A world without Ray Bradbury
I was stunned when the news of Ray Bradbury’s death broke today. Yes, he was a very old man who suffered from declining health, a man who obviously stood near the end of his life. But that’s immaterial to my emotional reaction. When I saw the first headline about his passing creep into my Twitter feeds, I felt almost literally thunderstruck. Then came the flood of additional media coverage of Bradbury’s passing. See, for instance, the write-ups in The New York Times, USA Today, CBS News, The Washington Post, Forbes, and the Guardian. In celebration of Bradbury’s life and legacy, John Scalzi has gone and made his introduction to the Subterranean Press edition of The Martian Chronicles freely available online; see “Meeting the Wizard.” The New Yorker has given free access to Bradbury’s contribution to its recent science fiction issue, an essay titled “Take Me Home.” My favorite offering so far may be David Brin’s elegy “Ray Bradbury, American Optimist,” published at Salon and bearing the teaser line “The science-fiction icon transformed the genre, but behind dystopian stories was real hope for the future.”
I have literally never known a world without Ray Bradbury. He has been a constant, looming, inspiring presence in my life ever since I first learned how to read. In grade school I was virtually transformed by his short story collection The Illustrated Man. In junior high, reading Something Wicked This Way Comes was something like a religious experience. My English teacher during all of sixth, seventh, and eighth grades, a worthy woman named Mrs. Divine (who still occupies an iconic position in my psyche because of her serious encouragement of my inbuilt desire to become a writer), felt it necessary to bar me for a time from checking out Bradbury’s S Is for Space from her classroom bookshelf because, as she saw it, my incessant rereading of it was hindering my literary growth. Later, when I graduated from her classes, she presented it to me as a gift. Even now it sits at home on my bookshelf, surrounded by other Bradbury titles and bearing her inscription to me inside the front cover. A bit later, The Martian Chronicles, A Medicine for Melancholy, The Golden Apples of the Sun, and, especially, Fahrenheit 451 achieved legendary status in my affections. I also devoured the Martian Chronicles TV miniseries, the Something Wicked movie, and every episode of Ray Bradbury Theater. In college, Truffaut’s cinematic adaptation of Fahrenheit 451 entered my top-ten list of most deeply and powerfully affecting films. A few years later, Bradbury’s collection of essays about creativity and inspiration, Zen in the Art of Writing, became one of my touchstone texts about the subject and deeply influenced my developing understanding and experience of the daemonic muse. In 2010 I solicited contributions from a gallery of fantasy, horror, and science fiction authors — Weston Ochse, Joe McKinney, M. Rickert, Joel Lane, Sarah Langan, Peter Crowther — for an entry at my Stained Glass Gothic column for SF Signal titled “The October Mystique: 7 Authors on the Visionary Magic of Ray Bradbury,” headed by my own heartfelt appreciation.
So this is all to say that today I’ve lost someone very dear to me, someone who feels like a close friend even though I never met him and never communicated with him. It was always a great comfort to know that a writer whose work was so very important to me was still here, still alive, still a living, breathing, flesh-and-blood presence. I never got to enjoy that with, say, Lovecraft, who died 33 years before my birth, or Alan Watts, who died when I wasn’t yet three years old (although I’m lucky enough to be walking the earth contemporaneously with Tom Ligotti, whom I’m also privileged to call a friend). Most of my dearly beloved authors have always been passed-on presences, people whose words and minds and spirits have interacted with me from beyond the grave. But Bradbury has always been right here, standing nearby, emitting waves of fiery vitality.
And now he’s gone, and now we’ll all have to learn to live in a world without him. Except for the fact that, of course, his books are still here, and so is his mythic presence, threading its way through our collective culture and psyche. I think of the wonderful line with which Playboy wisely chose to end its well-nigh definitive 1996 interview with him:
Playboy: Do you think our souls live on or do we cease to exist when we die?
Bradbury: Well. I have four daughters and eight grandchildren. My soul lives on in them. That’s immortality. That’s the only immortality I care about.
Rest in peace, Ray. You’re already missed.