Bon Voyage, Ray Bradbury
It was not Mars, however, but Venus, that heralded Bradbury’s departure last Tuesday. At some point on June 5, the author passed away in his Los Angeles home as the rest of the world watched the Venusian transit of the sun.
No one knows if he was aware of the day’s celestial events, but he certainly would have appreciated the connection. Venus, after all, was the setting for one of his more famous stories, "All Summer in A Day." The colonists on that tale experience Venus as a world of constant rainfall, with the sun only visible once every seven years.
In recent years, Bradbury became known more as icon or seer than writer. He certainly lived to see many scientific advancements come true – some that he predicted, and others that not even he could have dreamed up.
Less well understood is his impact on literature. Most people who recognize his name know him only from his most famous work, "Fahrenheit 451," the dystopian novel about censorship. But long before science fiction was thrust into the limelight by "Star Trek" conventions or multi-million dollar superhero movies, Bradbury wrote stories – and, later, novels, essays and screenplays – that helped establish science fiction as a literary genre and cultural force.
His first story was published in 1941 and his first book, "Dark Carnival," in 1947. Together with his counterparts, Isaac Asimov and Arthur C. Clarke (collectively known as the ABCs of science fiction), he reached beyond the pulp magazines to the mass-circulation titles, revealing visions of space travel and alien worlds to readers of The New Yorker, The Saturday Evening Post and similar titles.
Bradbury's populist instincts came naturally. Unlike Asimov and Clarke, he was an autodidact in the purest sense of the word. A Depression-era teen, he never went to college – but he read voraciously and spent most of his time in libraries:
"The library fueled all of my curiosities, from dinosaurs to ancient Egypt. When I graduated from high school in 1938, I began going to the library three nights a week. I did this every week for almost ten years and finally, in 1947, around the time I got married, I figured I was done. So I graduated from the library when I was twenty-seven. I discovered that the library is the real school."
"Fahrenheit 451," his magnum opus, owes much to this love of libraries. In 1951, searching for a place to work, Bradbury discovered the typing room of UCLA's Powell Library, where typewriters could be rented for a dime every half-hour. He moved in with "a bag of dimes." Nine days and $9.80 later, he had the manuscript of the book that would make his name.
Half a century later, with the advent of e-books, Bradbury would refuse consent to the digital release of Fahrenheit 451 until Simon and Schuster eventually agreed to make it available for download by library patrons.
Bradbury received many accolades from various parts of the arts world. He won an Emmy for the teleplay "The Halloween Tree," and an Oscar nomination for the screenplay of "Icarus Montgolfier Wright." "Fahrenheit 451" won him the 1954 Hugo Award for best science fiction novel of the year, and he would later receive special National Book Award and Pulitzer Prize citations, in 2000 and 2007 respectively.
In a certain sense, Bradbury was an evangelist of science – an enthusiastic advocate of space exploration and technological advancement, and this was reflected in his writing and speeches. He represented that optimistic period in science between Sputnik and the moon landing, when many felt that the colonization of space was all but inevitable. That spirit has dimmed in the past couple of decades, but recent moves towards space commercialization – like SpaceX’s Dragon and Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic – may be on the way to reviving it.
For Bradbury, the greatest moment of his life was the July 20, 1969 moon landing, "a night I had been waiting for since I was 8, 9, 10 years old."
Beside himself with excitement, he set out on that night to David Frost’s show to celebrate the new age. But Frost was busy with other guests, and an impatient Bradbury went over to NBC to join a panel of intellectuals opining on the moon landing.
There he met with more disappointment, as the predominant topics of conversation were the cost of the moon landing, the space effort, and the attendant inconveniences. Eventually, Bradbury could contain himself no longer, and erupted with a speech that might well serve as the postscript for his life and work:
"Now look. Everyone shut up. You don't know a damned thing about what's going on here tonight, and that's why people like myself are needed in the world. I want to tell you what in hell it means. This is the greatest night you will ever know!
"There are two nights the Western world will look back upon a million years from tonight. A million years! I'm not talking about a hundred or a thousand years. I'm talking about a million years from tonight.
"The birth of Christ probably is a very important date that changed the world in many ways for the better and in some ways, for not very much good at all.
"But the second most important date is this night that we're going through right now. Because it's the night when we become immortal – when we begin the steps that will enable us to live forever…
"We must go off to other worlds. We will go to the moon. We will go to Mars. We will go beyond Jupiter. We will be going beyond our own solar system and eventually, sometime in the next 100, 500, 1,000 years, we will build those starcraft we've been speaking of and head for stars so far away they are impossible to imagine.
"That's what it's all about."
Reach Contributor Joe Peters here.