10th September 2012 - Sean O'Conor
Sean O'Conor from our Royal Festival Hall branch pays tribute to the late Ray Bradbury, the writer who first kindled his love of reading and who never accepted the label of science fiction for his work.
Ray Bradbury, who died this summer aged 92, was the first writer I got excited about.
As many a parent wails to us in Foyles about their male offspring, boys can be stubbornly hard to get interested in reading, and the love of books is one which is normally passed down the family line via its women.
I don't have children so I cannot say for sure, but it must be wonderful to see your child enthusiastic about a writer. I don't remember the first time my mother read Bradbury to me but she often used to when I was off school sick, which was regularly, so I ended up devouring his novels and short stories, doubtless to her approval.
Opening a collection of his was an adventure for me. I was plunged into dark and wondrous worlds, navigating by pulsing storylines which carried you through the fear and thrills to safety and the light of day, much like a ride on a ghost train.
It was in an Illinois fairground in 1932 where the young Bradbury was handed his muse of sci-fi(re) in dramatic fashion by a travelling act called Mr Electrico, who anointed his head with his wired-up sword and shouted "Live Forever!", causing his hair to stand on end.
"I felt that something strange and wonderful had happened to me," Bradbury recalled 70 years later. "Mr Electrico gave me a future... I have written every single day of my life since."
Two years later his head was filled with awe from the Chicago 1934 World's Fair, planting many an idea which bore fruit in his writing. He was impressively self-taught and had no higher education, another example of raw talent flourishing despite a negative environment, in his case a poor upbringing during the Depression.
"Libraries raised me," he explained. "I don't believe in colleges and universities... a very bad place for writers because the teachers always think they know more than you do and they don't."
The 1930s saw the Bradbury family head west to Los Angeles in search of work, which plunged the young Ray into the epicentre of Hollywood and its theatre of dreams, more fuel for his fervent imagination. In California he found company amid many an aspiring writer, and soon founded his own magazine, as well as contributing his stories to pulp journals with names like Weird Tales and Fantastic Fiction. He was well on his way to being a writer. Later he turned down an offer from Gene Roddenberry to write for Star Trek but his screenplay of Moby Dick was used by John Huston for his 1956 classic movie with Gregory Peck.
Although usually shelved within science fiction, Bradbury had probably more in common with purveyors of the gothic and surreal in his taste for weird and tenebrous tales best read, as in the title of one of his collections, Long After Midnight.
'The Small Assassin' for instance, about a baby born evil, and another spine-chiller 'The October Game', could come from a horror-writer's pen, but the short-story format meant you knew you could safely leave his Twilight Zone universe before being truly scared. At other times he could be touching and lyrical, as in 'The April Witch' or 'Tomorrow's Child', or funny as in 'Sun and Shadow', although I found it hard to relate to his autobiographical novel about growing up in the 1920s, Dandelion Wine. Maybe I should give it another go after all these years.
My favourite collections of his remain The Golden Apples of the Sun and The October Country, most easily tracked down in volumes of his collected works. He penned over 600 short stories and 27 full-length novels in total, a life well spent.
His stories often had fantastic settings but contemporary themes, much like J G Ballard. 'The Pedestrian', for instance, set in a future where robots arrest humans for not behaving like machines, was inspired by an actual event when a police car pulled him over in motor-mad Los Angeles and questioned Bradbury, who never learned to drive, as why he was walking along a street.
Like Ballard, he rejected the tag 'sci-fi' as inaccurate and limiting. "First of all, I don't write science fiction," he insisted. "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."
That 1953 novel remains his best-known work, with its images of book-burning all too resonant from 20th-century history and the hunted, secretive book-lovers a familiar metaphor for the fragility of knowledge. Often cited as an allegory on censorship, Fahrenheit 451 was intended by Bradbury as a warning against over-reliance on technology, which he believed led people to abandon books and wisdom. True to his youth, he resisted the internet, hated e-books and fought to keep public libraries alive.
Although much adapted for the screen, Bradbury's stories always seemed more colourful on the page. François Truffaut seemed a bizarre choice to film Fahrenheit 451 in 1966, although he was a big fan of Bradbury and had wanted originally to adapt The Martian Chronicles to the big screen. In the end the awkward marriage of a French Nouvelle Vague director working in English, a small budget and the Austrian star Oskar Werner was not unkind to the crazy and dystopian world of the novel.
"I am, in essence, a nineteenth-century writer," Bradbury wrote in 2002 in an introduction to the Bradbury: An Illustrated Life retrospective. In this he cited his literary inspirations as the American greats Nathaniel Hawthorne, Herman Melville, Edgar Allan Poe and Mark Twain, although he had also expressed a love of Edith Wharton, Robert Frost and Shakespeare, as well as sci-fi pioneers Jules Verne and H G Wells.
Although he kept writing up until his death, Bradbury's work feels more at home in the 1940s and '50s, a time of rapid social and technological metamorphosis when the future seemed full of hope and possibilities and landing on the moon was still a fantasy.
Steven Spielberg attributed his own imaginative art to a youth spent reading him, and the fact that the hotel in Ridley Scott's creative feast Blade Runner was named 'The Bradbury' was a coincidence that no doubt delighted the director. Then only a few weeks ago, NASA immortalised the spot their vehicle landed on Mars as 'Bradbury Landing', explaining, "This was not a difficult choice."
When Bradbury died in June, President Obama commented, "For many Americans, the news of Ray Bradbury's death immediately brought to mind images from his work, imprinted in our minds, often from a young age.... But Ray also understood that our imaginations could be used as a tool for better understanding, a vehicle for change, and an expression of our most cherished values."
My mother introduced me to Ray Bradbury and if I ever have children I hope to introduce him to them too. He certainly helped me fall in love with books. As the refugee readers in Fahrenheit 451 believed in spite of the world around them, knowledge is a precious thing to pass on.