Like many other kids, I fell into science fiction with a deep passion. But mine was stoked mainly by two men, both “social” rather than “technological” writers. Rod Serling has been gone for more than 35 years — those constantly burning cigarettes finally served their metaphorical purpose as “coffin nails” — but we still had Ray Douglas Bradbury around, until yesterday.
Like Ray, like Serling, I don’t have much of a mind for extrapolating “hard science.” But imaginative fiction doesn’t require that, as long as the power of poesy can back it up. Ray Bradbury didn’t care how the rocket ship worked, only what happened when it got there. At 91, he was still the Illinois kid who lay in the grass staring up at the night sky. That’s different from remembering: unlike most of the rest of us, he never lost that childhood fascination. He never grew up. As he told a convention crowd one day, “when King Kong fell off the Empire State Building, he landed on me.”
When I was about twelve, newly residing in Mississippi – which suddenly seemed way far away from everything — I decided to collect autographs by mail. I sent letters to folks I’d like to have in my collection, and enclosed a self-addressed stamped envelope and a 3×5 index card. They went to a strangely eclectic crew. Among them were Forry Ackerman; James H. Nicholson, the president of American International Pictures; William Castle; Rod Serling; and Ray Bradbury. Not one person on my list failed to return the autographed index card, and most of them came back inside larger envelopes with autographed photos. Years later, after I had made my way into the publishing industry, I got to meet Ray. I told him about my index card campaign. His eyes went wide, and he said, “I’m very glad I responded.” It was that twelve-year-old kid to whom he most earnestly related.
I watch John Huston’s MOBY DICK about once a year because Ray worked on the screenplay, and he understood Ahab’s quest. I treasured that dumbass TV adaptation of THE MARTIAN CHRONICLES with Rock Hudson, just because I was so happy to see it on the air. Thus can I forgive, or rather pass by, some of Ray’s very latter work. He wrote it the same way he always did: by plodding along. He once said, want to write a novel in a year? Every day, no matter how long it takes, write one page and correct yesterday’s page. You, sir, will have a novel-length manuscript in 365 days.
There are many indelible images in Ray’s work, which I first enjoyed as melodrama and now see revealed as metaphor. The fever that eats a boy up, limb by limb. The extradimensional invaders who work through children. The creepy crowd at a fatal accident. The murderer who can’t quit scrubbing his fingerprints away. The evil mushrooms in the cellar. The futuristic playroom where the kids can escape to an African veldt. I could go on and on. But here’s the one which really knocked me back as a lad, its profundity even gently helping to guide my own moral compass. The dad promises his children that he’ll show them some real live Martians, even though their grand civilization was ravaged ages ago and most of the crass, empirical Earth colonists have long since fled the Red Planet. Martians? Today? The kids can’t wait. They get in a boat and row and row — of course there are canals! — and finally Dad says, this is the place. They get out. Dad says, ready to meet some Martians? The kids, and the reader, are on the edge of their seats. They look into the water and see their own reflections. There they are, says Dad. We are the Martians now.
Goodbye, Ray. You never knew it, but you helped to raise me. Thank you so very, very much.
8/23/12: Yesterday, NASA announced that the spot where the Martian rover Curiosity set down on Aug. 6 had been named Bradbury Landing, on the day Ray would have turned 92.