If you could study the mind of any lifelong, dedicated reader, I bet you would find an early encounter with the stories of Ray Bradbury way back there in the intellectual DNA. Mention his name to a member of that happy clan and you’ll see a little spark in the eyes that suggests memories of winter landscapes briefly turned to summer by a rocket launch, stained glass windows with colors that reveal alternate universes, mechanized houses kept spotlessly clean for occupants who will never return, and foghorns visited by lonely dinosaurs. Ray Bradbury, who just died at 91, was a magician, and anyone who encountered him at the right age was forever marked.
I couldn’t imagine my crucial reading years without him. Talk about happy accidents! I came to his work by way of Francois Truffaut’s bungled film version of Fahrenheit 451, which was shown on television quite often while I was a boy obsessed with monsters and science fiction. (I can only imagine what Bradbury, a lifelong technophobe who despised TV, would have made of that connection.) After reading the novel I came across the story collection The October Country, and fell into Bradbury’s alternate universe, an idealized but not entirely benign small-town Midwest where the colors were a little brighter and the shadows a little darker. I snapped up other titles in short order: The Golden Apples of the Sun, The Martian Chronicles, The Illustrated Man, S Is For Space. Though the novels Dandelion Wine and Something Wicked This Way Comes have their admirers, I always thought Bradbury (like Hemingway, a key influence) worked best in short forms. The magic was most effective in concentrated doses.
Bradbury lived a long happy life, with no shortage of admirers (some of whom probably startled him a bit), and he kept writing up to the end. Thanks to early praise from literary heavyweights, he spent his career outside the “Sci-Fi Guy” corral that penned in so many other writers. Bradbury himself preferred to call his work fantasy, but that didn’t keep him out of The Science Fiction Hall of Fame, and he was one of the first writers honored by The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction in its series of tribute issues.
Appropriately for a writer, Bradbury penned his own best epitaph, in the 2005 collection Bradbury Speaks:
In my later years I have looked in the mirror each day and found a happy person staring back. Occasionally I wonder why I can be so happy. The answer is that every day of my life I’ve worked only for myself and for the joy that comes from writing and creating. The image in my mirror is not optimistic, but the result of optimal behavior.
ADDENDUM: President Obama pays tribute to Ray Bradbury.