When Montag the Fireman goes into his bedroom, he hears a “little mosquito-delicate dancing hum in the air, the electrical murmur of a hidden wasp snug in its special pink-warm nest”. His wife Mildred is lying in bed with her earphones plugged firmly in, “music and talk and music and talk, coming in on the shore of her unsleeping mind”. Mildred has her earphones in most of the time, but has learned to lip-read her husband and so can still carry on a conversation of sorts. Thus, Ray Bradbury, near the beginning of his first novel Fahrenheit 451, illustrated the isolating effects of technology on his future protagonists. In this dystopian tale of book-burning firemen, he was not trying to predict the future. “When I wrote that book [in 1953]”, he told an interviewer for Locus magazine in August 1996, “I was trying to prevent a future, and by god it’s arrived, so we have to get our teachers on the ball, to change our present so that the future is better.”
In that same interview he said that what he was most proud of was discovering that all the astronauts he had met (and his status ensured that he had met many of them) had read him in high school. “Boy, that is absolutely incredible! You’ll have to forgive my ego, but there is a crater on the moon named for my Dandelion Wine, and I’m very proud of that.” He credits science fiction writers – “we modern science fiction writers of the last 40 years” – with preparing the way, culturally and intellectually, for a future in space. Bradbury had been one of the best-known science fiction writers in the world ever since the 1950s, and he was always prepared to extol the virtues of the genre in public. He encouraged young writers, just as established people like Henry Kuttner, Robert Heinlein and Leigh Brackett “all took time to read my dreadful stuff when I was 20 years old.” And like those writers of the 1940s, throughout his life he continued to believe that science fiction was important: it was the only literature that helped prepare people, particularly young people, for the future, and to help them towards the right future.
It is one of the paradoxes of his life that Bradbury, who was known as a great science-fiction writer, wrote so little science fiction. Fahrenheit 451 was the only novel he wrote which could be defined as science fiction, as he himself would say. In fact he wrote very few novels: only eleven, and most of those were actually collections of linked short stories cobbled together into a novel, in what the SF writer Van Vogt called a “fix-up”. Bradbury wrote around 500 stories, it is said, 200 of which were gathered together by HarperCollins back in 2008 in two large volumes called Ray Bradbury Stories, but many of those were not science fiction either. He wrote some of the classic science fiction stories, all of which have been reprinted many times, and which are well known to all serious readers in the genre. “A Sound of Thunder” (1952), in which a careless time-traveller changes the future, is a classic time-paradox story; “The Veldt” (1950) is a chilling story of what one might now call virtual reality; “There Will Come Soft Rains” (1950) is one of the most effective, and understated, stories of nuclear holocaust. Every Bradbury reader will have a favourite story; and it is likely that it will come from that first most prolific period of Bradbury’s career, from the late 1940s and early 1950s. But most of his stories were not science fiction even then: they were horror, or fantasy, or a blend of the two. In the terminology of the times, they were weird fiction: indeed, many of them had originally been published in Weird Tales, an American magazine that ran from 1923 to 1954.
The strange relationship that Bradbury had with science fiction can best be discovered in the pages of what was his most critically respected of his books, The Martian Chronicles, a fix-up published in the USA in 1950 (and published in the UK in 1951 as The Silver Locusts). It enabled Bradbury to break out of the genre, or ghetto, of science fiction and fantasy publishing: most of the short stories he published after 1950 were not to be found in Weird Tales, Planet Stories or Thrilling Wonder, but in the Saturday Evening Post or Collier’s, publications with a wide readership and of a certain literary respectability. When Bradbury talked in 1996 about “we modern science fiction writers” he was paying his dues to a community which he had in some ways left many years before.
The Martian Chronicles is a collection of stories about the colonisation of Mars, one of the classic SF themes. Yet it shocked the SF writers and readers at the tie of its first publication. It paid no attention at all to the latest astronomical discoveries about the fourth planet. It was not in the slightest bit worried about the mechanics of getting a rocket to Mars, or in speculating what it might really be like up there (for that you could go to contemporary novels such as Robert A Heinlein’s Red Planet, 1949, or Arthur C. Clarke’s The Sands of Mars, 1951). A review of The Martian Chronicles by the writer L. Sprague de Camp in the February 1951 issue of the leading science fiction magazine of the time, Astounding Science Fiction, probably sums up general feelings at the time about Bradbury among SF writers and readers, and it is worth quoting in full:
Mr. Bradbury’s Martian stories have made a stir in the field, and now comes a whole book of them, forming a connected account of the settlement of Mars by Earthmen, 1999-2026. The early settlers find a few surviving Martians—fragile humanoid creatures with a shape-changing power they sometimes use against Earthmen. The latter, mostly Americans, settle, but when atomic war engulfs Earth they nearly all rush back to Earth for its final destruction.
Bradbury is an able young writer who will be better yet when he escapes from the influence of Hemingway and Saroyan—or their imitators. From Hemingway he takes the habit of stringing together many short simple sentences and the Providential or impersonal viewpoint, all characters described purely in terms of external action. All right for Hemingway’s Neanderthaloid characters with no minds to explore, but of limited use in a fiction of ideas.
From Saroyan—or perhaps Steinbeck?—he takes a syrupy sentimentality. He writes “mood” stories, of the sort called “human,” populated by “little people” named Mom and Dad and Elma and Grandpa. The come from American small towns and build others just like them on Mars. They’re the kind we all know and call “nice—but dull.”
His Earthmen and his elusive Martians are alike given to strange irrational and destructive impulses. Sometimes the Martians satirize Earthy [sic] faults and foibles; at other times they are the pathetic victims of Earthly brutality. At the end they have all been killed or have died off to deepen the melancholy of the scene.
Bradbury belongs in the tradition of anti-science-fiction writers like Aldous Huxley who sees no good in the machine-age and can’t wait for it to destroy itself. With all these reservations, however, his stories have considerable emotional impact, and many will love them.
Many have, indeed, loved them; and more have probably read The Martian Chronicles – rarely if ever out of print – than can remember Red Planet or The Sands of Mars. Reviews like that of Sprague de Camp, together with Bradbury’s own particular antipathy to technology (living in Los Angeles for most of his life, he never learned to drive, or to like flying) perhaps helped to keep Bradbury very much on the fringes of the science fiction world. But, generous to a fault, Bradbury continued to declare proudly that he was a science fiction writer; and that, following his recent death, has been how most obituary-writers have remembered him.
Emeritus Professor, University College Dublin
Chair, Science Fiction Foundation