EDITOR’S NOTE: Today marks the 95th birthday of Ray Bradbury. In remembrance, here’s an updated version of a story Entertainment Weekly published when he died four years ago…
Ray Bradbury will be remembered forever as one of America’s greatest authors, but the truth is he never wrote anything. At least, that’s how he told it.
Whenever the storyteller, who died Tuesday at age 91, was asked about the creation of his most iconic tales — like the novels Fahrenheit 451, The Martian Chronicles, and Something Wicked This Way Comes — Bradbury tended to say it was a mystery to him too. Bradbury said he sat down to do the typing, and the “demon” who lived inside him would start to speak.
“Everything comes to me,” he told Fox News in 2004. “Everything is my demon muse. I have a muse which whispers in my ear and says, ‘Do this, do that,’ but it’s my demon who provokes me.”
The 20th century was full of iconic writers who explored deeper parts of who we are through the genres of sci-fi and fantasy, but Bradbury stood out among them as the optimist. While many writers in these genres sent out warnings, Bradbury sent out hope. The one major dystopian exception was his most famous work — Fahrenheit 451, the story of a society where books are outlawed, and burned when found.
In an interview with The Paris Review, Bradbury acknowledged he was the happy outcast among these contemporaries. “I’m glad Kurt Vonnegut didn’t like me either,” Bradbury said of the Slaughterhouse-5 author. “He couldn’t see the world the way I see it. I suppose I’m too much Pollyanna, he was too much Cassandra.”
Although his work certainly explored darkness, he strained toward the light. He wrote in nearly every format — plays, television, and even some movies, most notably John Huston’s adaptation of Moby Dick. He was a friend of Walt Disney’s and helped design Spaceship Earth at Walt Disney World’s EPCOT center.
What he’ll be most remembered for are the words he committed to the page, an old-fashioned legacy he would surely love. Here’s a sampling of great moments from those classic stories — as told to Ray Bradbury by the demon who lived inside him.
In his 1950 short story “The Rocket,” Bradbury imagined a world where the wealthy traveled regularly into space via luxury rockets, while the poor and working class could only watch dreamily as the machines passed by overhead. A struggling father, Fiorello Bodoni, begins to build his own rocket from a scrapped model, so his children could experience that magic, and what follows is less a story about space exploration than the power of imagination.
The 10-page tale is likely to bring a happy tear to even the most hardened cynic’s eye.
“A SOUND OF THUNDER”
Bradbury was not one for prognostication. Isaac Asimov and Arthur C. Clarke were far more astute with their predictions about how society would evolve as technology came to dominate our world, but Bradbury was actually more of a throwback, savoring bygone ideals and longing for a world that was perhaps a little less interconnected, but more present.
While other sci-fi writers were preoccupied with grandiose stories that altered pivotal moments from the past, his 1952 short story “A Sound of Thunder” put forth the idea that even tiny changes — like an insect crushed accidentally during prehistoric times — could have profound and unforeseeable ripples in the future. This was classic Bradbury: Little things mattered, because life was made up mostly of little things.
In the story, first published in Colliers magazine, time-travel is a kind of tourism. Visitors must stay on elevated paths to avoid touching anything, and hunters venture back to kill dinosaurs — but only those who are facing imminent death anyway.
One of his most beloved novels was not science fiction at all, but its opposite: an old-fashioned yarn about the past. Dandelion Wine was a semi-autobiographical account of his own early years, set in the idyllic Green Town, Ill. — a stand-in for his own hometown of Waukegan, Ill.
This coming of age story is set during the summer of 1928, as 12-year-old Douglas Spaulding desires to run fast in his worn-out sneakers, and lends a hand to his bootlegging grandfather who crafts alcohol out of common garden weeds. Although based on Bradbury’s own experiences, it is more a nostalgic portrait of how he wished those days had been. As Douglas embraces the idea of growing up and finding his destiny, he also must face the idea of letting go — because all things that get older also die.
Dandelion wine is the metaphor for saving those happy memories, preserving them as insurance against more painful times.
The title refers to the supposed temperature at which paper burns. Written in a UCLA basement on a typewriter he rented for 10 cents an hour, Bradbury claimed to have spent $9.80 cents working on it.
Bradbury’s 1953 novel stands alongside George Orwell’s 1984 as an iconic work about the control of ideas. In the story, firemen aren’t concerned with putting out accidental blazes. Their job is to purposefully destroy all books, which are a crime in this society, using flame-throwing hoses to reduce all written ideas to ashes.
The story focuses on Guy Montag, a fireman who begins to doubt his duty when he sees a woman choose to be burned alive with her books rather than leave them. As the story begins, however, with one of the great opening lines of any novel, he is a man who relishes his work.
“I SING THE BODY ELECTRIC”
This line from Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass takes on a more literal meaning in this Bradbury short story, which was turned into a classic episode of The Twilight Zone. After the death of their mother, three young children are taken by their father to pick out their new caregiver — a robot who operates in the guise of an old, grandmotherly woman.
It is notable for combining Bradbury’s nostalgia with his vision of the future, and testifies to his notion that although our human beings are fragile and sometimes fraught with pain, technology cannot fill the voids that occur naturally in our lives. At least, not without a cost. What becomes of the mechanical grandmother, who learns to love this family, when they grow up and no longer need her? And does something need to have a biological heart instead of a tin one to be alive, have a soul?
SOMETHING WICKED THIS WAY COMES
A line spoken by the witches in Shakespeare’s Macbeth serves as the title for this supernatural saga involving two young boys who encounter an evil carnival, with a merry-go-round that runs in reverse and can turn the old young again. The price, of course, is steeper than most people are willing to pay, though the townsfolk are tempted by the promises of Cooger & Dark’s Pandemonium Shadow Show, and not thinking about what they’re putting on credit for a peek behind the curtain.
Set in the same town as Dandelion Wine, this 1962 novel is a far more sinister take on growing up and growing old.
THE MARTIAN CHRONICLES
This 1950 book is made up of short stories about a fantastical life on our neighboring red planet. Although it seems more dated than some of Bradbury’s other work — mostly because the habitable climate of a populated Mars runs counter to the barren, airless wasteland we now see on the planet — the stories remain popular as allegories for mankind’s ambition and short-sightedness. A thriving Martian civilization begins to collapse as Earthling explorers venture to the planet, paralleling the experiences of European conquerors as they ventured across North America, claiming Indian lands for their own.
This collection of stories is far from a utopian manifest, though it is fully infused with Bradbury’s sense of wonder. Instead it is a lament about good intentions going astray, and losing our way in search of something greater.
“THE ILLUSTRATED MAN”
This 1951 collection of short stories is tied together by the device of its title story — “The Illustrated Man,” about a person whose entire body is covered with living tattoos, each one telling a different story. His own is equally compelling. William Philippus Phelps works at a carnival, which could use a Tattooed Man (since the last one died). When Phelps ventures to see a strange old woman who can paint him to suit his new job, she shows him some ink she already has — his face on her palm.
The tattoos are portraits of “the Deep Past and the Clear Present and the even Deeper Future,” she tells him. It all sounds pretty good, until one of those tattoos on his back evolves to show him committing murder.
The stories were turned into a 1969 anthology movie starring Bradbury’s friend Rod Steiger as the title character.
THE WONDERFUL ICE CREAM SUIT
Although his family originated in Illinois, and that was the setting of some of his most famous stories, Bradbury considered himself first and foremost a Los Angeleno, and his early adulthood was forever marked by witnessing a sprawling megalopolis spring up from this spartan desert town. His 1957 Saturday Evening Post short story about a group of Mexican-American guys who pool their money to purchase a bright white suit that would go on to change each of their lives in different ways, was inspired by fellows he knew from East L.A. and the Boyle Heights neighborhood.
He would go on to turn the story into a play, and wrote the screenplay for the 1998 movie, which was released direct to video, although he was always very fond of its tough-guy fairytale style.
Although it’s not sci-fi, it is fantasy, and it’s part of a tradition in Bradbury’s writing about how luck, and perseverance, and a little help from one tiny, unforeseen detail can forever transform a person’s life.
Instead of an excerpt from the story, here is the trailer to the movie he loved, which starred Edward James Olmos (as the world’s filthiest vagrant), Joe Mantegna, Esai Morales, Clifton Collins Jr., Gregory Sierra, Howard Morris and Sid Caesar:
FROM THE DUST RETURNED
This long-gestating novel, more than 50 years in the making, was also among Bradbury’s last. It is also a collection of linked short stories about a weird family of ghouls, ghosts and beasts and their various dark adventures.
As seen through the eyes of Timothy, a foundling human son, he longs to be like the adults in this “Eternal Family.” Again, even in his old age, Bradbury visits the themes of an innocent child, longing for experience, though growing up no longer means having to let go. A mummified grandmother, and assorted vampire and shapeshifter relatives brings a promise of immortality.
The supernatural, however, is not the only way to live forever. Bradbury did it with words on a page.
(Special thanks: Libraries and librarians were two of Ray Bradbury’s favorite things, and this story could not have been put together as quickly without the help of one in particular: Susanna Eng-Ziskin of the Oviatt Library at California State University, Northridge.)