News outlets around the world are announcing the death of “science fiction author” Ray Bradbury at age 91. But it’s a description the writer of “Fahrenheit 451,” “The Martian Chronicles” and “Something Wicked This Way Comes” found nettlesome.
“I’m not a science fiction writer,” Bradbury was frequently quoted as saying. “I’ve written only one book of science fiction. All the others are fantasy.”
That lone exception was “Fahrenheit,” the dystopian 1953 novel about a future in which books are outlawed. To Bradbury’s discerning eye, the narratives he wrote were too implausible to be contained within the more logic-driven realm of sci-fi.
“Fantasies are things that can’t happen,” Bradbury said, “and science fiction is about things that can happen.”
Science fiction and fantasy fans live for discussion and debate and the border between their lands is forever in dispute.
Take the films “Star Wars” and “John Carter,” for instance. Applying a strict view, purists would say those are fantasy films due to their good vs. evil core story, a disregard for physics and sprinkled moments of mysticism; more casual fans would point to all the aliens and file the movie under sci-fi.
“Ender’s Game” author Orson Scott Card said that to his mind a science fiction book “works based on a set of rules that are explicit throughout the book, while a fantasy story works by rules that are rather vague and shadowy.”
So while science fiction is concerned with details like rocket-ship design and the atmosphere on a distant planet, for instance, Bradbury focused on the broad themes of why humans had traveled there — and took plenty of artistic license with what they might find. In “The Martian Chronicles,” Bradbury’s 1950 short-story collection about humans colonizing Mars, he describes characters with, “the fair brownish skin of the true Martian, the yellow coin eyes, the soft musical voices.”
Much of Bradbury’s work twinned a nostalgic look at childhood with a magical sensibility, including “Dandelion Wine,” a collection of short stories set in a fictional Midwestern town in the 1920s, and “Something Wicked This Way Comes,” his 1962 novel about a pair of 13-year-old boys and a mysterious traveling carnival with a menacing, tattoo-covered Mr. Dark.
Sci-fi purists were just as reluctant to claim Bradbury, both because of his mainstream audience and his vocal skepticism of new technologies. Bradbury’s opinion was that, in festishizing rockets and robots, humans were letting go of something deeper — their hearts.
“We’ve got to dumb America up again,” he once said.
— Rebecca Keegan
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