Wednesday, Jun 6, 2012 8:30 PM UTC

Ray Bradbury: The man who made sci-fi respectable

The late Ray Bradbury wrote more than high-tech tales. He should be considered alongside Hemingway and Faulkner

BRADBURY

FILE - This Jan. 29, 1997 file photo shows author Ray Bradbury at a signing for his book "Quicker Than The Eye" in Cupertino, Calif. Bradbury, who wrote everything from science-fiction and mystery to humor, died Tuesday, June 5, 2012 in Southern California. He was 91. (AP Photo/Steve Castillo, file)  (Credit: AP)

Science fiction icon Ray Bradbury, who died Tuesday at age 91, picked out his epitaph long before he passed away. His headstone, which is already in place at Westwood Village Memorial Park Cemetery, reads “Author of ‘Fahrenheit 451.’”

Can I lobby for a bigger headstone and a longer text? Ray Bradbury’s legacy rests on much more than that one book, even a remarkable work such as “Fahrenheit 451.” It’s fitting that the week Bradbury leaves us, the New Yorker releases a special issue devoted to science fiction. No one did more than Ray Bradbury to legitimize sci-fi in the eyes of the literary establishment, and pave the way for today’s newfound respectability of genre writing.

His books contained powerful ideas, even when they seemed to deal in the most fanciful topics. In a genre famous for escapist concepts, Bradbury refused to use the escape hatch. His books told us about ourselves, even as they ranged widely over the universe. Can you fit that on the headstone?

“I’m in shock,” relates author John Scalzi, president of the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America, in a phone call from Book Expo America in New York. “He was the last of the greats, the last connection to the Golden era. You think of Clarke, Heinlein Asimov and Bradbury. To have him gone is closing the door, for the culture of science fiction and the literature of science fiction.”

“We won’t ever forget,” adds novelist Neil Gaiman, who in an eerie coincidence recorded the audiobook version of his contribution to a forthcoming Bradbury tribute book — “Shadow Show: All-New Stories in Celebration of Ray Bradbury” — just yesterday. Other tributes have poured in from writers, editors, actors and celebrities, the very range of the response testifying to how many lives Bradbury touched and the scope of his influence.

Bradbury first captured the imagination of the younger generation, teenagers and college students, but soon even the professors took notice, assigning “Fahrenheit 451″ alongside Hemingway and Faulkner. And for good reason. Bradbury was much more than a teller of high-tech tales. No science fiction author of his generation had a more polished or more poetic prose style — a skill that stood out all the more given the slapdash sentences of his pulp fiction contemporaries. But Bradbury’s greatest skill was his ability to inspire readers to reflect deeply on our society and values, even when his books dealt with Mars or the future or some other tried-and-true genre concept.

With book burnings and repression of ideas still part of our daily news, Bradbury’s most famous novel has much to teach us even today. You may remember “Fahrenheit 451″ — or the celebrated film François Truffaut made from it — for the disturbing scenes of “firemen” whose job is no longer to put out blazes but to start them, consigning all literary works to the flames. But Bradbury’s story has other lessons to teach us. What you may have forgotten about “Fahrenheit 451″ is that communities only started burning books after they had lost interest in reading and the exchange of ideas. Their immersion in entertainment compromised their engagement as citizens. That lesson may be even more timely in modern America, where flames are hardly necessary to undermine our political and civic institutions.

Bradbury lived up to his ideals in other ways. He was a longtime champion of book culture and reading. “Libraries raised me,” Mr. Bradbury once commented. “I don’t believe in colleges and universities. I believe in libraries.” He often spoke at libraries and campaigned to keep them open and well funded.

Bradbury started his writing career at the bottom. At age 14, he managed to convince comedian George Burns to look at some his writing, and placed some of it on the popular Burns and Allen radio show. Bradbury’s first piece, “Pendulum,” published in Super Science Stories in 1941, earned him just $15. But Bradbury was both ambitious and prolific — he leaves behind more than two dozen books and over 600 short stories — and conquered markets for sci-fi that few of his peers could match. He moved from Weird Tales to Mademoiselle, and from there on to Harper’s and the New Yorker, a path that anticipated the later evolution and legitimization of the whole sci-fi category.

Despite his status as a science fiction guru and futurist, Bradbury was ambivalent about technology, and sometimes decidedly hostile to innovation. Don’t be fooled by the Jaguar in his garage; Bradbury never learned to drive a car. In a 2001 interview with Salon, he derided video games as “male ego crap.” When Yahoo approached him about putting his works online, his pithy response was: “To hell with you and to hell with the Internet.”

Are you surprised? Not if you have paid attention to Bradbury’s stories, which reveal more apprehension than admiration about technocracy and future-tripping. What you may not know is that some of Bradbury’s most moving writing is about the past, and drew on his own Midwest childhood in Waukegan, Ill., where he was born in 1920. His books “Dandelion Wine” and “Something Wicked This Way Comes” contain some of the most poignant explorations of youth and small-town America in our nation’s literature.

That’s how I would like Bradbury to be remembered: as a connecting point between the richness of the past and the promise of the future, celebrating both, but always with caution, sometimes with firmness and outspoken views. Yes, his legacy includes one seminal book, but even more, he told us why we should cherish all the other books too, and he kept us vigilant against those who wish to destroy or marginalize our literary heritage. While others fought for their place in the library, he fought for the entire building, and the broader culture and openness it represented. We can honor him with words of praise, but even better would be to continue to uphold these same ideals now that he’s gone.