Wednesday, June 6, 2012

RIP Ray Bradbury.

RIP Ray Bradbury. The future he wrote about is more interesting than the one we actually got. And much more memorable.

Bradbury's stories stick in your head. They go down to that part of your subconscious where the elves manufacture dreams, both happy and sad. I remember them all.

The story about a man who looked at his teeth in the mirror, realized it was his skeleton poking out, started obsessing about the fact his body had a skeleton inside, and ultimately paid a witch doctor to remove his bones.

The shape-shifting Martians who did a fair imitation of the small town, middle American characters of "Our Town" -- and then killed the unsuspecting, nostalgic Terran astronauts.

The future firemen who started fires and burned books.

A future (resembling our own) where everybody was connected to everybody else thanks to constant nagging, chattering devices that wouldn't shut up.

A Martian virtual reality teaching machine that kills you again and again in a convincing, multisensory simulation until all the guilt is squeezed out of your soul.

A carnival of the damned that gave you exactly what you wanted.

These stories didn't come with wiring diagrams. Bradbury's contemporary SF writers could often tell you exactly how their dreams worked. Some of them actually knew the rocket science. Robert A. Heinlein had an engineering background; Arthur C. Clarke was a true scientist who invented the concept of an artificial satellite in geostationary orbit; Isaac Asimov wrote textbooks in physics, chemistry, you name it. Bradbury knew a thing or two, but he didn't have that hard science background. What he did know was the twisted human heart. And that's why his extrapolations hold together. They're science fiction in name only. What looks like science is really magic.

Bradbury often said if he had not discovered writing, he would have become a magician.

L. Frank Baum imagined Oz when a lightning bolt illuminated a scarecrow in a department store window. Ray Bradbury got his start from a cheap magician at a carnival. Mr. Electrico -- who zapped him with an electric charge and commanded "Live forever!"

Bradbury's literary wine was a distillation of Shakespeare, Poe, Herman Melville (whom he channeled when he wrote the screenplay for John Houston's adaptation of "Moby Dick), Walt Whitman (Bradbury even named one of his short story collections "I Sing the Body Electric," and perhaps a bit of O. Henry, at least in his short stories. (Like Philip K. Dick, Bradbury was fond of twist endings.) But Walt Whitman most of all.

There's something very American about Bradbury's writing. A barbaric yawp. Bradbury wasn't stingy with his words. His words exploded in a rush, circled back, attacked from every angle. Bradbury was great, he contained multitudes. He mixed metaphors. He contradicted himself.

He was drunk with language. An all-American home brew. But he wasn't a solitary drinker. He got his readers got drunk on his words. Take those words away and what's left? Not much.

This may explain why most film and TV adaptations of Bradbury's work fall short. A witch doctor removes a man's bones; a fireman burns books. Meh. Reduced to stuff that happens out in the world where you can see it, Bradbury's work has all the appeal of non-alcoholic beer.

OK, so his work wasn't exactly cinematic. But it was full of great ideas, right?

Right. But I'd never call it a literature of ideas.

You can learn a lot from his writing. Dig deep, and you can pull out plenty of fortune cookies. But that's not the point. Bradbury didn't preach. He didn't write sermons and allegories and cautionary tales. ("Fahrenheit 451" was an accidental warning; Bradbury took the 50s paranoia and anti-intellectualism and turned it into a nightmare.)

Bradbury told stories. Stories that scared and delighted you. It's the writing of a writer who constantly surprised himself. I'd be willing to bet he didn't know his ending until he got there.

Bradbury's story is over now. The rest of us get to enjoy what's left of the future.

The future he imagined is still much more interesting.

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