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Bradbury, Ray (1920—)

Bradbury, Ray (1920—)

Although well-known to and beloved by many as a leading writer of science fiction, Ray Bradbury is a far more complicated subject than most may realize. In the world of science fiction, he is an object of admiration and dismay, while outside the genre, he is an enigmatic figure who blends a lyricism, nostalgia, and scientific possibility in ways that surprise and delight.

Ray Bradbury was born on August 22, 1920 in Waukegan, Illinois, the third son of Spaulding Bradbury and Esther Marie Moberg Bradbury. By age eight, Bradbury had discovered pulps like Amazing Stories, which he began to read voraciously. His father suffered the trials of most Depression-era Americans, moving his family from and back to Waukegan three times, before finally settling in Los Angeles in 1934. That year, Bradbury began to write in earnest, publishing in an amateur fan magazine in 1938 his first story, "Hollerbochen's Dilemma." In 1939 Bradbury started publishing his own fan magazine, Futuria Fantasia ; in 1941 he began attending a weekly writing class taught by science fiction master Robert Heinlein.

In 1941, Bradbury, with coauthor Henry Hasse, published his first paid short story, "Pendulum," in Super Science Stories. Up until this time, Bradbury had been selling papers, a job he gave up in 1942 in order to write full-time. That year he wrote "The Lake," the first story written in the true "Bradbury style." Three years later, he began to publish in the better magazines, at which point various short stories started to receive national recognition: "The Big Black and White Game" was selected for the Best American Short Stories 1945; "Homecoming" for the O. Henry Awards Prize Stories of 1947; "Powerhouse" for an O. Henry Award in 1948; and "I See You Never" for Best American Short Stories 1948. In 1949, Bradbury was selected by the National Fantasy Fan Federation as best author in 1949. Meanwhile, as he collected more accolades, his personal life also took a fateful swing. In 1947 he married Marguerite McClure, by whom he had four daughters.

Bradbury's major breakthrough came in 1950 with The Martian Chronicles, his story cycle of Earth's colonization and eventual destruction of its Martian neighbor. Although the quality of work could easily have stood on its own merits, the strong praise it received from Christopher Isherwood, Orville Prescott, Angus Wilson, and Gilbert Highet established Bradbury as a writer of national merit. Bradbury capitalized on the confidence expressed in his capacity to imagine and write boldly with such seminal works as The Illustrated Man (1951), Fahrenheit 451 (1953), Dandelion Wine (1957), Something Wicked This Way Comes (1962), and his many excellent short-story collections.

Despite his apparent dominance of the science fiction field, a number of science fiction writers thought the prominence given him by literati unfamiliar with the genre was both unfair and uninformed. Mutterings against Bradbury's qualifications as a writer of "true" science fiction surfaced in 1951 with Edward Wood's "The Case Against Ray Bradbury," in the Journal of Science Fiction. This was followed by more substantive criticisms in James Blish's The Issue at Hand (1964) and Damon Knight's In Search of Wonder (1967). In general Blish and Knight, as well as Thomas M. Disch, Anthony Boucher, and L. Sprague de Camp, would argue that Bradbury's lyrical approach to his topic emanated from a boyish nostalgia that was, at heart, anti-scientific. Yet despite this vigorous criticism, Bradbury fans have remained legion, while more than enough critics have pointed out in return that such criticisms of Bradbury's brand of science fiction offer counter definitions of the genre so narrow they denied it the very richness Bradbury's own fictional style imparted to it.

Whatever the case may be, there is no sidestepping Bradbury's achievement as a writer. What he brings to science fiction is a vision that transformed the steady-state prose of science—applied with so much rigor to fiction by such writers as Isaac Asimov and Arthur C. Clarke—into the lyricism of poetry. Kingsley Amis latches on to this very quality in Bradbury's prose when he writes in The Maps of Hell, "Another much more unlikely reason for Bradbury's fame is that, despite his tendency to dime-a-dozen sensitivity, he is a good writer, wider in range than any of his colleagues, capable of seeing life on another planet as something extraordinary instead of just challenging or horrific." By way of example consider the lyricality of the first sentence in Bradbury's description of the colonization of Mars in The Martian Chronicles: "Mars was a distant shore, and the men spread upon it in waves." The artfulness of this one sentence, in which "shore" functions as a metaphor that resonates with "waves," is a small illustration of the poetic sensibility so often absent from the common-sense anti-lyricism of postwar science fiction prose. In short, Bradbury's achievement was not to write science fiction in a prose that was anti-scientific in spirit, but to create a subgenre of science fiction that no longer treated poetry as a form of anti-science. In short, Bradbury restored wonder to a genre that, without him, might have proven dull, indeed.

Despite Bradbury's association in the public mind with science fiction, he has shown himself far too ambitious to be limited to a single genre. Bradbury has successfully published in other genres. A closer reading of much of his fiction will reveal tales that, despite their lyrical and overimaginative tone, are, for all intents and purpose, exemplars of light realist fiction, from his autobiographical novel Dandelion Wine to the amusing "Have I Got a Candy Bar for You!" Bradbury also has taken stabs at writing drama, poetry, screenplays, detective fiction, and even musical compositions. Although he has never achieved the fame in these genres that he has in his science fiction, there is little doubt the extension of his horizons as a writer into these genres is the direct result of his continuing interest in challenging his limits as a writer, just as he once challenged the limits of science fiction itself.

—Bennett Lovett-Graff

Further Reading:

Greenberg, Martin, and Joseph D. Olander, editors. Ray Bradbury. New York, Taplinger, 1980.

Johnson, Wayne L. Ray Bradbury. New York, Frederick Ungar, 1980.

Mogen, David. Ray Bradbury. Boston, G. K. Hall, 1986.

Slusser, George Edgar. The Bradbury Chronicles. San Bernardino, California, Borgo Press, 1977.

Toupence, William F. Ray Bradbury and the Poetics of Reverie: Fantasy, Science Fiction, and the Reader. Ann Arbor, Michigan, UMI Research Press, 1984.

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