It was the summer of 1992 when I picked up my first Ray Bradbury novel at a yard sale. A paperback copy of The Martian Chronicles beat up beyond repair, it still surreptitiously toted the markings of a public library on its inside jacket pocket. I was eight. I slipped out the library card; no one had checked it out since the mid-1970s. Seduced by the cover – a man in horn-rimmed glasses, hair parted do-goody to the side, flanked by an ominous red planet – I bought it for a kid nickel, and skipped home, all white Keds on black asphalt.
I remember everything about that day: how I flopped onto a couch in my parents’ house, savoring the cool of the basement, and propped the old paperback on my knees with a shrug. How the cover was held on by yellowing Scotch tape, the corners dog-eared into smooth nubs. How the grey concrete walls of the basement slowly disintegrated, replaced by the quiet whirl of interstellar space.
How I could no longer see our rope swing out the window, or hear the familiar click-click of the sprinkler: only the hazy orange light of a Martian sunrise, the siren call of distant alien songs. How suddenly I was floating through space and time, my sweaty legs still stuck to the couch leather.
In retrospect, my initiation was classic Bradbury. His stories, even when they ebbed far into the reaches of interstellar space, always remained anchored in the warm grit of everyday life.
Sure, he tackled planetary conquests, near and distant futures, and cybernetic pathos, and his fear of technology dampening the human spirit was nearly divinatory. But he wasn’t married to the machines. The guy didn’t even drive a car. Instead he spent his life giving voice to the dreams, heartbreak, sacrifice, and tiny quotidian tragedies lived by the people that the future left behind.
Bradbury, in short, was for the humans, and to peg him as merely a science-fiction writer is to diminish the scope of his work.
His stories swelled from a fountainhead of seemingly indomitable faith in the human spirit; even his most prescient dystopia, Fahrenheit 451, trusts the human race so much that it imagines an entire colony of people who devote their lives to memorizing, word for word, the books their totalitarian government hopes to eradicate. His baddies were always those who dared rob humanity of its culture, exploit its capacity for love, or pervert the sticky-sweet flow of childhood memory. For Bradbury, science was a metaphor, a great force which might, if employed incorrectly, corrupt the starry-eyed eight-year-olds within us all. His science-fiction went beyond the ghetto of genre; it was universal, literary, with the lasting quality of myth.
From the first page of The Martian Chronicles, and with every page that followed, Ray Bradbury lulled me into a reverie of grandiose proportions from which, over twenty years later, I still have not yet awoken. He didn’t toss me, or any of his readers, into the future unthinkingly. Rather, he showed us an unbroken continuum stippled with the same cresting melancholia and folly that has always characterized the human experience.
Ray Bradbury was gentle, sometimes exceedingly sentimental, with a wizardly knack for story; above all, however, he was our shepherd, luring us first into the sweeping, dusty vistas of Mars, and then forward into the infinite.
* This little elegy to my departed science fictional hero first appeared yesterday on Motherboard, but I thought I’d share it to my readers here.