At his death at age 92, Ray Bradbury’s status as an American writer is assured.
He managed to live long enough to outlast most of a once-dominant critical establishment who prided themselves on being indifferent to creators of speculative fantasy.
By persistence and originality, he overcame the stuffiest of stuffed shirts. But then…
Not everyone who was enthralled by his early output was as enchanted by what he published in his later years.
To such a critical reader– and there were more than a few of them– he had become, in a way, the William Wordsworth of science fiction, persisting on, but without the energy, the moxie, of his younger self.
Yet Bradbury, throughout his career, was consistently true to the passions that originally inspired him. He never lost his enthusiasm for manned space flight and, as he saw it, its limitless potentialities, for example. To younger writers and fans he was dependably gracious and encouraging.
In what Robert Lowell called the “tranquilized Fifties,” an impervious optimism, the Walt Disney worldview, was dominant– approved and superimposed on the face of post-war American culture.
During this period, Bradbury’s challenging fiction often sounded dystopian notes, willing to condemn pervasive conformity, racism, jingoism and militarism.
However, in the 60s the cultural landscape was to change drastically, even as Bradbury enjoyed more success and recognition. As suspicion of the underlying motives of the day became the norm, rather than the exception, he turned away to become more of an aggressive optimist, perhaps to counter trendy intellectual anomie and pessimism.
In doing so, and in never backing down from his persistently affirmative values, he began to lose touch with the development of the type of fiction he was most associated with. Experimenting with scriptwriting and poetry, he was now not thought to be in the forefront of any particular literary movement.
And in fact, though characterized by most pigeonholing critics as a science fiction writer, Bradbury was never entirely that. His interest did not lie in being a Hugo Gernsback-like predictor of a gadget-laden future.
Like Philip K. Dick, he initially used the tropes of science fiction, the rockets and robots, to portray psychological states. His stories could also easily cross into the realm of horror, sometimes with an added, sinister playfulness, as in the brilliantly conceived “The Small Assassin,” about a murdering infant.
His effect on the world derives not only from his short-story and novel writing, but from the way he spread his visions, often diluted, through widely unacknowledged vectors.
When William M. Gaines’s EC Comics published unacknowledged adaptations of his work in the Fifties, Bradbury responded by writing the comic book company a polite letter.
Bradbury’s note praised EC’s versions, while remarking that he had “inadvertently” not yet received his payment for their use. EC, wisely, promptly sent a check.
Other writers might have lashed out with threats and lawsuits. But the result of Bradbury’s friendly approach was that some of the most memorable, brilliantly realized stories in these superior comics were Bradbury-approved adaptations: Wally Wood’s stand-out versions of “Mars is Heaven!,” “There Will Come Soft Rains” and “The Precious Years,” once encountered, can never be forgotten. And Bradbury’s horror-themed works also got the EC touch. The American comic book has never since achieved such narrative and pictorial artistry.
When Rod Serling was putting together The Twilight Zone, Ray provided help and insight.
But though associated with the show, and even having facilitated the assembly, in its behalf, of the science fiction writers whose scripts, along with Serling’s, gave that program its special personality– among them Charles Beaumont, Richard Matheson and William F. Nolan– Bradbury himself walked away, after the one script of his ever produced by Serling, “I Sing the Body Electric,” was unacceptably altered (by Serling). For this, Bradbury firmly severed all contact with Serling.
An irony, since the show excelled in presenting a largely “Bradbury-ish” point of view.
Ray Bradbury, Forrest J Ackerman (he never used a period for his middle initial) and Ray Harryhausen were lifelong friends.
Ackerman, who lived and breathed science fiction, among other things edited Famous Monsters of Filmland magazine and was a literary agent for some science fiction writers. He invented the name “sci-fi,” now in (unfortunate?) universal use.
Harryhausen, the only one of the three still living, is the pre-digital stop-motion animator who inspired generations of filmmakers. When the Academy gave him a Gordon Sawyer Award (a kind of Oscar) for his life work in film, in 1992, the statuette was personally presented by Bradbury.
The influence of the creations of Twentieth Century fantasists such as these men is all-pervasive. The critical attention they received during their lifetimes is nothing to what will be written by the critics of the future.
If a prophet is indeed not without honour, but in his own country, and among his own kin, and in his own house, then perhaps we should add, in his own time…