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Saturday, April 17, 2021

Ray Bradbury Week: The Wrap-up • by Bruce Bethke

For a bunch of people who insisted we didn’t have anything new to say about Ray Bradbury, we certainly said a lot. Nine years after his death, and some fifty or sixty years after the peak of his writing career, depending on how you define that peak, Bradbury remains a true giant of the genre.

But of exactly which genre? That’s the question.

This past week has been fun for me, as it gave me the excuse to go into the stacks, to pull out a bunch of books I haven’t looked at in years, and to slip back in time, albeit briefly, to the period in time between the late 1960s and the late 1970s. I am not about to go Brian May on you. My long-abandoned thesis will remain forever unfinished. But after this week of retrospection and introspection it seems clear to me that my core idea of 40-some years ago was essentially correct: that his publisher’s continued assertion that Bradbury was “THE WORLD’S GREATEST LIVING SCIENCE FICTION WRITER” was dead-wrong on at least two counts.

First: Ray Bradbury was not a science fiction writer. In the first draft of this column I included here a bunch of quotes from John Campbell and Isaac Asimov and the like to define “science fiction” and show how Bradbury rarely met the definition. In the second draft, though, all that stuff—especially the quotes from Asimov; good God, that man was a windbag—bored me right out of my mind, so I decided to replace it all with these two lines of dialog, which handily summarize the Campbell/Asimov view. True science fiction is: 

DON: How many science fiction writers does it take to screw in a light bulb?

ROB: As you know, Don, while Thomas Alva Edison patented the first commercially successful incandescent light bulb in 1880, research in incandescence had been ongoing since the 1760s and dozens of researchers in the U.S. and Europe had developed and patented similar devices. Edison’s true genius lay in developing an integrated system, in which the light bulb was but a small part, far less important than the Edison Jumbo generator or the Edison main-and-feeder parallel power distribution scheme...

[Snort. Yawn.] Excuse me, I dozed off for a moment there.

Second: even if he once was, by the late 1970s Ray Bradbury was no longer a living writer of science fiction in any meaningful sense of the term. True, he was still getting the occasional byline in Weird Tales and Omni and the like, but for the most part he had moved up and out of the SF genre ghetto decades before. While he began his career writing for the pulps—Amazing Stories, Astounding, Fantastic, Thrilling Wonder Stories, Galaxy, and the like—by the late 1950s he’d moved up to the big leagues: Mademoiselle, Life, Collier’s, The Saturday Evening Post, Esquire, The New Yorker, Women’s Day, and Good Housekeeping. (!!!) He sold a surprising number of stories to romance magazines. He sold an equally surprising number of stories to Playboy and Penthouse. [No faulting him there; for a while Playboy was the market we all wanted to crack, as Alice Turner at Playboy paid as much for a short story as Donald Wollheim paid for an entire original novel for DAW Books.]

People often talk about the sort of misty-eyed sense of nostalgia that Bradbury’s stories evoke, because so much of his fiction seems to be set in a sepia-toned American world that began in the rural Midwest in the 1930s, deep in the heart of Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn territory, and came to an end in Southern California in the late 1950s, on the glaring and garish fringes of the Hollywood movie business. Being the sort of person who looks at copyright pages and publication credits, I get a completely different sense of misty-eyed nostalgia, for a time in my childhood when Americans read, and short fiction was considered an important part of our collective intellectual life. Looking at the list of magazines Bradbury wrote for is like reading the names on a memorial to the fallen in some forgotten war. Yes, The New Yorker still exists, although it’s just a thin shadow of its once chubby and successful self, and I suppose Playboy is still around, although I haven’t paid attention to it in decades.

But there was a time when a large portion of the American public read short fiction. Weekly! And talked about the stories they’d read! 

Imagine that…

Ray Bradbury was a good, kind, and thoughtful man, and blessed with a wonderfully long life and career. He escaped from the ghetto of pulp fiction, crossed over into the larger world of mainstream literature, and brought some of his fantastic ideas along with him when he went out for an explore in the big wide world. But whenever people talk about Bradbury—whenever they try to summarize his career, or cite their favorite story, or quantify his influence, or come up with a list of his most important stories—they always come back to the same ten or twelve short stories, and one novel, all of which were written between 1945 and 1955. As for the novel, Fahrenheit 451, I remain convinced that more people talk about it than actually read it, and when they do talk about it, most people are actually talking about Truffaut’s 1966 film in lieu of having finished reading the novel.

If you want to test that proposition: ask people how it ends. If they say it ends with Montag finding his place with the Book People, and the final scene is of the Book People walking through a snowy countryside, reciting the books and poetry they’ve memorized—nope. They haven’t read the book.

As for his short stories, though, it’s remarkable how out of all the enormous quantity of short stories he wrote and saw published, it’s always the same dozen or so from early in his career that people that remember and cite as being their favorites. And—here’s the heresy, and the nub of my thesis—considered objectively, these stories by and large are not science fiction.

They’re horror. Sometimes horror with sci-fi settings, props, and stage dressings, but horror all the same. As Eric Dontigney might have put it, Bradbury’s best-remembered stories excel at “punching readers in the feels.”

With that said though: a decades-long writing career. A dozen or so short stories and one novel that will live as long as people still read English.* If you want to be a writer, Ray Bradbury’s life and works are definitely worth studying. Read and learn.**

—Bruce Bethke


P.S. * Truffaut insisted that Bradbury’s dialog sounded much better in French.

P.P.S. ** But for the love of God, don’t imitate!

P.P.P.S. Finally, the lesson here is, I think, that if anyone tells you “That’s not science fiction” or “This is what you need to do to write science fiction,” ignore them. Don’t pigeonhole yourself.


~brb said...

Re inspiration vs imitation: please know that the world does not need an updated rewrite of “Marionettes, Inc.”, especially one that makes all the implicit sex and violence explicit. Such stories show up in our slush pile with depressing regularity. The one in which the vengeful wife had her robot duplicate equipped with vagina dentata remains seared—seared!—into my memory.

Unknown said...

I've always maintained that Bradbury was, in fact, a straight literary author, albeit with some horror or sf/f trappings. He cared not one whit about the science, and the horror was either a backdrop, or there to make a point.

Pete Wood said...

Every so often someone comes along who invents his/her own genre. We don't try to figure out if William Faulkner writes more like Charles Dickens or Henry Fielding, because he writes like William Faulkner. Nobody tries to put William Shakespeare into a box. Why should we spend time trying to characterize Bradbury? He didn't limit himself to any particular genre. Sometimes he wrote science ficiton, sometimes horror, sometimes literary, but his style was always unmistakenly his own.
I have always wondered why he dind't do more screenplays. His adaption of Moby Dick is quite good, but he never went down that road again with somebody else's fiction. Not that he didn't have enough to do with his own writing.