For me, the seminal moment of Ray Bradbury’s literary output did not take place on Mars or a dystopian future. It arrived in the closing pages of “Something Wicked This Way Comes,” when a pair of young boys and an older man successfully defeated a nefarious carnival that set up shop outside of town and then, for a fleeting moment, became the bad guys themselves. The eerie merry-go-round left behind by the evildoers threatens to subsume the survivors with its mysterious allure. But just in the knick of time, they pull themselves away, back to sanity.
That revelatory moment, when characters wake from their delusions and see the world in its barest terms, defines Bradbury’s genius. It’s exactly what the child star of “Dandelion Wine” endures when he realizes what it feels like to be alive and what the initial group of astronauts in “The Martian Chronicles” encounter when it turns out the afterlife on the red planet is actually an alien illusion. Bradbury’s truths were alternately warm and difficult, but always central to his vision.
Nobody did a better job of questioning the nature of reality. When he died this week at 91, several movie versions of his books remained in production. Eschewing hard science for conceptual possibilities, his stories asked timeless questions against innumerable imaginative backdrops that no shifts to the filmmaking landscape have rendered out of date.
Bradbury’s enchanting prose put emotions ahead of plot specifics while still moving forward at a thundering pace. One of my favorites among his less-appreciated work, 1985’s “Death is a Lonely Business,” revolves around a man who kills people by stalking them, luring them into such terrible states of unease that can only culminate with death. Like “Dandelion Wine,” the book contains no specific science fiction ingredients, but reinforces Bradbury’s own view of himself as a fantasy writer. In retrospect, its premise is absurd, but Bradbury didn’t write with a rewind button in mind. His books speak to you in the moment, and they do so rich with possibilities.
Bradbury’s lasting appeal means something in an era where popular storytelling constantly faces the challenge of saying something new. Hollywood, tasked with the onus of creating product for a hungry marketplace, churns out derivative content at the cost of ingenuity. Great science fiction and fantasy, with few exceptions, has migrated to the low-budget arena where it thrives but wields less influence. Bradbury’s work, conversely, survived the impact that “Star Wars” and, decades later, “Transformers” had on the blockbuster formula. Where those movies and their countless knockoffs aim for loud, spectacular visions, everything about Bradbury’s output is small, whispery, enchanting and most of all suggestive. We need him now like we’ve always needed him.
Bradbury had issues with the Internet, which has led some people to wonder if he was behind the times. But who doesn’t have issues with the Internet? In truth, Bradbury rose above the times and also understood them perfectly: He saw e-books as a weapon against the romanticism of the printed word. It’s not an argument that frugal publishers would likely consider, but it has a specific place at the table in contemporary discussions of progress that assume universal complacency about the death of physical media.
Bradbury wasn’t a technophobe as much as an everyman addressing a universal fear of the ramifications involved in giving ourselves over to machines. More concerned citizen than demagogue, he repeatedly proved that the best special effect is in the independent mind. It’s a legacy no technological feat could possibly erase.
Watch “An Evening with Ray Bradbury” from 2001: