Ray Bradbury's Visions
The end came Tuesday night, as Venus was transiting the sun. Ray Bradbury wrote several stories about Venus, depicting it as a world of constant rain. He was 91.
I ran into my first full-on collection of Bradbury stories at age 11. They were from "The Illustrated Man." At the summer camp I attended, the counselors would read to the campers in their tents and cabins, just before we turned in. Bradbury's stories were perfect for a bunch of boys just figuring out the world: dark, brooding and weird. The nighttime sounds of the woods outside seemed a perfect counterpoint.
"The Veldt," "Kaleidescope" and "The Long Rain" were three I remember keeping me awake at night, trying to see the sky through the top of the tent, thinking about other worlds and the crazy things the future might bring.
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I was already a science fiction kid, having been exposed to Asimov and Heinlein. They were realists, of a sort, like representational painting. (Many Asimov novels are essentially police procedurals.) Bradbury was a Dali or Picasso, twisting the real into new shapes that revealed what was under the surface.
The science fiction addiction never left me. It's a big reason I became a science student and eventually a science writer. When I read "The Martian Chronicles," the Viking missions were only a few years in the past; Bradbury's visions of a race of people in an older, greater civilization made me hungry for what might be on other planets, even if the aliens weren't there.
Bradbury didn't always get technology right -– few science fiction writers ever do -– but he understood that the technology itself was never the point. It's what people do with it. He got the spirit, even if the technical details were wrong.
"The Veldt" is a good example. Long before "virtual reality" became a buzzword, Bradbury asked what we might do with such a sophisticated technology. He was, at the time, simply extending the capabilities of television — a medium he would write for just a few years later. But he asked a salient question about how we interact with it: At what point do we let the media (a computer that runs the virtual reality simulation) take over parenting? That's something many parents contend with now.
Both "The Veldt" and "August, 2026: There Will Come Soft Rains" involve automated homes. The automatic house was a staple of 1950s visions of the future, even if we don't have robots making us breakfast yet. But we do have Roomba robots vacuuming the floors (perhaps a bit more practical than the robotic mice he envisioned). And the voice-activated system that runs the house in the story bears an eerie resemblance to Siri.
Passenger rockets to Mars, of course, never happened, and he was wrong about Venus, too. However, we are seeing the beginnings of passenger rockets to the moon. He might have hit a bit too close to the mark in "Fahrenheit 451," though. The "seashell radio" bears a too-close resemblance to an iPod or Bluetooth headset (or, when I first read it, a pocket earphone radio). The audience-participation soap opera seems an awful lot like reality TV and interactive video games, which now have plotlines as deep as any novel. And while we don't burn books, the sheer pervasiveness of advertising and media is something he did get right. He also showed the alienation and loneliness that can result from engaging only with our virtual friends to the exclusion of all else. Facebook, anyone?
Bradbury never considered himself a science fiction author, even though he wrote two of the most famous books in the genre and was inspired by Buck Rogers and published his first fiction in science fiction fanzines. He was hardly a technophobe; he supported the space program and wrote about the possibilities of robots ("I Sing the Body Electric"). As he put it in 1999, "I don't write science fiction. I've only done one science fiction book and that's Fahrenheit 451, based on reality. Science fiction is a depiction of the real. Fantasy is a depiction of the unreal."
Even so, he could be tough on technology, even curmudgeonly. The man was reluctant to release electronic versions of his books because he felt it was a bit too much like the dystopian world he created in "Fahrenheit 451." (He relented, eventually).
There's one thing Bradbury introduced me to that I'll never forget. "Dandelion Wine" isn't science fiction, but a chronicle of 12-year-old Douglas Spaulding's summer in Green Town, Ill., a fictionalized version of Bradbury's native Waukegan. I first read it as a teenager, not much older than Douglas himself.
That book showed me the kind of writing I wanted to do, and I'll close with the end of it:
June dawns, July noons, August evenings over, finished, done, and gone forever with only the sense of it all left here in his head. Now a whole autumn, a white winter, a cool and greening spring to figure sums and totals of summer past. And if he should forget, the dandelion wine stood in the cellar, numbered huge for each and every day. He would go there often, stare straight into the sun until he could stare more, then close his eyes and consider the burned spots, the fleeting scars left dancing on his warm eyelids; arranging, rearranging each fire and reflection until the pattern was clear … So thinking, he slept. And sleeping, put an end to summer, 1928.
As fitting an epitaph as any to a great writer's life. Thanks, Ray.