Of all the many deservedly laudatory obituaries for writer Ray Bradbury, who died last week at age 91, few if any really “got” what it is he did, and did better than any of his contemporaries, among whom there were no equals.
Most of the tributes took their cue from the one from the Associated Press, which began: “Ray Bradbury anticipated iPods, interactive television, electronic surveillance and live, sensational news media events, including televised police pursuits — and not necessarily as good things.” All true, but incomplete, and missing the point. Bradbury was only tangentially a futurist – indeed, as a Slate blog entry wondered, “Did Ray Bradbury Even Write Science Fiction? If Not, What Was It?” Unlike, say, Arthur C. Clarke, or even the Aldous Huxley of “Brave New World,” who invented futures for either scientific, sociopolitical or social-commentary purposes, tomorrow for Bradbury was only a convenient construct to talk about the past and present, and a way to get his stories printed in (and to make some needed money from) the sci-fi pulp magazines. But he was never really a “time” guy.
Character interested him more. The science-fiction world was not rich with characters beyond the 2-D, simply motivated figures needed to push the plot along, plot was king. Many of Bradbury’s characters were more rounded, more interior, more humanly motivated than what you found in other pulp stories, in which heroes and monsters operated on the principle that action is character, that what a person did was the key to understanding what he was. But, while he was among the best in writing character-driven genre fiction, Bradbury was not primarily a “character” guy.
What Ray Bradbury wrote about better than any other sci-fi or fantasy writer, and as well as any kind of writer, was place. In most sci-fi, place was just a backdrop: a rocket ship, an asteroid, a Swiftian society – simply a spot for the plot-motivator to act and react in. But, for Bradbury, place was central. Montag might be memorable in “Fahrenheit 451,” and the writer’s alter ego, Douglas Spaulding, is indelible as the wide-eyed innocent in so many ruminations and spins, but it is the creation and re-creation of the worlds, the towns, the rooms that they moved in that are the height of the lasting art of Ray Bradbury. The dusty, crumbling ghost-town that was once the home of a great civilization and is now the repository of its wraiths and predators in “The Martian Chronicles.” The dark carnival and firefly-illuminated summer nights of sinister giddiness of “Something Wicked This Way Comes.” The holographic living room with real fangs in “The Veldt.” Even the crawly, animated, narrative and doom-prophesying skin of “The Illustrated Man.” Ray Bradbury made places come alive on paper, and put people in them who belonged there, and the combination drew us to them and made us belong there, too. He spun loci of placeness, which we empathetically recognized as something, someplace that lived inside us. They were not outer worlds, but inner, built with materials of the past.
And of all the places that, for me, are linked to Ray Bradbury is one, a special one, mine alone: a table in the restaurant of the Beverly Wilshire Hotel, in 1972, where Ray Bradbury generously, amazingly, took two hours out of his life to sit across from me, stake me to a burger, and talk to and encourage this young and eager writer who was in awe of the man he was still stunned to be dining with. I am not sure that I can remember a word of that meeting, but it was as influential as any I have ever experienced. I always wanted to be a writer; he made me pursue it, for he saw being a writer as a mission, a privilege, the best thing that one could do with his life. For his personal kindness, for his exemplary work, for the dreams he spun widely and individually, the place I will always associate with Ray Bradbury is my heart.