Paradoxically, Ray Bradbury’s stories look both backward and forward. For him, each story is a way of discovering a self, and the self found in one story is different from the self found in another. Bradbury, like all human beings, is made of time, and human beings, like rivers, flow and change. Adapting the ancient Greek philosopher Heraclitus’s famous statement that one cannot step into the same river twice, one could say that no person ever steps twice into the same self. Sometimes Bradbury discovers a self in the past, and sometimes, particularly in his science fiction, he discovers a self in the future. Several critics have pictured him as a frontiersman, ambivalently astride two worlds, who has alternately been attracted to an idealized past, timeless and nostalgic, and to a graphic future, chameleonic and threatening. This creative tension is present both in his own life and in the generation of Americans he likes to depict. It is also intimately connected with the genre—science fiction—with which he became so closely identified.
Bradbury has been called a romantic, and his romanticism often surfaces in the themes he investigates: the conflict between human vitality and spiritless mechanism, between the creative individual and the conforming group, between imagination and reason, between intuition and logic, between the innocence of childhood and the corruptions of adulthood, and between the shadow and the light in every human soul. His stories make clear that, in all these conflicts, human beings, not machines, are at the center of his vision. An ambivalence about technology characterizes his life and work. For example, he never learned to drive, even while spending most of his life in Los Angeles, a city that has made the automobile not only an apparent necessity but also an object of worship. He also refused to use a computer, and he successfully avoided flying in an airplane for the first six decades of his life. Each of these attitudes is rooted in some profoundly emotional experience; for example, he never learned to drive because, as a youth, he witnessed the horrible deaths of five people in an automobile accident. Because of his emphasis on basic human values against an uncritical embracing of technical progress, because of his affirmation of the human spirit against modern materialism, and because of his trust in the basic goodness of small-town life against the debilitating indifference of the cities, several critics have accused him of sentimentality and naïveté. Bradbury has responded by saying that critics write from the head, whereas he writes from the heart.
The poetic style that he developed is admirably suited to the heartfelt themes that he explores in a cornucopia of highly imaginative stories. He cultivated this style through eclectic imitation and dogged determination. As an adolescent, he vowed to write several hundred words every day, for he believed that quantity would eventually lead to quality. Experience and the example of other writers would teach him what to leave out. According to Bradbury, his style was influenced by such writers as Charles Dickens, Mark Twain, Thomas Wolfe, and Ernest Hemingway. On another occasion, however, he stated that his style came as much from silent-film actor Charles Chaplin as from Aldous Huxley, as much from Tom Swift as from George Orwell, as much from cowboy actor Tom Mix as from Bertrand Russell, and as much from Edgar Rice Burroughs as from C. S. Lewis.
Bradbury was also influenced by such poets as Alexander Pope, Gerard Manley Hopkins, and Dylan Thomas, and such dramatists as William Shakespeare and George Bernard Shaw. Furthermore, and surprisingly, such painters as El Greco and Tintoretto and such composers as Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and Joseph Haydn showed him how to add color and rhythm to his writing. According to him, all these influences—writers, poets, painters, and musicians—gloried in the joy of creating, and their works overflow with animal vigor and intellectual vitality. Their ardor and delight are contagious, and their honest response to the materials at hand calls forth a similar response in their readers, viewers, and listeners. This enchanting of the audience, similar to casting a magic spell, is what Bradbury attempts to do with his kaleidoscopic style: to transform colorful pieces of reality into a glittering picture that will emotionally intensify the lives of his readers.
Bradbury’s writing is profoundly autobiographical, and childhood, adolescent, and adult experiences generated many of his stories. Graham Greene once said that there is always one moment in childhood when the door opens and lets the future in. Actually, for Bradbury, there were many such moments. He once said that everything he had ever done—all his activities, loves, and fears—were created by the primitive experiences of monsters and angels he had when he was five years old. He also said, however, that the most important event in his childhood occurred when he was twelve years old, at a carnival, when the performance of a magician, Mr. Electrico, so energized his imagination that he began to write stories to communicate his fervid visions to others.
Several critics have detected a decline in the quality of Bradbury’s later work, but the standard he set in the 1950’s was very high. Because he has worked in so many different literary forms, and because, within each of these forms, his treatment of a potpourri of subjects has been equally variegated, it is difficult to make neat generalizations about this author’s oeuvre. The public has recognized Bradbury as the world’s premier science-fiction writer, but only a third of his work has been in the genre. Certainly, his science-fiction stories have revealed that cultivated and craftsmanlike writing is possible in what was seen, before he began to publish, as a vulgar genre. Within the science-fiction community, however, sharp differences of opinion exist about Bradbury’s contributions. A sizable segment sees his work as reactionary, antitechnological, and anti-utopian. As one of these critics has put it, Bradbury is a science-fiction writer for people who do not really like science fiction. On the other hand, a large group, which includes a significant segment of the literary community (viewing him as one of their own), sees him as a humanist and a regional writer. This group draws some good arguments from Bradbury’s stories: For example, even when he writes about Mars, the planet symbolizes for him the geography—emotional and intellectual—of the American Midwest. In this sense, his regionalism is one of the mind and heart.
Actually, both sides of this debate can find evidence for their views in Bradbury’s motley work. He can be both enthusiastic about a future transformed by technology and critical of the dangers posed by technocracies. Ultimately, for Bradbury, technology is a human creation, and it is therefore subject to the labyrinthine goods and evils of the human heart. Although his best work is deeply humanistic and includes a strong critique of unrestrained technology, he is no Luddite. It is true that the technological society has produced many problems—pollution, for example—but human beings love to solve problems; it is a defining characteristic of the species.
Those who see only Bradbury’s critique of technology view him as a pessimistic writer. In the proper light, however, his work is really profoundly optimistic. His fiction may rest upon the gloomy foundation of the Fall, but, in traditional theology, the counterpart of the Fall is Redemption, and Bradbury believes that human beings will renew themselves, particularly in space, which he sees as modern humankind’s religious quest. Space, then, is Bradbury’s new wilderness, with an infinity of new challenges. In that inexhaustible wilderness, human beings will find themselves and be saved.
Numerous Bradbury stories, including several in his first collection, Dark Carnival, have as their provenance specific childhood events. For example, “The Small Assassin,” which metamorphoses some of his childhood experiences and fears, tells of a newborn infant, terrified at finding himself thrust into a hostile world, taking revenge on his parents by first terrorizing, then murdering them. This story also reveals that Bradbury’s view of childhood innocence is more complex than many critics realize, for, in Bradbury’s view, beneath the facade of innocence lies a cauldron of sin—a dark vision of the human condition that some critics have called Calvinistic. Another tale, “The Lake,” is based on Bradbury’s experience as a seven-year-old, when his cousin nearly drowned in Lake Michigan. These and other early stories, which he first published in such pulp magazines as Weird Tales, Amazing Stories, and Astounding Science Fiction, served as his apprenticeship, an opportunity to perfect his style, deepen his vision, and develop the themes on which he would play variations in his later, more accomplished short stories, novels, poems, and dramas.
One of these early themes that also haunted his later fiction is alienation. Bradbury himself experienced cultural alienation when he traveled to Mexico in 1945. Americans were then mostly Protestant, individualistic, and preoccupied with getting ahead. Mexicans, on the other hand, were mostly Catholic, communalistic, and preoccupied with death. On his trip to Guanajuato, northwest of Mexico City, Bradbury was both horrified and fascinated by the catacombs, with their rows of propped-up mummified bodies. A story collected in Dark Carnival, “The Next in Line,” grew out of this experience. In this story, a young American wife finds herself, after her traumatic ordeal in the Guanajuato crypts, alienated both from the strange Mexican society and from her own body, which she obsessively realizes is a potential mummy. Bradbury uses the metaphor of death to help the reader comprehend one reality, life, in terms of another, death. Metaphor thus becomes a medicine, a way of healing ourselves by envisioning ourselves into new modes of experiencing, learning, and surviving.
The Martian Chronicles
Although, at first glance, many of Bradbury’s early stories seem notable for their great variety, he did deal, especially in his stories about Mars, with a set of conflicts that had a common theme, and so, when an editor suggested in 1949 that he compose a continuousnarrative, he took advantage of the opportunity, since several of his stories about the colonization of Mars by Earthlings lent themselves to just such a treatment. Using the chronological frame of 1999 to 2026, Bradbury stitched these stories together with bridge passages that gave the book a semblance of unity. (It also presented categorizers of his works with a problem: Some have listed the book as a novel, others as a short-story collection.) Many critics have called The Martian Chronicles (1950) Bradbury’s masterpiece, a magical and insightful account of the exploitation of a new frontier, Mars, by Earthlings whose personalities appear to have been nurtured in small midwestern American towns. By placing these normal human beings in an extraordinary setting, Bradbury was able to use the strange light of an alien world to illuminate the dark regions of human nature.
The apparatus of conventional science fiction makes an appearance, including monsters and supermachines, but Bradbury’s basic intent is to explore the conflicts troubling postwar America: imperialism, alienation, pollution, racism, and nuclear war. He therefore depicts not a comforting human progress but a disquieting cycle of rises and falls. He also sees the Martian environment, itself transformed by human ingenuity, transforming the settlers. Thus his ultimate view seems optimistic: Humanity will, through creative adaptation, not only survive but also thrive. In The Martian Chronicles Earthlings metamorphose into Martians, an action that serves as a Bradburian metaphor for the human condition, which is to be always in the process of becoming something else.
Even though scientists criticized The Martian Chronicles for its portrayal of Mars as a planet with a breathable atmosphere, water, and canals (known by astronomers in 1950 to be untrue), and even though science-fiction devotees found Bradbury’s portrayal of Martian colonies implausible, the book was a triumphant success, largely, some have suggested, because of these “weaknesses.” Bradbury’s Mars mirrored the present and served as the stage on which his eccentric characters—the misfits, opportunists, and romantics—could remake Mars in their own images (only to find themselves remade by Mars in the process). The Martian Chronicles has proved to be enduringly popular. It has passed through several editions, sold millions of copies, and been translated into more than thirty foreign languages.
The Illustrated Man
Another book of interlinked stories, The Illustrated Man, followed soon after the publication of The Martian Chronicles. In The Illustrated Man the device linking the stories together is the tattoo art on the skin of one of the characters. Bradbury sets some of his stories on Mars, and a few bear some relation to the cycle of stories in The Martian Chronicles. By the early 1950’s, Bradbury was a well-established writer, able to place his stories in both pulp and popular magazines and able to profit again when his collections of these stories were published as books. His fourth collection, The Golden Apples of the Sun, abandoned the frame narrative that he had been using and instead simply juxtaposed stories from a wide variety of genres—science fiction, fantasy, crime, and comedy.
John Huston, the film director, was impressed by a dinosaur story that Bradbury had written and asked him to come to Ireland to develop a screenplay for Huston’s film about another great beast, Moby Dick. Bradbury’s experiences in Ireland in 1953 not only led to an excellent screenplay but also gave him material for several stories and plays about the Irish. Furthermore, the trip gave him the chance to meet the English philosopher Bertrand Russell and art historian Bernard Berenson, two of his heroes. Berenson had written a fan letter to Bradbury in which he praised the American’s attitude toward writing as a “fascinating adventure.”
During this most prolific period in Bradbury’s literary life, he also published the book that would generate, along with The Martian Chronicles, his greatest success and influence. The story that came to be called Fahrenheit 451 went through several transformations. In 1947 he had written a short story, “Bright Phoenix,” in which the residents of a small town counter government book-burning edicts by memorizing the banned books. In 1951 he expanded this idea into a long story, “The Fireman,” which appeared in Galaxy Science Fiction. A fire chief informed him that book paper first bursts into flame at 451 degrees Fahrenheit, which gave him the title for his novel-length story set in a future totalitarian state. Some critics interpreted this dystopian novel as an attack against McCarthyism, then at the height of its power, but the book also attacks the tyrannical domination of mass culture, especially in this culture’s tendency to eschew complexity of thought and to embrace the simple sentiments of pressure groups. The central irony of the novel concerns firefighters whose job is to set fires (burn books) rather than to extinguish them.
Bradbury, a lifelong book lover, used Fahrenheit 451 to show how important books are to freedom, morality, and the search for truth. The novel concludes with Montag, a fireman who has rejected his role as book burner, joining a community that strives to preserve books by memorizing them. Some critics have pointed out that this new society, where individuals abandon their identities to “become” the books they have memorized, inculcates a mass behavior as conformist as the one from which they and Montag have escaped, but Bradbury would respond that this new culture allows for a multiplicity of ideas and attitudes and thus provides the opportunity for human creativity to shape a hopeful legacy for the next generation.
From the mid-1950’s to the mid-1960’s, Bradbury’s writings tended to center on his midwestern childhood, without being camouflaged by science-fiction or fantasy settings. His novel Dandelion Wine is a nostalgic account of a small Illinois town in the summer of 1928. Again, as was the case with so much of his earlier work, this novel was composed of previously published stories, and the superficial unity that Bradbury imposed on the material was not sufficiently coherent to satisfy some critics. Another similarity to his previous work was his theme of the twin attractions of the past and the future. The twelve-year-old hero finds himself between the secure, uncomplicated world of childhood and the frightening, complex world of adulthood. Despite the loneliness, disease, and death that seem to plague adults, the young man, like the colonists in The Martian Chronicles, must transform his past to create his future. Critics accused Bradbury of sentimentality in Dandelion Wine, pointing out how depressed and ugly Waukegan, Illinois—the model for Green Town—was at this time. Bradbury answered that he was telling his story from the viewpoint of the child, and factories, trains, pollution, and poverty are not ugly to children. Adults teach children what is ugly, and their judgments about ugliness are not always sound. For a child, as for Bradbury, Green Town was like William Butler Yeats’s Byzantium, a vision of creativity and a dream for action.
Something Wicked This Way Comes
Bradbury returned to some of these themes in another novel, Something Wicked This Way Comes, in which a father tries to save his son and his son’s friend from the evil embodied in a mysterious traveling carnival. The friend, Jim Nightshade (a name indicative of the symbolic burden the characters in this novel must bear), is particularly susceptible to the carnival’s temptations, since his shadow side is so powerful. The father ultimately achieves victory by using the power of laughter as his weapon; however, the father also points out that human victories are never final and that each individual must constantly struggle never to permit the good that is in him or her to become a passive rather than an activating force. The potential for evil exists in every human being (a Christian idea, original sin, that surfaces in many of Bradbury’s stories), and unless humans keep their goodness fit through creativity, evil will take over. For Bradbury, love is the best humanizing force that human beings possess.
Something Wicked This Way Comes marked a turning point in Bradbury’s career. After this work failed to enhance his status as a significant American novelist, he turned increasingly to plays, poems, and essays. His turn to drama was essentially a return, since he had acted, as a boy, on the stage and on radio, and since he had written several plays when he was young (they were so bad that he vowed never to write plays again until he learned to write competently in other forms). Many of his plays are adaptations of his stories, and most of them have been staged in California, though a few have had productions Off-Broadway in New York. The majority of his plays have been published. His first collection, The Anthem Sprinters and Other Antics, appeared in 1963 (the “anthem sprinters” are Irishmen who flee from motion-picture theaters before the national anthem is played). Although his short-story writing diminished during the 1960’s, it did not vanish, and in 1969 he published another collection, I Sing the Body Electric!, which was a miscellany of science-fiction and fantasy stories.
Throughout his life, Bradbury has also been an avid reader of poetry. He has often made use of poetic diction in his stories, but, as in the case of his playwriting, he refrained from publishing his poetry until late in his career, because he wanted it to be accomplished and stylistically refined. Heavily indebted to Gerard Manley Hopkins, Dylan Thomas, Walt Whitman, and others, his poetry has not had the success of his stories. Much of the poetry, whimsical in tone, can be categorized as light verse.
The Toynbee Convector
In 1988 Bradbury published his first new collection of short stories in eighteen years, The Toynbee Convector (a retrospective of one hundred stories, The Stories of Ray Bradbury, was published in 1980). As in some of his other collections, the stories of The Toynbee Convector contain a number of genres, subjects, and themes. The title story centers on a returned time traveler (the convector is his time machine, named for the historian Arnold Toynbee). He enthralls people with his message that, in the future world he visited, most of Earth’s problems have been solved: The planet’s waters have been cleansed, the dolphins and whales have been preserved, and the Moon and Mars have been colonized. In the story’s concluding twist, however, it turns out that the time traveler had faked his trip to provide twentieth century humans with hope. Again, the reader encounters one of Bradbury’s favorite themes: A lie can create a reality. In this story, a lie was needed to shake the world from its despair. For Bradbury, then, lies are like dreams, in that they are truths waiting to be born.
Green Shadows, White Whale
During the last decade of the twentieth and the first decade of the twenty-first century, Bradbury published four novels and three novellas as well as a graphic novel. Like his previous writings, these stories are rooted in his childhood experiences, or in his relationships with other writers, both living and dead, or in films. For example, in Green Shadows, White Whale, he fictionalizes his mid-1950’s experiences in Ireland while working with John Huston on the screenplay for Moby Dick. Unlike the motion picture, this memoir, which interweaves facts and fabrications, is lighthearted, emphasizing the tall tales of the eccentrics in Heeber Finn’s pub rather than the quest for a perfect script. Some critics have described this novel as the “most entertaining” of Bradbury’s career and his vignettes of the Irish as perceptively humorous, but others have found it disappointing, complaining that the Irish characters, situations, and stories are stereotypical and that the “Irish green” disproportionately overshadows the “white whale.”
Ahmed and the Oblivion Machines
Many of Bradbury’s creative efforts throughout his life have appealed to adolescents as well as adults, and in Ahmed and the Oblivion Machines (1998) he wrote “a fable for adults and children alike” (the “oblivion machines” are unsuccessful aircraft of the past). This novella’s central character is a twelve-year-old Arab boy whose fall from a camel accidentally separates him from his father’s caravan. Before finding his way back to his father, Ahmed experiences several adventures that help him to understand who he truly is and what humankind should be. His guide in his desert wanderings is a god, whose statue Ahmed’s tears vivify. This god not only teaches Ahmed to fly but also teaches him to interpret history correctly. Because this is a fable, this knowledge will enable Ahmed to create a world better than his father’s. Critics have tended to compare this novella unfavorably with Bradbury’s earlier fables, finding the story line weak and the symbolism either arcane or overelaborate.
From the Dust Returned
Published on Halloween, 2001, From the Dust Returned provides another example of how Bradbury often constructs his novels from previous short stories. For more than fifty years he had made the Elliots, a family of supernatural eccentrics, central characters in a series of stories. Using the device of a family gathering at a vacated midwestern mansion, eerily depicted on the dust jacket by a Charles Addams painting, Bradbury stitches old and new stories together through an investigation of the family’s history, meaning, and destiny. Unlike many of his other horror tales, this story’s tone is blithesome, and the Thousand Times Great Grandmother, the green-winged uncle, the sleeping and dream-traveling daughter, and assorted other extramundane relatives, along with an adopted earthly son, are all meant to inspire affection rather than fear. Some commentators have situated this novel among Bradbury’s “most enduring masterworks,” and others have asserted that some of the individual stories rank with his best. On the other hand, some critics have detected in this novel a deterioration of the once-lauded Bradburian style, citing numerous solecisms, absurd images, and overwritten passages.
During the decade 1980-1990, Bradbury returned to the literary forms that had made him famous. He published a novel, Death Is a Lonely Business, his first in twenty-three years, in 1985. This novel and A Graveyard for Lunatics, published in 1990, make use of some of the same characters, and both are detective stories with a strong dose of fantasy. In 2003 he completed what had become a trilogy with Let’s All Kill Constance, which he began in a hospital while recuperating from a stroke. All three novels have a common setting (Southern California) and such recurring characters as the nameless writer-narrator and his detective friend Elmo Crumley.
The story of the final novel, with its tongue-in-cheek tone, begins on a stormy night in Venice, California, in 1960, when a Hollywood has-been frantically knocks on the writer’s door. The once-glamorous, now lusterless Constance Rattigan believes her life is in danger, because she has received a 1900 Los Angeles telephone directory with red markings indicating not only already dead Hollywood stars but also those who are about to die, including Constance. After leaving the directory and her address book with the writer, she disappears. With the help of Crumley, the narrator travels around Los Angeles, warning and interviewing other possible victims. In the course of these peregrinations the narrator paints a squalid picture of the ruthless, greedy, and heartless Hollywood scene.
Several reviewers found the clash of genres in the first two novels—detective and fantasy—too disorienting to make the stories effective, but others found Bradbury’s re-creation of a bygone era in Southern California history appealing. Critical response to the last novel of the trilogy was largely favorable, although some have called it the weakest member of the trilogy, while others have noted numerous flaws in Bradbury’s writing, which the charitable have attributed to his ill health.
Among the novels of Bradbury’s late period, Farewell Summer was the most eagerly anticipated, as it is the sequel to the much-loved Dandelion Wine, published nearly fifty years before. Following this gestation, which has been called one of the longest in literary history, the sequel, though it makes use of material removed from the original manuscript of Dandelion Wine, profits from the life experiences that Bradbury had in the interim. Farewell Summer was written by a man approaching death who has existential knowledge that life, in the end, takes away youth, love, friends, and happiness, leaving nothing but darkness. However, in telling this story he hopes that his spirit will in some way live on.
The story takes place in Green Town, Illinois, during an Indian summer in October, 1929, and it centers on a conflict between a thirteen-year-old boy, Douglas Spaulding, and an elderly “school board despot,” Calvin C. Quartermain. The conflict begins when the sound of Doug’s cap-pistol accidentally precipitates the death of an old man, and Quartermain is determined to discover the “killer” among the group of “rebellious rapscallions.” Making use of American Civil War imagery and an elegiac tone, Bradbury describes intergenerational battles that occur in relation to the courthouse clock and a haunted house on the edge of a ravine. Both the clock and the house are part of the “immense frightening machinery of the Enemy” because of their connections to death. In the story’s resolution the boys repair the clock that they had stopped, and Quartermain has a birthday party for a girl who gives Doug his first kiss. In the final part of the novel, titled “Appomattox,” Quartermain and Doug meet to share the lessons that this “civil war” has taught them. Many readers and critics have described Farewell Summer as moving, unforgettable, and wise, though some have asserted that it lacks the enchantment of Dandelion Wine.
Now and Forever
In 2007 Bradbury published two novellas under the cover title Now and Forever. Like several of his books of the new century, this one also includes discussions of the provenance of each story. The first novella, Somewhere a Band Is Playing, owes its origin to Bradbury’s time in Tucson, Arizona, as a child and his encounters with actor Katharine Hepburn in his life and in her 1955 film Summertime. In 1956, when he started writing the story, he intended it as a starring vehicle for the actor, but by the time he completed it, Hepburn, one of the novella’s dedicatees, was gone. Nefertiti, the most intriguing resident of the unmapped Summerton, Arizona, would have been the Hepburn role, and her relationship with the visiting journalist, James Cardiff, is, along with the town itself, the focus of the story. Cardiff discovers that the town has no children, doctors, or dead bodies in the cemetery. He falls in love with the ageless “Nef” and is confronted with the agonizing choice between remaining in Summerton forever or returning to the joys and sufferings of his conventional mortal life. Although this novella was conceived by a young writer, it was finished by an old man attempting to age gracefully.
Time and death are also themes in the second novella in Now and Forever, Leviathan ’99. This story derives from Bradbury’s experiences while he was writing the screenplay for Moby Dick. He here transforms Herman Melville’s story into a science-fiction adventure. The spaceship Cetus replaces the Pequod, and a planet-destroying comet stands in for the great white whale. Melville’s narrator, Ishmael, becomes the astronaut Ishmael Hunnicut Jones, the South Pacific island native Queequeg becomes the alien Quell, and Ahab becomes a monomaniacal, blind starship captain. Before its incarnation as this novella, Leviathan ’99 had been a radio drama starring Christopher Lee as the captain. In another version it had been a poorly received play, and Bradbury hoped that this new telling would be successful. On the whole, these novellas have met with favorable critical response, with some reviewers praising their imaginative visions that have assumed an honored place in the ever-growing Bradburian canon.