When I arrived in Los Angeles for E3 last week and turned my cell phone back on at LAX, I was greeted with a text from my wife telling me that Ray Bradbury had died. I was stunned by the news—actually taken aback.
Over the course of my career as an author and editor, I’ve had occasion to meet, correspond with, and even work with some of my childhood heroes, and yes, many of my childhood heroes were science fiction and fantasy authors. I’ve spoken on the phone with Harlan Ellison, chatted in person with Frederick Pohl, edited a short story by Alan Dean Foster . . . but I never had the honor to meet Ray Bradbury.
But boy, was he one of those childhood heroes.
Ray Bradbury is one of those rare beings. I think it’s fair to call him a “writer’s writer.” He’s one of those authors, like Harlan Ellison, J.G. Ballard, Haruki Murakami, or Iain Banks (and a few others) who consistently make me think, “Wow, if I could ever be a fraction of that good. . . .”
He’s also one of those authors who I feel absolutely certain it’s safe to say people will be reading far, far into the future. Ray Bradbury epitomized what is truly best in speculative fiction. In two works of overt science fiction, Fahrenheit 451 and The Martian Chronicles, Bradbury looked into the future, but was unconcerned with predicting trends in technology and engineering. Bradbury’s exploration of Mars was internal. It was an exploration of the human spirit, science be damned. Fahrenheit 451, like Orwell’s 1984, wasn’t a book about the future, it was a warning about what was happening right now, a study of the slippery slope of anti-intellectualism and censorship. The Martian Chronicles was not at all an attempt to present a “realistic” account of the exploration of Mars, but instead it charted the seas of our own insecurities—our lust for exploration at war with our fear of the unknown.
When I was in school—I don’t remember the year—my English class read Dandelion Wine. By that time I had already read numerous Bradbury SF short stories, at least, and was almost overwhelmed with excitement that, finally, we were going to get to read a science fiction novel in class. The fact that I was not the slightest bit disappointed that Dandelion Wine turned out not to be a science fiction novel at all is a testament to Bradbury’s genius. It’s one of only two forced-on-me-by-English-teachers books I’ve ever actually enjoyed. The other, for the record, was One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.
What can a genre author learn from Ray Bradbury? Everything. He must be at the top of every author’s must-read list, no matter your chosen sub-genre, no matter if you write for kids or adults, no matter your age or any other circumstances. This is a guy who applied not only a spectacular intellect and limitless imagination, but a simple humanity that is too often ignored or overwhelmed in genre fiction.
Ray Bradbury left us with enormous shoes to fill, and I think the best way to honor this giant among science fiction and fantasy authors is to remember our own humanity, and the humanity in our readers. Ray Bradbury can never be replaced, but the harder we try, the better off we’ll all be.
Thank you, Mr. Bradbury.