Wednesday, June 06, 2012

Ray Bradbury

I heard about Ray's death this morning, and it's knocked me for a loop, and for second loop because so many people are asking me to write something about Ray and what he meant, for them, right now. And it's too soon, but they need it.

I'm writing something now. But I wanted to put this up. I wrote it a couple of years ago as an introduction to the PS edition of The Machineries of Joy and it was reprinted in the Times. If you want to quote me, you can take anything you like from this, and add that he was kind, and gentle, and always filled with enthusiasm, and that the landscape of the world we live in would have been diminished if we had not had him in our world.

And that I am so glad that I knew him.


Ray Bradbury: The Machineries of Joy

I can imagine all kinds of worlds and places, but I cannot imagine a world without Bradbury. Not Ray Bradbury the man (I have met him. Each time I have spent any time with him I have been left the happier for it) but Bradbury the builder of dreams. That Bradbury. The man who took an idea of the American Midwest and made it magical and tangible, who took his own childhood and all the people and things in it and used it to shape the world. The man who gave us a future to fear, one without stories, without books. The man who invented Hallowe’en, in its modern incarnation.

There are authors I remember for their stories, other authors I remember for their people.  Bradbury is the only author I remember who sticks in my heart for his times of year and for his places. He called a book of short stories The October Country.  It’s the perfect Bradbury title. It gives us a time (and not just any time, but the month that contains Hallowe’en, when leaves change colour from green to flame and gold and brown, when the twigs tap on windows and things lurk in the cellars) and it makes it a country. You can go there. It’s waiting.

Places: the green meadows of Green Town Il. in Dandelion Wine; the red sandy expanses broken by crumbling canals that could only be Bradbury’s Mars; the misty Venice Beach of Death is a Lonely Business.  All of them, and so many more, locations that linger.

It is hard for me to talk about the stories without thinking of Ray Bradbury the person: I remember his 70th birthday, twenty years ago, in the Natural History Museum.  A decade later I had the honour to present him with the Science Fiction Writers of America Grand Master Award and I have never seen a room of people cheer and clap with more joy than they did that night. More important than either of those things though, for me, was that I got to say thank you, in person, to someone whose fiction helped make me who I am.

The  first Ray Bradbury story that I read was  called “Homecoming”, and it changed me. I was seven years old. The story was in a collection of SF I had borrowed from a friend’s father.  “Homecoming” is about a normal human boy, Timothy, who lives surrounded by all the creatures of the night.  I identified more with Timothy, the boy being brought up by a loving family of vampires and monsters than I had ever identified with any fictional character before. Like him, I wanted to be brave, to not be scared of the things in the darkness. Like him, I wanted to belong.

I read The Silver Locusts next, a collection of stories now more often known by its alternative title,  The Martian Chronicles.  The book was sitting on a book case at home. I do not know to whom it had originally belonged.  I thought the book  was like nothing else I had encountered(although I was young enough and literal enough that I kept waiting for the locusts to turn up). I fell in love with “Usher II”, the story that sent me to Poe, as Martian settlers, representing the repressive anti-fiction movement on Earth that Bradbury had created in his novel Fahrenheit 451, arrive at a scary house on Mars and are murdered by robots controlled by an aficionado of horror and the fantastic. The murders were in the style of Poe stories,  “The Pit and the Pendulum”, “The Murders In the Rue Morgue”, and culminated in “The Cask of Amontillado”. It was after reading this story that I resolved that I would one day read Poe, become a writer, find a Scary House, and own a robotic Orang-Utan that would do my bidding. I have been fortunate in achieving at least three of these goals.

The first Bradbury books I bought with my own money were from a travelling bookshop, which would set up once a term in a room in my school. I was about eleven. The books were Dandelion Wine and the The Golden Apples of the Sun.

So much about Ray’s writing was important to me, so much of it helped form me. I read all I could. Finding a Bradbury book was an occasion of excitement, never of disappointment. But I never thought of emulating it. I never consciously wanted to copy him. Although I discovered, re-reading Bradbury as an adult, that I had, almost beat for beat, copied one of Ray’s stories as a very young man, that it had crept deeply enough into my mind in childhood that, writing what I thought was my own story, I wrote it again. (Which story of mine this was, and which story of Ray’s had burned its way so efficiently into my back-brain, I will leave as an exercise for bibliographers.)

Ray Bradbury was not ahead of his time. He was perfectly of his time, and more than that: he created his time and left his mark on the time that followed. He was one of two men to come from Waukegan, a small town in Illinois about 30 miles from Chicago, who made art that allowed America to define itself from the 1940s until the 1960s. (The other son of Waukegan, of course, being comedian Jack Benny.) And for over sixty years Bradbury has made art, and he still makes art, and sets cats among pigeons, and he gets people talking.

Bradbury’s best short story collections have themes and they have patterns. They are arguments and they are conversations. The Machineries of Joy is a reminder of a Bradbury who, while too many fine writers were still writing for the pulps, had liberated himself, and was writing for the slicks. He had been one of the first writers to have made the transition from the world of people who read that sort of thing to the world at large. The tales in The Machineries of Joy are, with a few exceptions, stories in which genre elements are muted or absent. A collection of stories,  some fantasies, some not. (Many of the ones that are not, still feel like fantasies, while several of the more fantastic tales feel extraordinarily real.) Priests debate and argue about space travel, and an old woman seals her house from Death, and we ask (as Bradbury made us ask and ask and ask again) Who are the Martians? and we wonder, was the man on the bridge in Dublin really a beggar...?

Ray Bradbury at his best really was as good as we thought he was. He colonised Hallowe’en, just as the Silver Locusts colonised the red deserts and glass towers of Mars. He built it, as he built so much, and made it his. So when the wind blows the fallen autumn leaves across the road in a riot of flame and gold, or when I see a green field in summer carpeted by yellow dandelions, or when, in winter, I close myself off from the cold and write in a room with a TV screen as big as a wall, I think of Bradbury...

With joy. Always with joy.

Neil Gaiman