The Guardian's Dan Gillmor reflects on the life and influence of the speculative fiction author who wrote Fahrenheit 451 and passed away at the age of 91.
In my early teens, I read Ray Bradbury’s Something Wicked This Way Comes, a novel that combines fantasy and horror as two 13-year-old boys and one of their fathers confront evil, and prevail over it. I remember devouring the book in one sitting. It terrified and inspired me in equal measures. It changed me.
Bradbury, who has died at age 91, inspired and changed many people. There are few 20th-century authors whose work will be meaningful a century from now, but he will be among them.
Everyone who became a fan of Bradbury’s writing has a favorite novel or short story, but he is probably best known for Fahrenheit 451, a dystopian novel of a world where books are banned. Published in 1953, at the height of America’s cold war paranoia, the novel was a prescient warning about censorship and the way television was carving away the public’s time in trivial ways.
His Martian Chronicles – a collection of short stories with a common theme – were a warning about humanity’s often terrible, but sometimes noble tendencies. We have learned that the Mars he imagined, where a civilization had created great canals, was pure fantasy, but that doesn’t in the least change the power of his vision.
Not everything Bradbury wrote had a political subtext. Always, his work was about people and how they dealt with life and the unexpected. Dandelion Wine is a paean to the value and values of small-town life, and I suspect if I’d read it before Something Wicked, I’d have a slightly different overall outlook.
Bradbury, like his peers at the pinnacle of speculative fiction in the middle of the 20th century, endured a casual disdain from the literary lions and most critics. They considered science fiction and fantasy lesser forms of fiction. Today, of course, the field is entirely respectable – to write and especially to read.
Over the years, I learned more about Bradbury the man, not just his writing. He had a prodigious work ethic, always trying to write 1,000 words a day, a standard I’ve only come close to meeting when working to finish books of my own. He loved libraries – “I never went to college, so I went to the library”, he told the Associated Press – and tried to protect them from the encroachments of short-sighted budgeting and the shallowness of TV.
Being human, Bradbury could disappoint. He was furious when Michael Moore, maker of leftwing political films, called one of them Fahrenheit 9/11. Bradbury rather ludicrously claimed that this was a form of theft, and that Moore had no right to use this title.
Bradbury wasn’t only scornful of TV. He considered the internet a cultural sinkhole, telling the New York Times (in an article mostly about his efforts to help save a financially threatened local library in California) in 2009:
“The internet is a big distraction.”
He said he told Yahoo, which he said had asked to put one of his books online:
“To hell with you and to hell with the internet”.
But we don’t, or at least shouldn’t, measure lives by the occasional mistakes. Only last week, the New Yorker magazine published a brief, lovely essay by Bradbury. He recalled his childhood discovery of fantasy and science fiction, adventures that primed his future.
“I think I went a trifle mad that autumn. It’s the only way to describe the intensity with which I devoured the stories. You rarely have such fevers later in life that fill your entire day with emotion.”
I came down with a fever the day I read Something Wicked This Way Comes. Thank you, Ray Bradbury. You changed me, and I am grateful.
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