• A Sound of Thunder (1952)
• Mars Is Heaven! (1948)
• The Veldt (1950)
• Dark They Were, And Golden-Eyed (1949)
• The Martian Chronicles (1950)
• The Illustrated Man (1951)
• A Sound of Thunder (1952)
• Fahrenheit 451 (1953)
The beloved time-tripping, space-jumping, shape-shifting magic man who just wanted to get back
Everyone loves Ray Bradbury. I can't think of another writer who is so universally adored across all genres and right across the spectrum of writers, critics and readers.
Even on the rare occasion when one of Bradbury's books is panned, it seems to be done reluctantly as though the reviewer were embarrassed to report the author's latest flight of imagination isn't quite the wonder that dozens of his best are.
Occasionally someone will complain one of his stories is not resolved properly, missing the point that he has fully realized the story's premise in as few pages as needed and has left the implied conclusion to haunt the reader long after the last page is turned.
Whether they're into his serious science fiction, or his fantasy and horror work, or his surreal Twilight-Zone-style stories, or his enigmatic murder mysteries, or his achingly nostalgic pieces...his legions of fans span the reading universe.
Though, come to think of it, these different categories in which we place such writing are not so separate in his hands. For there's a commonality in his fiction, no matter what kind of style or genre it seems he's working in at any given moment. I'm not entirely sure what that common trait is.
I'm tempted to says it's his whimsical nature at play. And there is a charmingly quaint and fanciful quality running through most of what he writes. But focusing on that threatens to undercut the hard edge to some of his characterizations and the tragic twists some of his plots take. Some of his work evokes the nasty thrills of Edgar Allan Poe stories (Bradbury's "Usher II" being the most blatant homage I can think of, next to many another purportedly scifi story in The Martian Chronicles of 1950 that pivots to horror).
His most famous novel, Fahrenheit 451 (1953), is by turns sad, stoic, surreal, apocalyptic, despairing and uplifting. Yet its prose is unmistakably Bradburian. Something about his deft touch with characters lets us empathize with them without presuming to entirely understand them. In his myriad stories of irony and paradox in books like The Illustrated Man (1951), A Medicine for Melancholy (1959) or I Sing the Body Electric (1969)—to name three noteworthy compendiums of early Bradbury—we're repeatedly and rapidly drawn into the mysterious worlds of figures who step forward as if from dreams to act out some aspect of our aspirations and then recede back into the mists. Individualistic and mythic at the same time.
Same goes for his eccentric mysteries, or his fictionalized memoirs of childhood, or his classic science fiction stories, like "A Sound of Thunder" (1952), a time-travel story that foreshadowed the next decade's postulation of the butterfly effect and chaos theory.
Other writers have, of course, worked in a variety of styles and genres. But one gets the idea those writers consciously decided at various junctures to try something different. Reviewing Bradbury's massive output, though, you can't help but feel the man was possessed by an endless series of ideas for finding human beings in different situations. Some of these visions coalesced into certain types of stories and some shaped themselves into other types, it didn't seem to matter which to him—and it doesn't to us either.
Perhaps the distinctive common factor is the human scale. Even in Bradbury's obvious science fiction tales, involving aliens or space travel, it is the effect on characters with their ordinary hopes and flaws that drives the plots. They could be the definition of "soft" science fiction, as opposed to the hard variety that fixates on the science and technology. In one of his most honoured SF stories, "Mars Is Heaven!" (1948, later adapted into The Martian Chronicles as "The Third Expedition"), a rocket ship sets down on the red planet near a small town that looks like any of those the men on board had left on Earth. A friendly, idealized town, seemingly drawn from the men's own childish memories. No ray guns, tentacled aliens, space battles, interplanetary politics or startling scientific discoveries are featured in the tale. Just some lonely American explorers reuniting with long-lost relatives...until one dark night....
It's a magical trick of sorts. But then Bradbury did first train to be a magician before he took up writing.
The overwhelming majority of Bradbury's hundreds of stories actually take place on Earth, and more often than not the story is restricted to a small, familiar locale. The themes of magic spells, time travel, monsters, alien invasions and multiple dimensions play out within a single family or in one neighbourhood. The domesticity of his titles alone sets him apart from other speculative writers; take these from one volume of stories: "The Wonderful Ice-Cream Suit", "The Marriage Mender", "The Town Where No One got Off", "A Scent of Sarsaparilla", "The First Night of Lent," "All Summer in a Day," "Come Into My Cellar", "A Million-Year Picnic"....
Which is not to say Bradbury doesn't take on the big and serious issues afflicting society as he sees them. There's a reason Fahrenheit 451 became—alongside such heavyweights as To Kill a Mockingbird, Animal Farm and Lord of the Flies—a standard on school reading lists.
Bradbury is seldom, if ever, overtly political. But his work has been criticized as both leftist and right wing. And although I (and most of his admirers, I imagine) consider these ridiculous misreadings, I can see how they arise.
In the British and Canadian tradition we have a hybrid political strain called progressive conservative. Bradbury's overview in his work may be the reverse, what we might term retrogressive liberalism. On one hand he is obviously tolerant of difference, anti-war, protective of the environment, on the side of the ordinary folks against bureaucrats and self-protecting elites—supporting all the classic liberal ideals of liberty and brotherhood.
At the same time, the emotional heart of his stories is often an aching for the innocence of childhood, a skepticism of technological change, a yearning for the comfortable verities of the past—memories of a simpler time that may or may not have existed but lives on in characters' minds, forgetful of all the really bad crap that ran rife through any supposed golden earlier period. His public pronouncements tended to display an individualistic libertarian bent, suspicious of any groups or institutions—democratic or otherwise—that might keep him from following his personal muses.
This duality may be why Bradbury's work sometimes seems to have the corners smoothed off. He is never shrill, even when the fate of love, family or humankind are at stake in his stories. His characters often come to accept their dire ends. Kurt Vonnegut's resigned expression, "So it goes", might be appended to many of Bradbury's paragraphs.
It is often said of Bradbury—echoing what he says of himself—that he is most concerned with morality, with the imperative that people choose to do what's right. To be sure, it's not clear from the evidence of his work that morality is more to the fore than in any other writer's work. Any character in any novel or story decides what to do in line with some moral precepts, whether or not you agree with them. Even a great villain usually thinks he's doing the right thing to earn his just reward, to lead his people to prevail over others, or to fulfil the will of a god.
If Bradbury's moralism stands out for us, it is because it evokes the individual's longing to get back to basic human nature—the "good" side of human nature anyway, which we identify as something pure, with an uncomplicated enjoyment of life and in union with nature and community. It speaks of what we consider the best parts of our unvarnished selves.
It may be why in addition to appreciating Ray Bradbury's shining prose, quick characterizations and skilful plotting, through all his quirky, fantastic and everyday stories, through the thousands of pages of his writing of all kinds and of all times, we still love him.