When Ray Bradbury passed away last June at the age of 91 the world lost one of the most prolific and influential writers of the previous 100 years. He is credited with writing 27 novels and over 600 short stories, as well as many poems, essays, operas, plays, teleplays, and screenplays. He was probably best known for his Fahrenheit 451 and The Martian Chronicles. His contribution to, and influence on, the world of science fiction is almost unmeasurable.
I can’t remember exactly when I was introduced to the work of Ray Bradbury, but it must have been some time during my teenage years. I remember seeing the movie adaptation of Fahrenheit 451 on TV and being fascinated with this whole idea of burning books because they were banned. Not long after I discovered that it was actually based on a book, and found out that the book was a lot better and made more sense (this seems to be the story of my life). What I have since discovered is that the movie version took out most of the science fiction elements, including the mechanical hound, as well as Professor Faber and his portable communicator. It was also round about this time that I read my first Bradbury short stories. We probably looked at some of them in my high school English class.
It really is hard to know where to start with Ray Bradbury. There is so much good stuff that one could never really do credit to him. I think that it was his science fiction writing that really drew me in at first, although I really enjoy the other stuff he wrote as well. He was born in Waukegon, Illinois, in 1920 and began writing his own stories at the age of 11. He read voraciously as a youngster, including the complete works of Arthur C. Clarke and Robert A. Heinlein. He cited Jules Verne and H.G. Wells as his main influences for his science fiction works.
In his writing, Bradbury uncannily got some of his future scientific and technological predictions right. Many of these appeared in Fahrenheit 451. The people in this story wear “seashells” and “thimble radios”, which seem so much like earbuds and bluetooth headsets. Also many of the people in this book are obsessed by the large flat viewing screens on their walls, like so many today with their huge flat-screen TVs. He explored the loneliness that can come from paying more attention to your screens than the world around you in his short story, The Pedestrian, in which the main character is arrested for taking a walk and not owning a TV. Also the idea of electronic surveillance appeared in many of his stories long before CCTV became the fixture that it has all over the world today. Fahrenheit 451 also contains a banking machine that looks very similar to the ATMs of our present world. He also explored the idea of Artificial Intelligence in some of his writings, looking at some of the philosophical consequences, should such a thing become possible. In his story Sound of Thunder, the main character, who is a time-traveller visiting the past, steps on and kills a butterfly. This drastically changes the future and from this idea the phrase “butterfly effect” became part of our modern lexicon.
Thankfully our society is not at the point of burning books wholesale yet, but people are moving more towards digital devices for their reading. Bradbury had his views on this too and was quoted a saying e-books “smell like burned fuel,” but he allowed his classics to be published digitally because it wouldn’t be possible to have a new contract without e-book rights.
One of the best things about Ray Bradbury is the diversity of his writings. I spend a lot of time in used book stores and I still come across stories or versions of his stories that I haven’t seen before. I know that I still hve much of his stuff to read and will enjoy doing so for a long time to come. One thing is sure and that is that he really loved what he did. So I leave you with a quote of what he said in regards to his love of writing, from a collection of his essay, Bradbury Speaks:
I have looked in the mirror each day and found a happy person staring back. Occasionally I wonder why I can be so happy. The answer is that every day of my life I’ve worked only for myself and for the joy that comes from writing and creating. The image in my mirror is not optimistic, but the result of optimal behavior.