In 1932 a twelve year old boy, already mesmerized by Buck Rogers comic strips and space travel stories by H.G. Wells and Jules Verne, went to a magic show in a carnival tent in Waukegan, Illinois. The magician, billed as Mr. Electro, touched him on his shoulder with his magic sword and said “Live Forever!”
By the time he died, eighty years later, the little fellow had found a way to do just that.
I bought my first Ray Bradbury novel at the PX at Fort Ord, California when I was in Army boot camp in 1972. I figured that the scant free time I was allowed by the drill sergeant who was the bane of my existence would be wisely spent in pure diversion and escapism. So The Martian Chronicles was the first science fiction tale I ever read.
And it’s still the best.
That nicely strung together collection of fictitious stories about mankind’s first attempts to colonize the red planet isn’t about spaceships and space aliens as much as it’s about human persistence, integrity, ego, and morality. In short, it shows what we’re capable of, both good and bad. And as a work of fiction it’s perfectly paced and wonderfully told.
Whenever one of my writing students whines about not being able to describe a setting because they’ve never been there, I remind them that Bradbury never set foot on Mars. But his descriptions of Martian landscapes and cities provide some of the most beautiful images we have.
I once attended a big conference in Fort Worth with some other teachers where Mr. Bradbury was the keynote speaker, so the Will Rogers Coliseum was filled to capacity. The balconies were crammed with school students bused in from all over the area. Those kids, many of whom were probably cutups in their classes, sat as quietly enthralled as the rest of us as the old man talked about his life and work.
He told us about how as a young writer his small children wouldn’t stop pestering him to come out and play with them, so he had to write Fahrenheit 451 on a rental typewriter in the basement of a Los Angeles library. They charged ten cents for every thirty minutes and, being on an awfully strict budget, he wrote the entire final draft of the novel in nine days.
He told us how the legendary, gruff director John Huston telephoned him out of the blue one night in the early 50’s and asked him, in an alcohol-induced slur, if he’d read Moby Dick in college. Bradbury told him he hadn’t gone to college. “Well, read it,” Huston snarled, “and write me an outline of how you’d do the script for the movie.” So Bradbury checked the big novel out of the library, sequestered himself in his bedroom, and told his wife Marguerite he had to do a book report. He ended up writing the screenplay of Huston’s classic film starring Gregory Peck.
He told us how Marguerite, when he’d asked her to marry him, said her father insisted on knowing where he, just a writer with no education and no steady job, meant to go in his life.
Bradbury told her he was going to the stars. And he wanted her to go with him.
She did. They’d been married for nearly sixty years when she died in 2003.
Lots of us went along on that ride to the stars. Bradbury’s fiction is all still in print in most of the world’s languages, many of his short stories are anthologized in textbooks and have been read by countless millions of students. And it’s a safe bet that he’ll be read as long as people continue to read. NASA astronauts named a choice piece of real estate on the moon Dandelion Crater in honor of his novel Dandelion Wine. And he gave us our first glimpses of portable radios,IPODs, televised police chases, and electronic surveillance in his fiction long before those things became commonplace in reality.
When that magician tapped that little boy’s shoulder with his sword so long ago and told him to live forever, he surely had no idea that his prophecy would be so brilliantly fulfilled.
If you’re a reader, find a Bradbury short story (I recommend “All Summer in a Day) and enjoy a master yarn spinner weaving his magic.
If you’re a writer, take notes.