Hard to believe it’s been five years since the great Ray Bradbury passed away.
We won’t attempt a retrospective; it would be foolish and arrogant to think we could put into context a seventy-year writing career in a singe blog post. Very simply: Ray Bradbury was one of our greatest writers. Of any genre. Of any period. And the best way to remember him is to remember (and read!) his stories. Here are some favourites from the Gollancz team, past and present:
To say that Bradbury was a master of the short story is like saying Einstein was a bit bright. His career is littered with gems of the short form, and it’s been too long since I read any, but if I had to choose favourites off the top of my head, I’d go for ‘All Summer in a Day’, which first appeared in The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction in 1954, and ‘The Veldt’ from The Illustrated Man – two very different stories chosen for very different reasons.
As far as novels are concerned, I simply love the hypnotic rhythm of Something Wicked This Way Comes. This is the passport to the October Country. Without ever eliciting a shock or a jump in the reader, it builds tension and atmosphere to the point where it’s genuinely surprising to look up from the page and discover that I’m still in my own house and not bodily transported to the American Mid-west. I can almost smell the carnival food and hear the crowd, I can almost feel the slight chill of autumn descending, and – and this is where Bradbury has no peer – I can feel myself becoming nostalgic for a small-town American childhood that I never had.
Genius is a word that’s used too lightly in modern literature – it should be kept for only the truly great writers. Writers like Ray Bradbury.
I love Ray Bradbury’s writing. He’s one of those very rare authors whose writing you can go back to thirty years after first acquaintance and discover that your appreciation of it was not built on a hazy foundation of youthful enthusiasm and sentiment for past pleasures. Which is odd because those are exactly the things that his writing often deals with.
My favourite Bradbury book is Something Wicked This Way Comes, that brooding and menacing dissection of the dangers of yearning for an eternal childhood. But as we remember Ray on the anniversary of his death I’d like to point you at Dandelion Wine – Bradbury’s heartfelt look at the endless summers of our childhood. It’s a novel loaded with the specifics of a certain sort of American small town childhood: Norman Rockwell redux. There are darker undercurrents than Rockwell was generally allowed to admit to, but there’s something else there too. A wider and deeper understanding of the special magic of the moments that coalesce into the memories (good and bad) of those summers. Wherever we grew up, if we’re lucky we had a Dandelion Wine summer. Mine was the long hot summer of 1976. The summer of the drought, the summer before I went to ‘big school’. No picket fences, or keds, or homemade lemonade in my Dandelion Wine Summer. I spent most of it scuzzing about in a local wood, and playing in and around an old pillbox at a dusty turn in a narrow lane that took you down to the ferry if you were prepared to cycle the whole way in the heat. I didn’t read Dandelion Wine until perhaps ten years after that summer but I knew which summer of mine Bradbury was writing about. And that was his gift. He put you in his stories, he knew your story would resonate with his. Why? Because he was a generous-hearted, hugely inclusive writer. We’re lucky still to have his books.
I read Fahrenheit 451 during my unemployed phase, when I attempted to start a book group (which has now been on a nine month sabbatical…) to occupy the long days of staring at the walls of my box room and trying to seduce publishers on Twitter. I chose it because the synopsis was so intriguing – a world where they ban books? And burn offenders’ houses to the ground? The horror! The horror! The group struggled with the book – there were a few members who didn’t like the style, and found the premise was disappointing in its execution. I disagreed – compelling in its frightening resemblance to today’s world, the book scared me. Bradbury’s world was coming to fruition – the screens were taking over, technology and media continued to control the masses.
I was reminded of it recently whilst watching an episode of Black Mirror, in which people are in a world where they are constantly in front of screens, and their lives are dictated by them. They even earned points by succumbing to the screens’ commands. This idea that the written word is under threat, even that reading a book could be a wrongdoing, a crime punishable by death, feels alien to us, but how easily could it be so? They’ve put books onto screens now. These screens are becoming increasingly all-singing, all-dancing. In games and apps, books become interactive to a point where they are nearly unrecognisable as books. The model is changing. How long is it until we bridge that small gap between the written and the visual? We’re already obsessed with making movies and TV shows and games from books – why not just cut out the middle man? I’d read a few dystopian novels before I got to Bradbury (do they even let you through your twenties without having read 1984?), but it was Fahrenheit 451 which reignited the spark to delve into these worlds which didn’t exist, but so easily could.
I am lucky enough to work in an environment where everyone is in love with books, to the point of obsession, so these fears and questions don’t seem like a real threat to me and my battered paperbacks. But I’ve got to give kudos to Bradbury for (hopefully) igniting in his many readers the fight, and the spark that sets the flame of literary love a-burnin’.
Ray Douglas Bradbury (1920 – 2012)