Long ago the ABC of international SF fame began Asimov, Bradbury, Clarke. Now they're all gone: Ray Bradbury seemed set to carry on forever but died this June, aged 91. Everyone, from lowly fans to the President of the USA, paid loving tribute. I met Bradbury only once, at a party thrown for him on a rare London visit, and have no scandalous anecdotes – just memories of a nice guy who was patient with his admirers.
The book he's most remembered for is Fahrenheit 451 (1953), set in a dystopian future America where the problem of dangerous ideas is solved by destroying books. "A book is a loaded gun in the house next door. Burn it. Take the shot from the weapon." The fireman hero tracks down and torches illegal book stashes ... until he too becomes an enemy of the system, pursued by the fire department's nightmarish Mechanical Hound. Ironically, this passionate cry against censorship was sometimes banned in US schools by literal-minded loons who assumed that if you write about Bibles being burned you must approve of it. Fahrenheit 451 was filmed in 1966 by François Truffaut.
After early years as a fan – he published his own fanzine in 1939 – Bradbury began his writing career in the early 1940s with sales to magazines like Astounding SF, Super Science Stories and Weird Tales. He had a flair for the weird and gruesome, usually in nostalgic small-town American settings. Horrid things happen during Halloween party games in the dark ("Then ... some idiot turned on the lights"), a man whose skeleton is devoured remains blobbily alive, and the murderous infant of "The Small Assassin" bumps off both his parents at the age of four months. Evocative collection titles include Dark Carnival, The October Country – commemorating his favourite season – and Dandelion Wine.
Readers who never grew up in Bradbury's small towns still felt the nostalgia. Somehow he lent you a chunk of his own childhood and made you feel you'd been there too.
His straight SF included the classic time-travel safari story "A Sound of Thunder". The big-game hunter shoots a tyrannosaurus that was doomed to die anyway, but ruinously changes history by stepping on a butterfly. Somehow one can't help suspecting that the Butterfly Effect in chaos theory was named by someone who remembered Bradbury.... He could grab you with a single word. A blistering spaceship voyage "South" to touch the solar photosphere ends with the relieved captain setting his course for cooler realms and savouring the word "North." A foghorn lures an amorous sea monster in "The Fog Horn". In "The Veldt", a early tale of virtual reality gone bad, even unreal lions have fur with a "dusty upholstery smell".
Many Bradbury SF stories were flavoured with what hadn't yet been called magic realism – especially the sequence about a strange, fairytale Mars that was assembled as The Martian Chronicles (1950) and retitled The Silver Locusts in Britain. Despite rocket ships (whose takeoff blast brings a brief "rocket summer" to wintry Ohio), glass cities and shapeshifting Martians, this Mars is steeped in American myth. One expedition is ensnared by a simulated folksy homecoming. The final story hauntingly introduces a colonist family to the natives: their own reflections in a canal. They are the Martians now.
Just about all Bradbury's best genre fiction was written before 1960. He'd long been selling to upmarket magazines besides the pulps, and surprised sf fans with collections including stories about Picasso on the beach or, in "The Fruit at the Bottom of the Bowl", a murderer obsessively wiping away evidence – two more that aren't easily forgotten.
Read his early work. Remember him.
David Langford strenuously denies having scrumped the golden apples of the sun.