On the Occasion of Ray Bradbury’s 100th Birthday: “Meeting the Wizard”
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.
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.