Martian stories. When it was later adapted for the television anthology series Ray Bradbury Theatre it was set on Earth rather than Mars. Thanks to the success of The Martian Chronicles, Bradbury became the second of the genre writers (following Robert A. Heinlein) to gain acceptance with many of the "slick" fiction magazines, such as Colliers, The Saturday Evening Post, and Esquire, and hardly a handful of any of his later stories were published in the regular SF magazines.

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Bradbury's next book, Fahrenheit 451 (1953), was an expanded version of "The Fireman" published in Galaxy Science Fiction in 1951. [UPDATE: Full review here.] Although embraced by the SF community, this book has more in common with two classics of mainstream literature by Aldous Huxley (Brave New World) and George Orwell (Nineteen Eighty-Four) than it does with any other genre works. It relates the tale of a dystopian future where firemen burn books because the government has decreed that ideas are dangerous. The hero questions the validity of this concept when he meets and falls in love with a woman who secretly reads her collection of hoarded books. He must flee his superiors and is rescued by a band of book "memorizers" whose goal is to preserve as much of literature's legacy as possible for a future day when the books can be reprinted. Even though he has published upwards of 400 other stories, novels, poems, and plays, these two books alone qualify Bradbury as one of the finest and most beloved writers of the 20th Century.

Even though I have read more straight science fiction than fantasy, Bradbury remains one of my favorite authors due to his magical prose which has the ability to transport his readers into his otherworldly scenarios. This talent was never more evident than in two of his classic novels of small-town life, Dandelion Wine (1957) and Something Wicked This Way Comes (1962). The former (again a compilation of previously published short stories) is not a fantasy at all in the strictest sense of the word, but rather a straight-forward tale - possibly somewhat autobiographical - relating the adventures in one year of the lives of its youthful protagonists. The only elements of the story that verge on the realm of fantasy are the boys' frequent games of make-believe, as well as a haunting passage concerning the supposed danger that lurks in a wooded gorge that separates two areas of the town. On the other hand, Something Wicked This Way Comes is a gothic fantasy of horror, fear, temptation, and redemption, and is my favorite Bradbury work. The classic tradition of the devil incarnate in search of souls to ensnare is utilized to great effect, along with the recurring theme of the desire for remaining young in spirit while at the same time yearning for the forbidden fruits of maturity. Another of his fantasies which has been recently reprinted is also a perfect compliment to these two stories. The Halloween Tree is among the very few of his tales written specifically as a juvenile work. All the myriad ways the world commemorates All Hallow's Eve are explored during a boy's long night's search for the spirit of his best friend who lies near death.

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All during the '50s and early '60s, Bradbury continued to write the short stories which have solidified his reputation. He also established a tenuous relationship with Hollywood, providing the screen treatment for what was to become It Came from Outer Space, and his short story "The Foghorn" was loosely (very loosely) adapted into the screenplay for The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms. His most prestigious screenplay came in 1956 for the John Huston directed version of Moby Dick. Location photography for this production was in Ireland and this experience influenced quite a few of Bradbury's subsequent stories, including "Banshee," "The Finnegan," and "McGillahee's Brat." Television has also been the showcase for many a Bradbury story, most notably on Alfred Hitchcock Presents and The Twilight Zone, along with the mid-'80s Ray Bradbury Theatre, for which he provided all of the teleplays. There have been several unproduced Bradbury screenplays, most notably for White Hunter, Black Heart (the film eventually produced and directed by Clint Eastwood was based on a script by the original novelist Peter Viertel), and his own The Martian Chronicles, on which he has labored on at least three separate occasions (1961 for MGM, 1964 - again for MGM, with another version currently in about the tenth rewrite according to the author). The 1980 NBC miniseries of this story was filmed from a script by Bradbury's friend and fellow SF author Richard Matheson.

Bradbury has also written an extensive number of plays, many of which have been produced for the stage and/or television, as well as being available in book form. The best of these include "The Anthem Sprinters," "Pillar of Fire," and "The Wonderful Ice Cream Suit." Another, "The Day it Rained Forever," began as a short story and has also been adapted as a musical play. He has published much poetry too, and these have been collected in book form in When Elephants Last in the Dooryard Bloomed (1973), Where Robot Mice and Robot Men Run 'Round in Robot Towns (1977), and The Haunted Computer and the Android Pope (1981) among others. But it is still for his many short stories that Bradbury remains best known, and there have been many collections showcasing them.

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As with Harlan Ellison, there have been many Bradbury stories that have seen print multiple times in various collections and anthologies. For example, all but four of the stories in his third collection, The October Country (1955) had previously been printed in his first, Dark Carnival (1947). His second collection, The Illustrated Man (1951), was comprised of stories previously printed in various periodicals that had been revised and tied together with additional connecting passages. Two collections - The Golden Apples of the Sun (1953) and A Medicine for Melancholy (1959) - were later combined in an edition titled Twice Twenty-Two. The majority of the contents of these two books would surface again in 1990 with the publication of a two-volume set. Classic Stories, Volume One contained all but five of the stories from The Golden Apples of the Sun and the later R is for Rocket (1962), and Volume II included four of those five deleted stories along with those from A Medicine for Melancholy and S is for Space (1966). To add to the confusion, most of the stories in R is for Rocket and S is for Space had appeared in even earlier collections. Others which primarily featured previously uncollected stories include The Machineries of Joy (1964), I Sing the Body Electric (1969), Long After Midnight (originally 1976, with a new edition due November, 2002), and The Toynbee Convector (1988). And if I haven't already totally confused you, I have to mention two other titles whose contents were all stories that had been collected before. The Vintage Bradbury (1965) was at that time the most comprehensive overview of his career, with all of the stories selected by Bradbury himself, but it was eventually superceded by the massive The Stories of Ray Bradbury (1980). This is an even better collection than the later two-volume Classic Stories set, and would get my recommendation as the perfect one book to have of any of Bradbury's work. [That is, until his most recent career-spanning retrospective was released - Bradbury Stories-100 of his Most Celebrated Tales.

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Beginning in the early '80s Bradbury returned to another genre for which he had always had a passion, that of mysteries. Most of his short stories from this period appear in the collections A Memory of Murder (1984) and Quicker Than the Eye (1996). His novel Death Is a Lonely Business (1985) was dedicated to four of the icons of the hard-boiled detective genre - Raymond Chandler, Dashiell Hammett, James M. Cain, and Ross Macdonald. This was followed in 1990 by a sequel, A Graveyard for Lunatics, and both included a character which is a thinly-disguised version of the writer himself as a young man new to Los Angeles and to the writing profession. Both of these novels should be of interest to fans of Bradbury's SF work, as they exhibit much the same style and masterful use of metaphor, with the canals of Venice, California perhaps standing in for those of the fictional Mars.

In recent years Bradbury has turned more and more to non-fiction to express his hopes and dreams for the future. A collection of his essays has been published as Yestermorrow: Obvious Answers to Impossible Futures (1991), and others on the craft of writing have been collected in Zen in the Art of Writing (1990). He has also utilized his visionary talent as a consultant to the Los Angeles architectural firm of the Jon Jerde Partnership, which has so far resulted in the construction of the Westside Pavilion in Los Angeles and San Diego's Horton Plaza. Bradbury has also been instrumental in the formative plans for a proposed city to be built near Tokyo sometime early in the 21st Century.

Even though he has suffered through various ailments in recent years, including a minor stroke, Bradbury has recovered sufficiently to continue writing, recently releasing From the Dust Returned: A Family Remembrance, in which he revisits Uncle Einar and others of the eerie Elliot clan first encountered in The October Country. There is also another novel in the editing phase at the current time, another story collection, and two more volumes of poetry on the way.

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[UPDATE: The collection One More for the Road has recently been released, along with what I presume to be a mystery novel, Let's All Kill Constance.]

Also, it seems as if the highly anticipated screenplay of The Martian Chronicles is nearer to production. Frank Darabount (The Shawshank Redemption, The Green Mile) is slated to direct it, right after he completes an updated version of Fahrenheit 451, which he inherited from the procrastinating Mel Gibson. [Unfortunately, both of those seem to be stuck in development hell.]

The SF community has never forgotten Bradbury's humble beginnings among their ranks, and in 1989 honored him with their Nebula Grand Master award. He also recently received a Lifetime Achievement Award from the National Book Foundation. He is regarded by many critics as a major literary figure, and even though his SF contributions are relatively minor compared with his total output, his work has much to do with the proposition that SF should no longer be considered a genre ghetto.

Sad, sad news. Ray Douglas Bradbury passed away on June 5, 2012, a little more than two months shy of his 92nd birthday. But he had a long and prosperous life, and has left us with a mountain of brilliant prose and verse. Long may he be read and remembered, for we shall not see his like again.


Related Links:
My review of Fahrenheit 451
Several reviews at spaceagecity.com
A study guide to The Martian Chronicles
Bradbury's bilbliography at fantasticfiction.com


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August 22, 1920
Waukegan, Illinois

June 5, 2012

Official Website

WFA Lifetime Achievement (1977)

SFWA Grand Master (1989)

SF Hall of Fame (1999)

Bram Stoker (2003, One More For The Road)

Retro Hugo (2004, Fahrenheit 451)

+ many mainstream literary awards