On the Occasion of Ray Bradbury’s 100th Birthday: “Meeting the Wizard”
Posted on August 22, 2020 Posted by John Scalzi 58 Comments
It’s Ray Bradbury’s 100th birthday today, so to note the day, I’m reposting the essay I wrote about meeting him when I was twelve, which was featured in the Subterranean Press special, expanded edition of The Martian Chronicles. It was written while he was still alive, and I know he read it. It makes me happy that he knew what his writing meant to me.
Enjoy, and enjoy your Bradbury Day, here or wherever in the universe you may be.
Meeting the Wizard
When I was twelve a wizard came to town.
And immediately I have to explain that comment.
First: Quite obviously, the wizard under discussion is Ray Bradbury.
Second: Understand that when you are the age you are now, and the age I am now, an author coming to town to talk about his work is no magical thing. The author may be your favorite author, and you may be genuinely excited to hear him or her speak—you may even be nervous and hoping you don’t act like a complete fool when you get your forty seconds of conversation with them as they sign your book. But you know them as what they are: an author, a person, an ordinary human who happens to write the words you love to read.
But when you were twelve—or perhaps more accurately, when I was twelve—things were different. To begin, authors were not just common schmoes who happened to string words together. They were, in a word, mystics. When I was twelve I had been a reader for a decade and a writer for about a year, and in both cases at a stage where I was old enough to finally understand that writing didn’t just happen; it was an expression of both will and imagination.
What I didn’t know—and honestly at age twelve couldn’t have known—was how to put the two together. I would walk through the stacks of my local library, where I spent a genuinely huge amount of my time, running my hands along the spines of the books, wondering that each book represented a single person. How did they make it happen? I could barely manage four pages in a lined composition book before I began to sweat. Here were whole books of dense, close-set, unlined words, spanning hundreds of pages.
I simply couldn’t grasp how it could be done, and I think now that I believed something at age twelve that I would describe as a literary consonant to Clarke’s Law: that any sustained effort of fiction writing was indistinguishable from magic. Magic was the only way people could possibly write as long, and as well, as they had to in order to make a book at the end.
Therefore: Authors were wizards.
And Ray Bradbury, to my mind at least, had to be the top wizard of all. Because of all the wizards practicing their craft—or of the ones I was reading at the time, which is possibly an important qualification—he was clearly the one most in control of his magic, the one who again even at the age of twelve I could see was doing something with his words that no one else I was reading was doing.
I should pause here to note that my introduction to Ray Bradbury had come the year before, in Mr. Johnson’s sixth grade class at Ben Lomond Elementary, when I was assigned by my teacher to read The Martian Chronicles. Now, understand that being assigned a book is no positive thing. It’s a well-known fact that if you wish to inspire in a child a vast hatred of any single book, all you have to do is assign it to him in school. This generally works like a charm, and is why, for example, I to this day loathe George Eliot’s The Mill on the Floss with the sort of passion normally reserved for ex-spouses or whatever presidential candidate it is you’re damn well not voting for.
Fortunately for me and for the book, there were two significant mitigating factors. The first was that I had already been inducted into the cult of the science fiction geek; the door had opened in the fourth grade, with a copy of Robert Heinlein’s Farmer in the Sky. I had wasted little time getting myself over the threshold, burning through the school library’s rather meager collection of science fiction—mostly Heinlein juvies and a few poor imitations of Heinlein juvies, their titles and authors now lost due to pre-adolescent critical expunging from memory. I was primed, basically, to receive the book.
The second factor was that the book came, not from an approved curriculum list, but from Mr. Johnson himself. Every student has the teacher who looms in memory, and Keith Johnson is mine—a fine, handsome and fearfully smart man who didn’t take any crap (which is an excellent trait in handling sixth graders) but who also saw each of his students as an individual (which is an exceptional trait in handling sixth graders). Mr. Johnson gave me The Martian Chronicles to read and said this to me as he handed it over: “You should be reading this.” He also said it was one of his favorite books.
To get the book, vouched for in that way, felt like an intimacy between the two of us. I realize using the word “intimacy” there opens things up to an unseemly interpretation, which would be, mind you, ridiculous. What it means is that while in no way stepping out of the teacher-student relationship, Mr. Johnson was treating me as a confidant, and even in a small way as an equal: This book means something to me, he was saying. It might mean something to you, too. It was, in other words, a powerful recommendation.
And Mr. Johnson was right. It meant something to me. The Martian Chronicles is not a child’s book, but it is an excellent book to give to a child—or to give to the right child, which I flatter myself that I was—because it is a book that is full of awakening. Which means, simply, that when you read it, you can feel parts of your brain clicking on, becoming sensitized to the fact that something is happening here, in this book, with these words, even if you can’t actually communicate to anyone outside of your own head just what that something is. I certainly couldn’t have, in the sixth grade—I simply didn’t have the words. As I recall, I didn’t much try: I just sat there staring down at the final line of the book, with the Martians staring back at me, simply trying to process what I had just read.
I could tell you now about all of it—I’m a good enough wizard on my own now—but that would take more space than you would have tolerance for in an introduction. I know you are eager to get through this and start re-reading the book you love.
But I will give you one example: The Martian Chronicles was the first book to make me understand that words themselves, and in themselves, had power. The genre of science fiction vaunts itself as the literature of ideas, which seems a bit much. It’s more to the point that it’s the literature of engineering, originally springing forth from the minds of proto-geeks fascinated with the technical potential of the future. These men (and occasional women) used words as fine-tooled machines to work those ideas into print, practically rather than poetically.
There’s nothing wrong with this. I largely stand in this tradition myself. What it does mean, however, is that much of science fiction prose reads flat. Great colorful playful ideas, packaged in a big cardboard box.
Ray Bradbury’s words are not a cardboard container for his ideas. His words have weight and rhythm and pace and form; they are a scaffold of filigree for his ideas to weave themselves in and around, taking form through them. Bradbury’s people did not exist for the sake of exposition or simply to have things happen to them: He sketched them in what they said (or didn’t say), and how they said them or not. Words gave rise to character, economically but fully, revealing a spaceman disgusted with his people, two strangers from different times meeting on a road, a man who learns he’s okay being alone, a father teaching his children about who the Martians truly are.
The Martian Chronicles was the first science fiction book to make me feel a character’s righteous rage (not to mention the concept of ironically literal death, both in the same chapter) and the first science fiction book to make me feel loss and loneliness in my gut, doing it without featuring a single human, save as a shadow on a wall. And more than the first science fiction that did all these things: the first fiction, too.
The Martian Chronicles, in short, showed me what words can truly do. It showed me magic.
And now you might understand how, at age twelve, I was amazed beyond words that this wizard was coming to town, and would be somewhere I could meet him and see him, in the flesh, for myself. Because I was geek enough to be well-known to all the librarians, who were hosting this wizard’s appearance, I managed to wheedle my way into being in the group that would welcome him to the library and would get him ready to meet his public in our library’s common room, which we grandly but not wholly inaccurately labeled a “forum.” I would meet this wizard of all wizards, I would spend time with him, and perhaps I might even get him to show me some of his secrets. It was an excellent plan.
Which didn’t work. Ray Bradbury’s magic is strong, but the black magic of the 210 Freeway at rush hour is stronger—Bradbury arrived only minutes before he was set to speak. Nevertheless, the librarians, knowing how excited I was to meet him, pushed me forward and introduced me to him, and gave me a prime opportunity to talk magic with the wizard.
At which point my tongue, previously full of questions, fell out of my head, and all I could do was squeak about how much I liked his books. As I recall, the wizard tousled my hair, said something I don’t remember except that it was kind, signed the copy of The Martian Chronicles I had in my hand, and then went up to our forum to do another kind of magic, which was to entertain a room full of admirers for an hour.
I would say that I never got another chance to have the wizard show me his magic, but that’s not quite true. I never have met Ray Bradbury again in person. His magic, however, is there in his work. When you read it, if you pay attention, the wizard shows you all his magic and power. If you’re smart, you see how it works. If you have some talent, you might be able to pull off a trick or two. Will you become a wizard? Well, that depends on many things, some of which will not be under your control. But you won’t be able to say that this particular wizard has not been generous with his magic.
What I have never gotten another chance to do, however, is to thank the wizard, for what he’s showed me and taught me and how he’s inspired me to use my own magic. This seems as good a time and place as any. So thank you, Mr. Bradbury, for all of it.
And now, like the rest of you, I’m off to read The Martian Chronicles another time. I suspect this wizard has more magic to show me here. I want to see it.
Two quick notes:
1. Longtime readers of the site will know I’ve posted this here before, in 2012, when Bradbury passed away. I wanted to repost rather than just link back, because today is a celebration of his life rather than a memorialization at his death.
2. I think this piece works actually quite well with the recent discussion of a science fiction “canon” and whether to approach previous authors in the genre, and how. As I think this piece quite clearly shows, I have honor for writers who came before me, and who have taught and influenced me in their way, and there is Bradbury work I would recommend to others today.
Do I think it is necessary to have read Bradbury? In my case, yes, it was! I also think other writers, in their own life and times, will find their own wizards to revealt to them how the magic happens. It doesn’t have to be Bradbury. It has to be someone who can do for them what Bradbury did for me.
I got to meet him in the 90’s when he attended a play version of Fahrenheit 451 staged at my junior college in a tiny theater. Just a quick hello in a book signing line before the performance but it was afterword that was special. He spent what must have been an hour taking questions and discussing his intended meaning behind the novel. Wonderful experience that I’ll never forget.
Thank you for a well-told story that triggered some nostalgia of my own. While my introduction to science fiction occurred at an earlier age, and with a more prosaic source (the Tom Swift Junior series, followed by Asimov’s Luck Starr juvies) it was also transformative for me!
I met Ray when our theatre group did some of his plays (adapted from his stories) in Waukegan, and he came back to his hometown to see them and do other business. He gave me the best compliment I’ve ever gotten.
Ray: You know, you look like a young Martin Landau.
Me: (in awe that Ray Bradbury was talking to me) Huh-what?
Ray: I’m serious. Ever seen “North by Northwest?”
I don’t remember much after that.
Madeleine L’Engle came to General Beadle Elementary School when I was maybe a 3rd grader. Mom and I were reading A Wrinkle in Time together at that time. It was a book and a day that has stayed with me all these many year. Thanks to all the wizards or there and especially thanks to the wizards who take the time to share their magic with their youngest fans. I also got to hear Ray Bradbury when he spoke at ALA. Amazing man.
Thank you, John.
I am not a hardcore SF reader or writer, but you meeting the Wizard would be like me having a chance to meet Mark Twain. I can so relate.
And you speaking of Keith Johnson brings back memories of Mr. Johnson, Ben Lomond, and that really small library. It served its purpose for many.
Now The Martian Chronicles has been bumped to next on my reading list.
Oh, and memories of the 210. Yikes!
The Martian Chronicles is the very first science fiction book I read, at about the age of 8. In retrospect, I missed a lot of what went on as that’s a bit young. It still made a huge impression on me, and that plus a collection of Clarke short stories pretty much doomed me forever to a life of science. It also led to my reading the story “Usher II” before anything by Edgar Allen Poe, which made Poe extra weird later.
Ok I was blinking back tears by the end of this.
I re-read Dandelion Wine often. I’m from Waukegan. In fact, he captured our childhood very well, even though I was growing up in the 60s and 70s. The childhood game where we play “Freeze” and his friend John is frozen and he wishes the moment could last forever — I was playing that with my friends when I was around 10 with my new camera and I snapped a picture of my best friend in a funny frozen position. Now when I read this passage, I think of my best friend, I think of the fact that kids don’t run around and play these games on their own anymore, I think of the passage of time and how we want to capture it and hold it still for a second — just long enough to notice it before it’s gone. Well, he captured it and now it is gone, but the fact that he captured it makes me always call him The Master. Although I now live in Seattle, I’ll be donating generously to the new Ray Bradbury museum that is being organized there, because, well, he will live forever.
I never met any science fiction authors when I was that young, but I do remember the awe I felt when getting a personal note on a post card from Stan Lee or L. Sprague de Camp.
So thank you for a beautiful essay about a wonderful wizard.
John Scalzi and his Mr. Electrico moment. I was fortunate to hear Mr. Bradbury speak at my college (after I had graduated). At the time he was confined to a wheel chair, and he had to retire before I got my 30 seconds of person to person and his signature on the book I bought that night (I had never thought having an author sign a book I owned was something you could do), Zen In the Art of Writing (which was my first book about writing). In the last class for my minor in Creative Writing I did my thesis on Arthur C. Clarke. I had read all of the published fiction by Clarke that I could find and needed something new to read that Summer. I grabbed the Vintage Ray Bradbury from the college bookshop where I had one of my jobs (it was on some class’ reading list). I think it was when I hit “The Fruit at the Bottom of the Bowl” when I realized I picked the wrong author to focus on.
Oh, and I think I will take up your calling him “The Wizard” instead of The Master, because, well, 2020. And another note on canonization, we had an excerpt from Dandelion Wine in our 5th grade reading textbook in 1970 — where Douglas gets his sneakers. These days, my kids have Fahrenheit 451 on their high school reading lists. So he’s beyond the science fiction canon and into the American literature canon. The literary term “magical realism” could apply to Dandelion Wine. I think Asimov, Clarke and Heinlein will fall away from our cultural discussion long before Bradbury will.
I like the book so much that when a bookseller had a hardcover version in a font I didn’t like, I wouldn’t buy it.
I saw the original, under glass, going for a thousand dollars at an antique bookstore. With a picture of a very young Ray. Still there, I’m sure.
Reading the book makes me homesick for both the 1940’s and Mars.
Lots of people cry at the story with the shadow. And that poor dog. As part of VJ Day I saw a photograph of an actual shadow figure from Hiroshima. … Sometimes I joke that I have to go to a coffee franchise in order to be called “Sir.”
For my bungalow yard I had a modern push mower, all alloy and plastics, that was very light and practical, more fun than using a power one. (not like my childhood wooden one)
nothing much to say except Thanks to folks sharing memories, and to Mr S for hosting.
(invisible link to Pete Seeger’s “my getup and go has got up and went” tuber goes here)
Ray Bradbury wrote with pixie dust, and Harlan Ellison wrote with razor blades. Mr. Bradbury could evoke wonder like no one else. Some of the recent writers have developed this talent, and it is a delight to experience.
if Google weren’t down at the moment, I’d search out the wonderful story of Ray Bradbury being given a tour of the NASA spaceflight center in Houston, and of his astonishment when he walked into a big gathering of his readers there among the rocket scientists. But you know how to find this stuff.
Thank you for sharing this (again, though this is the first time I’ve seen it). I read pretty much nothing but SF when I was a kid and Bradbury’s books were just a cut above. Fahrenheit 451 will always be one of my top favorite books. I wrote book reports on it in middle school, twice in high school, and once in college, and each time with my growing maturity I pulled new insights out of it.
Damn it, it’s dusty in here. (Rubs at watery eyes)
Ray Bradbury was the first :adule” sf/f author I ever read. And it was when I was about eleven.I had exhausted all of what might be called Science Fiction or Fantasy in the Children’s section of my local library by then and the librarians, recognizing that I needed my weekley reading fix (g) allowed me access to the “Adult” shelves.(YA as a separate library section did not exist in those ancient days) There I found Bradbury. To say that reading him made a profound impression on me is to understate..I agree with Scalzi that there should be no rules about authors who came before that *have* to be read. But anyone eschewing Bradbury because he was an Old White Guy (and he was very White,often given to dressing like Tom Wolfe!) is missing something major..
Dandelion Wine is one of the books that I can pick up and open to any page and immediately be immersed in the story. It is, for me, simply perfect. It is not a surprise, I suspect, that Doug is 12 and I first read it at 12 and . . . well, as another writer has said, “I never had any friends later on like the ones I had when I was 12. Jesus, does anyone?”
Happy birthday, Ray.
Wow–that was neat to read. I have a whole slew of Bradbury on my shelf because of the reasons you specified. When it comes to sci-fi prose, he’s fabulously different, and the words just conjure up so much. It’s not just pages of pages of exposition and description, but rather the word choice and the rhythm do so much to put the picture in your mind. It’s fabulous, and why I like reading him so much.
I needed that smile today–I can picture you there waiting for your chance to meet “the wizard” quite well. I probably would’ve done the same if I’d been in your shoes. I found Bradbury when my stepdad introduced me to him when I was about 14. He talked about “The Illustrated Man” and I had to nab a copy from the library. Been reading him ever since.
I can’t recall exactly when I was introduced to Bradbury’s work, but it might have been a commercial TV broadcast of Truffaut’s adaptation of Fahrenheit 451 (which of course has a passing book-person at the end tell Montag, “I’m The Martian Chronicles by Ray Bradbury”). I never got much into the novels but still have a few of the story collections – and I consider Chronicles one of the latter.
If the Subterranean Press “complete edition” (pictured above; a tiny printing, long since sold out) was worth doing, can’t it be made available to a wider audience somehow?
Fifteen years ago, one of my daughters was introduced to “All Summer in a Day” in fifth grade (after which the class was assigned to write a brief sequel). The story I recall reading first was the flip side of that one, “The Long Rain.”
A great essay. My Bradbury memory–not a meeting–isn’t of the excellent books I’ve read. It’s of a comic-book adaptation of “There Will Come Soft Rains,” presumably the 1953 Weird Fantasy version (the time’s right–I would have been eight). The words and the Wally Wood art haunted me for a long time.
I never have the chance to meet Mr. Bradbury but I encountered him several times at the House of Pies on North Vermont Street in Los Angeles where he would dine with his pal Forrey Ackerman. He’d come in and have a couple bowls of their clam chowder and finish off with a slice of custard pie as he and Forrey chatted.
Hey I didn’t want to interrupt him when he feasted on what he said was the best clam chowder in the world!
Fantastic article. Also it’s great how the concept in A Sound of Thunder keeps showing up in various other formats and even science. Bradbury was a visionary.
He spoke at commencement at Webb my sophomore year (I was a few years ahead of you there, John); as it happens, I also won the school reading prize that year. The prize was (of course) a book — and *he* came up to *me* afterwards and asked what the book was. It was “A Native Sons Reader” — a selection of pieces by black authors about the African-American experience. (I found out afterwards that Larry McMillin had picked the book for me — “Perspectives are important,” he said.)
Ray took the book — and started to read! After a few paragraphs he stopped — “sorry, I just can’t help myself,” he said. “This is really excellent — do read it,” he said, passing back the book. And yeah, I asked him to sign it for me. What better gift for a reader than the scrawl of a favorite author?
Wow. I would have loved to have met Ray Bradbury when I was that age, although reading through the comments I am even more envious of Schnauzerfan getting to meet Madeline L’Engle. When I was in Jr High School, I remember watching a school film that featured Ray Bradbury describing how he wrote a short story – I think it was about the telephone system becoming sentient. I started with him riding his bicycle around and looking at the equipment on his ride and If I remember right (it has been 50 years) it eventually had him reading at least parts of the story with some film of some of the locations he had used for descriptions. No idea whether any of those old school movies have made it over to the digital age – I will have to go look…
Not sure if it is OK to post links here, but the film I was remembering is on YouTube and is called “Ray Bradbury – the story of a writer” A 25 minute documentary by David L Wolper from 1963.
My life long love of science fiction began with Ray Bradbury’s short story The Dragon. Within the next year I read everything he published as of 1965. My copy of the Martian Chronicles eventually fell apart. Although I finally discovered other science fiction authors, Ray’s stories will always be remembered.
You bring back so many memories of being very young, and so many books to be read!
My Dad was a truck driver, and he read roughly one book for every 2 lunch breaks, and to hear my Mom tell it, altogether too many more at home. Science fiction was his jam,along with a heavy dose of Edgar Casey and the like. Having a kid who learned to read at a very young age,and a house full of paperbacks worked out well for them and me.
I was lucky enough to teach with a woman who had known Bradbury since her childhood. She invited me to dinner one evening saying there would be an interesting person to meet. It was Ray Bradbury. It was a delightful evening. He was a great conversationalist with a wonderful sense of humor. I definitely remember that night great fondness.
Here it is:
When someone in the room announced that Ray Bradbury was present—Ray Bradbury, the author—at least half of the astronauts looked up, alert, scanning the room excitedly. Several of them approached Ray after the conference. As young dreamers with imaginations fixed squarely on the stars, many of them credited Ray, and specifically The Martian Chronicles, as an early inspiration. Ray suddenly found himself surrounded by American heroes, who were worshiping him. The kid from Green Town—Buck Rogers, as so many in the literary community had disparagingly deemed him—had done good.
For Hank Robert’s (1:38 pm) – “Bradbury meets the astronauts” . https://www.airspacemag.com/daily-planet/bradbury-meets-the-astronauts-114296322/
John, thank you for sharing your experience. I met Ray Bradbury at the American Cinematheque (Egyptian Theatre) in Hollywood. I can’t remember the year but it was a screening of Moby Dick. He answered questions after a fascinating talk and was the charming man I’d heard so much about. He was in the wheelchair, but he took the time to greet many of us before and after the screening. A cherished memory for me as well. What a kind and talented human being.
Thank you for sharing this. A wizard, indeed, and his books were some of the first SF I read. S is for Space, R is for Rocket…in 6th grade I went through all of his books on the shelf in my school library. I wrote a follow up to All Summer in a Day that year, so no, I wasn’t impressed or anything…
While I was in college, Bradbury did a “virtual” Q&A session – since he didn’t fly Hawaii was very unlikely to happen in person – we were in the art auditorium, he connected by phone (no video), and people got to ask him questions. I enjoyed hearing him speak.
My all time favorite Bradbury work is “The Halloween Tree”. It reminds me of magical Autumns growing up in the mid-west. The book and the ’93 animated film inspired me to sculpt a mask of Mr. Moundshroud. I sent Ray a copy and was rewarded with a thank you call on Halloween!
“When I hit the atmosphere, I’ll burn like a meteor. I wonder if anyone’ll see me?”
Bradbury was a poet. When you read his words, you can actually feel the heat of that rocket summer, or smell the sun-baked stones that line the canals of Mars. When you read his words, you remembered these places as if they were from your own past.
And as an artist, his work ethic inspires me. I love how he explained that he woite every day because he knew he only had a few good stories in him a year, but he wouldn’t be able to find them until he burned through all the bad ones.
With this post, I’m reminded not just of Ray Bradbury, but of other much-loved authors of my youth: Kurt Vonnegut, George Alec Effinger, Avram Davidson (“Full Chicken Richness” is sooo funny), Robert Sheckley & Richard Brautigan. Even enjoyed Aldous Huxley who was in the dreaded “assigned at school” category. Reading these people’s work was sheer joy. Actually meeting any of them in person was beyond imagining.
Do I remember every detail of every book? No. Do I recall how much fun I had? Heck yes. Do I have time left to reread everything? Hard to say when there is so much good new work appearing every minute these days.
“…I’ll burn like a meteor. I wonder if…” is from Kaleidoscope. I think now the colour reference is from how people have colours inside, like many memories, and can still chose at the end of life to be a bad colour or a good one. It begins:
“The first concussion cut the ship up the side like a giant can opener. The men were thrown into space like a dozen wriggling silverfish.”
Thanks so much for sharing! A couple of my friends got to meet Bradbury and although I never did, he has spoken to me in his words about writing and about experiencing life!
Sadly, I never got to meet him. I had an opportunity, but at the time I was working graveyard and when I got off in the morning (around 10) it would have taken me a while to get to his event taking the LA public transportation (I know, I should have done it anyway). Instead, my wife got to meet him. At least one of us did.
I remember reading Fahrenheit 451 for the first time in my younger years and falling in love with it. It was and still is the book that changed my life.
What a giant!
My father gave me a beat up copy of Dandelion wine, which I read so many times the pages finished falling out. I bought him a new copy when I was in my 30’s he gave that copy to my son when he was about the same age as I was when I first read it. When my son read it, he also read the margin notes from my father, added his own notes and passed it back to me. I always pictured my self re reading this to my Dad when/if he got to old or addled to do it for himself, that time has now come.
What a wonderful tribute to an exceptional writer! Ray Bradbury is the author who first introduced me to scifi in the early 70’s and I never looked back. The first novel I read was “Something Wicked This Way Comes”. Unlike the Martian Chronicles, “Wicked” is more fantasy. I was amazed at the pictures he could draw with words and the emotions that he evoked of small towns, home, familiarity, and magic. Thanks to him, I found the scifi shelves at my local library, meager that they were, and proceeded to read every single book there, checked out 5 at a time. I now read mostly new authors, but you never forget that first one who opened the door to the special magic a book had to take you to other worlds! That was Ray Bradbury for me, and I will always be grateful!
I was introduced to Bradbury in 7th grade when our teacher recommended him – I picked Something Wicked This Way Comes, and then Dandelion Wine, and it was all over but the shouting. By the end of the year I had devoured everything our school and local libraries had that he wrote, and was overjoyed to find out that the Science Fiction Book Club had a few collections which I promptly picked up as well.
My one sadness about Bradbury is that as I’ve reread his work is that his female characters, by and large, aren’t drawn with the same depth or agency as everyone else. Won’t stop me from pointing my son to that shelf, though.
Ah, when I was in Catholic high school, the cool priest took us on a field trip to the garment district South of Market in San Francisco to meet Mr. Bradbury. As was my tradition, I did a bit of research before I got my autograph. When it was my turn to get an autograph, I asked him about him meeting W.C. Fields when he was a child? He said it was a funny story; Fields was infamous for hating children (“Don’t work with children or animals”) so when Bradbury asked for an autograph, Fields signed the autograph and said: “Now, F**K off, you little runt!”. Bradbury said that made the autograph all that more special and his recitation of the store made my autograph all the more special.
> But I will give you one example: The Martian Chronicles was the first book to make me understand that words themselves, and in themselves, had power.
That reminds me of an equivalent moment in my early teen years. Unfortunately, it wasn’t the result of a piece of great literature, or even of great cinema, but from a mostly-fine legal drama/romantic comedy flick called Legal Eagles. (It has a great cast, which helps a lot.) Artist Daryl Hannah has introduced a fair amount of strife in Assistant District Attorney Robert Redford’s life, and in a quiet moment together we get the following exchange:
DH: Personal question? What do you think of me?
RR: [beat] Interesting.
DH: The other night when l kissed you… what did you think of that?
DH: They’re carefully chosen words
RR: Carefully chosen words are the tools of my profession.
And that last line really spoke to me. The idea that words can be used as tools, and be deliberately chosen to have a specific effect, was kind of mind-blowing. I mean, it was the sort of thing you kind of understand in a fuzzy way at that age, but when someone condenses the fuzz into a crystalline object that you can see the edges of and turn over in your mind, bam! And of course, unlike you, I didn’t manage to figure the lesson out for myself but had to have it explicitly spelled out for me.
“Something Wicked This Way Comes” was my first Bradbury, read at about the same age you read “The Martian Chronicles” and which I quickly followed with “The October Country”. Interestingly , although I enjoy straight sci fi, I’ve had more of a fantasy/dark fantasy preference through the years, and it started right about that same time. It didn’t occur to me until right this minute that there could be a connection. (In fairness, I found L’Engle at pretty much the same time.)
I’m glad he got to read this.
I feel like any discussion about the inspirational nature of Ray Bradbury is incomplete without including Ms. Rachel Bloom’s 2010 extravaganza musical homage. Love your heroes. Well, maybe not THAT way. https://youtu.be/e1IxOS4VzKM
Thanks for reposting this, somehow I missed it the first time.
I never met Ray Bradbury in person, but, like you, I had the good luck to be introduced to his words when I was in Junior High. I remember it very well. We studied “There WIll Come Soft Rains”. I went on to read the rest of Martian Chronicles. I think it’s the first time a book made me cry.
Late at night, I once heard a radio play of a short story, a play recorded back before most homes had television, where a boy finds an old man who is a time machine. I think it was from Dandelion Wine, but I haven’t read the book yet. I dimly recall in an old book jacket photo, young Bradbury wears a bow tie… “Bow ties are cool.”
Well, that certainly resonates! The dedication to my very first book, Post Exposure reads, “this book is dedicated to Ray Bradbury, without whose encouragement I would not have become the photographer I am today.”
As with you, there is a story —
Back when I was an undergraduate at Caltech, at the end of the 60s, Ray Bradbury came to speak in the Student Center main lounge. The room was full, likely close to 100 people (Caltech isn’t very big). Being some 50 years ago, he was still a middle-aged, vigorous Ray Bradbury, and he enchanted us for hours with all sorts of stories, anecdotes, and opinions: his memories going back to his birth (confirmed with his mother), his absolute avoidance of those flying tubes of death known as airplanes (this was several years before Disney got him drunk enough to fly), his distaste for automobiles (and how he’d get stopped by the police for being so suspicious as to WALK in Beverly Hills), how he got connected with Stan Freberg (who pulled over one day and asked if Ray needed a lift)…
It was a magical afternoon. The man exuded ebullience and joy for the entire world and it was infectious. And, oh my God, it wasRay Bradbury! Not the first science fiction author I’d met. That would be David Gerrold (over the Save Star Trek campaign), and we’re still good friends 50 years later. But back then David was just some newbie who’d happened to write the Best Star Trek Episode Ever. He wasn’t **Ray**Frikkin’**Bradbury** this mortal god who dressed like Apollo and talked like Dionysius!!!
For me, it was what they call a “peak experience.”
Which is not why I dedicated my first book to him.
A handful of us campus shakers and movers were given the opportunity to have dinner with Ray and sit and chat with him informally at one of the faculty member’s homes. The key, pinnacle moment came when Ray turned the tables and started grilling us in turn about our expectations. He gets to me and asks, “So what do you plan to do with your life when you get out of Caltech?”
It had been a year of Great Decisions for me. I had concluded (erroneously, but I didn’t know any better) that I would likely hate a career in physics. I didn’t drop out or even drop physics as my major — it was a fun hobby, after all. I even added a second major in English (because that’s also a fun hobby). But my goal was to make my career photography, which I deeply and truly loved.
Nobody actively discouraged me, not friends, faculty, nor family. There’s little point in trying to discourage a Techer. But I wasn’t getting any support either, because nobody really knew what to do with that kind of a life plan at Caltech. I felt committed, but I didn’t feel at all secure.
Hesitatingly I stammered out, “Well, I was thinking about becoming a photographer.”
Ray beams with delight, claps his hands and loudly exclaims, “Good for you!!!”
I’d gotten validation for my decision. My first validation. From this mortal god.
I have no idea if it actually made a difference in my career path. I am stubborn, after all. But it stuck with me, and it always made me feel good. 25 years later I dedicated my first book to Ray. 25 years later, still, exclamation warms me. There was such love of the arts and those who pursue them in his voice.
I never got to tell Ray the effect he had on me. The next time I saw him wasn’t until Worldcon in Anaheim, by which point he was very feeble, mobbed, and surrounded by a phalanx of handlers. There was no opportunity to talk with him, remind him of that day. It probably wasn’t important; I’d have been surprised if he’d have remembered.
On the other hand, this was the man who remembered his birth. So, maybe.
– pax \ Ctein
[ Please excuse any word-salad. Dragon Dictate in training! ]
— Ctein’s Online Gallery. http://ctein.com
— Digital Restorations. http://photo-repair.com
I grew up in rural central Illinois. Freeze tag was still a big deal when growing up, as was red light, green light.
I read Dandelion Wine and Farewell Summer a couple summers back, and the books reawakened some good things within me. Of course, The Halloween Tree is an annual treat, both dark and sweet.
A friend took me aside, around the age when a boy considers first kisses and shadows with increasing frequency. “You have to read this,” he said. The book was “R is for Rocket,“ and the tale, Frost and Fire.
Stunned by the monstrosity of freakish aging and dying, Sim’s impending mortality and longing for more life, I found myself breathless while Sim and Lyte struggled toward the ship that would offer them days, years, decades of life.
I have never been the same, thanks to Ray Bradbury; and I am grateful.
I remember being a science fiction fan in his teens in Israel of the early ’90s was hard. All the publishing houses that translated the great classics cut down on new titles, and sold out all of their stocks with no plans of reprinting. My local library was attempting to get some of the old titles, but what I had to choose from was plenty of Asimov, a respectable amount of Heinlein (an author that only few of his books I actually liked), some Zelazny, and plenty of role-playing junk fiction (at least D&D was big here at the time).
Then one day, in English class, we’ve read “There Will Come Soft Rains”. And it was amazing. It was emotional. It was heartbreaking. It was like no other genre story that I have read before. Only a few years later, when I was in the army, I discovered that it was actually a part of “The Martian Chronicles” (a book I have heard of before, but never managed to get my hands on before that), an incredible book in its own right (although no other story in it, in my opinion, managed to hit the same emotional peak as “There Will Come Soft Rains”).
Flash forward more than two decades later: I was working on a lecture about movie and TV adaptations of science fiction for a convention, and it was obvious I was going to talk about Bradbury – but which adaptation should I talk about? I believe – though I haven’t got exact figures – that he’s the most adapted American genre novelist, and his works provided inspiration for so many different visions by different directors in Hollywood, the independent cinema and Europe. Then I discovered this amazing Soviet animated short:
It’s incredible how Soviet filmmakers sometimes understood American science fiction writers better than their Hollywood colleagues ever did (same happened with Asimov, BTW – check out the Soviet adaptation of “End of Eternity”). It’s also comforting to know that in the USSR too, people were very much aware of the danger and insanity of the mutually assured destruction politics.
May Bradbury rest in peace. He really was one of the genre’s greatest storytellers.
A magnificent set of insightful reflections and observations from one of my favorite sci fi authors about another legendary sci fi giant. Thank you for the essay.
I remember especially reading Dandelion Wine and Something Wicked This Way Comes; the WORDS jumped out at me as much as the story. They weren’t normally the type of book I sought; I preferred space or planetary adventure more. But they were written so well that to this day I remember them when I have forgotten many of the hundreds of books I blazed through as a child.
In writing about another author’s magic, you’ve used words that bring magic themselves.
“The author may be your favorite author, and you may be genuinely excited to hear him or her speak—you may even be nervous and hoping you don’t act like a complete fool when you get your forty seconds of conversation with them as they sign your book.”
I will note that this is how I felt meeting you at Broderlands in San Francisco in 2017. AS a forty-year-old Thanks for being an awesome wizard.