Searching for Ray Bradbury, an essay

July 13, 2009 | 8:38 p.m.

Steven Paul Leiva, a novelist and screenwriter, has been spending time with Ray Bradbury lately — personally, professionally and via his writings — while working on a video about Bradbury for the Buffalo International Film Festival. Leiva was inspired to write the essay below about the literary lion who will celebrate his 89th birthday next month.

Ray Bradbury

If you are of a certain age and read the works of Ray Bradbury in your youth, you probably read paperbacks emblazoned with the words: “The world’s greatest living science fiction writer.” And being young, and loving Bradbury, you believed it. This despite the fact that Bradbury has never really been a science fiction writer, not in the classic sense of space operas, technological what-if’s, or, most precisely, works infused with extrapolations of the hard science of the day. And as you grew you continued to believe it because in almost everything you read about Bradbury his name was either preceded or followed by the

Dandelion Wine

words, “science fiction writer,” despite the fact that other things you read stated quite emphatically that Bradbury was either “not that” or “much more than just that.

But a label is a label and a badge is a badge – whether of honor or shame – and there is an undeniable power in labels and badges, and Bradbury keeps being called a science fiction writer, and for some of us that is monumentally inadequate.

But what other label would you give Bradbury? He is a “writer” of course, regardless of genre, but then so, it seems, is every other Homo sapien today within easy reach of a computer with an Internet connection. He is an “author,” but that is a very broad category incorporating writers from the deeply intellectual to the ridiculously shallow, writing both fact and fiction, some producing works of brilliance, others works barely readable. He is a “teller of tales,” the label he seems to prefer himself, but that is just a romantic way of saying, “Writer, sub-category, fiction.” Some call him a “fantasist” and that’s pretty good, but then how do you explain his own favorite work, “Dandelion Wine,” a work disguised as nostalgia for times past that impels you to live fully today.

It’s not so much that Bradbury defies categorization, for does he? Do any of us really defy categorization, no matter how unique and special we might think we are? And it’s not that we really want to fit Bradbury into a neat, little category, which we don’t − but, unfortunately, some certainly have. And it’s not so much a problem of mislabeling as every other label seems as inadequate as well. The problem seems to be that we are all trying to label the wrong thing. If trying to label what Bradbury does is frustrating, maybe we ought to widen our vision and try to label him simply by whom Bradbury is.

And to do this we have to start with science fiction.

Where did Bradbury come from? A magnificently powered 19th century submarine traveling 20,000 leagues; a time machine traversing centuries; a lost world where dinosaurs roam; a

Martian Chronociles

jaunt to Mars and the wondrous adventures to be found there; and the far future of Earth where bold men and women traveled by jet packs among marvels of architecture, these creations of Jules Verne, H.G. Wells, Arthur Conan Doyle, Edgar Rice Burroughs and the “Buck Rogers” comic strip were all early influences on Bradbury, and they were all, of course, early science fiction. Although they may better be called “scientific romances,” a term Wells applied to his work, for they all captured not so much the science of the day as the romance of imagined vistas, and those imagined vistas were captured not just in words but, especially in the comic strip, in illustrations. For a man of words, Bradbury has always been a most visual storyteller – visual in his passions, visual in his metaphors. And what did he read in these stories and see in these illustrations? Was it worlds of wonder that allowed him to mentally escape out of his birthplace, out of the mundane of Waukegan, Ill.? If Bradbury had proved to be less than what he turned out to be, that probably would have been the case, and he probably would have become just a fan of such thrilling, amazing wonder stories. But rather than escaping from Waukegan, Bradbury turned it into Green Town and found the wonder there, in dandelions, and ravines, and the memories of old people, and the speed of young tennis shoes. It was not the worlds of wonder that Bradbury became a fan of, but of wonder itself, especially the prime wonder, life, and the joys of living it fully. The romantic science fiction wonders of Verne and Wells, Burroughs and Buck were just larger-than-life metaphors for the life-size wonders of everyday living, which, Bradbury seems to say, if you feel intensely will be anything but everyday.

Ray Bradbury speaks

Bradbury is a fan − of science fiction because it taught him to see the wonder in life, of life because to feel it intensely is a kick, of humanity because that is his tribe and he has found humanity’s striving to reach the stars a noble bid for immortality that is the action of doers and not dreamers. And what is “fan” but a nickname for “lover?”

Bradbury is a lover. It informs everything he does, especially his speeches where he informs the public to be lovers too. “Love what you do, and do what you love,” he often says. And it certainly informs his writing, which he does in an improvisational manner, like a jazz musician, or, more to the point, like a young lover. He is both the Sorcerer and the Sorcerer’s apprentice – the master at what he does, but always, you suspect, hoping the work will get away from him, out of his control, so it will surprise him, scare him, delight

Fahrenheit 451

him, and divert him from his best laid plans, becoming a creation that he can always claim as his, yet appreciate as passionately as any reader, as any fan, who might come upon the work fresh and open to wonder.

But Bradbury’s love has expanded out to include many things beyond his work, or rather his “work” has expanded out to encompass what he loves – art and architecture, libraries, of course, movies from Saturday morning serials to the French New Wave, Halloween, which is perpetual in his house, and, despite the fact that he has famously never driven a car and has refused, with rare exception, to fly, modes of transportation, especially that of the monorail.

If several generations of Los Angeles city fathers had not refused to listen to Bradbury, and had built the monorail system that he has tirelessly promoted for years (don’t talk of earthquakes, I’m sure clever engineers could have worked out the problems), then Los Angeles would now have truly efficient arteries for our contradiction-in-terms city – a center-less urban environment made up of suburbs. And I think Angelinos would have been enthused with a Bradbury-like love for their city. For only a monorail system would have given Angelinos the literal lift that would have allowed them to cast their eyes out over our expansive landscape and see it for what it is: neighborhoods of individual identity seamlessly stitched together into a whole, a flat-land whole given texture by being divided by hills and boarded by mountains and the sea, and covered by more trees that it’s ever given credit for. Daily, purposeful travel by monorails would have afforded Angelinos an elevated perspective that would have given them a true sense of place. Not the most beautiful city in the world, true, but one teeming

Something Wicked This Way Come

with life, one firmly planted in our geography, one seen, from this perspective, as a home one can be in love with. Bradbury fell in love with the monorail not because it was a sci-fi idea, or something from the future, but because it would have been an instrument of love.

If you come into contact with Bradbury, either one on one, or in an audience of a thousand, you are likely to come away saying that Bradbury is a life force. But it’s not so much that he is a life force, as that he loves the force of life – life and all that it entails,  from seemingly mundane little pleasures such as the sound of a human-powered lawnmower, to the wondrous large pleasures of art and food, drink and thoughts, from life’s past to its present, and especially its future, possibly even from the quickness of its tragedies to the lingering of its comedies.

So Bradbury is much more than a science fiction writer. He is even more than the archetype of the modern science fiction fan. Bradbury is an enthusiast with a portfolio, if that term suffices, at least as big as our solar system, more likely as big as our galaxy, but, really − we might as well enthusiastically reach for the hyperbolic – as big as space and time. Which means even “enthusiast” does not really cover it.

It seems the lexicographers are just going to have to accept a new word into their dictionaries. If not just a science fiction writer or fan or lover or life force or enthusiast, what is Bradbury?

Bradbury is Bradbury.

–Steven Paul Leiva

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CREDIT: At top, Ray Bradbury in 2003, photographed by Lawrence K. Ho/Los Angeles Times. The other photo of Bradbury was at the 2002. Los AngelesTimes Festival of Books and was shot by Gary Friedman/Los Angeles Times.

Comments


11 Responses to Searching for Ray Bradbury, an essay

  1. allan says:

    Bradbury is Bradbury.
    I remember taking my then young boys to hear Bradbury speak at a local library. They had no idea who he was, I mentioned books, movies, comics, science fiction weeklies, all drew a blank until they saw him. They knew him from cable TV, his own series I had somehow missed. If it is enthusiastic living, if you look closely, you will likely find Bradbury already there.

  2. Faith says:

    Happy birthday Mr. Bradbury, and thanks so much for all the hours of entertaining escapism. Hands-down my favorite author.

  3. Marija says:

    I had participated in one of the early Comic-Cons in San Diego in the seventies, and took my two young daughters with me. Both girls were book worms, especially the older one, being all of ten or eleven, and very impressed to be sitting next to Mr. Bradbury at the breakfast gathering the next morning. She read all of his works by then and was excited to see him in person. Bu† then again, there may have been a tinge of disappointment seeing an ordinary, old, short man, who seemed to have been a god of imaginary worlds —until now, eating his scrambled eggs next to her.
    The lesson: Leave children at home!

  4. That was a beautiful article. And I have to agree with your final definition. Bradbury is Bradbury, and writes Bradbury stories, in much the same sense that Shakespeare was Shakespeare and wrote Shakespearean works.
    I love listening to Bradbury speak, whatever the subject, be it live or in writing. It always makes me happier, and quietly ashamed because I'm not living nearly as fully as he is.
    He should be knighted, sainted, given the keys to most cities, and possibly worshiped. Or at least, read a lot more. :)

  5. Susan Reep says:

    I have to tell a little story. I am a retired 7th grade teacher in Bakersfield, CA. Eight years ago I had a truly exceptional student whom I began mentoring as an artist. For 8th-grade graduation, I wrote a letter to Ray Bradbury, whom I had never met, and told him about this exceptional young man and how much I'd like to take him to meet Mr. Bradbury. I sent it off and gave a copy to William, saying, "Here's your graduation present; it's the thought that counts." But darned if Mr. Bradbury didn't send me an email saying he'd love to meet this young man, and please call him. So I did, and William and I drove to Los Angeles and spent some time with Bradbury in his home. What generosity of spirit! When we were finished, we sat in the car, astonished, and finally William read "The Lake" out loud, the work Bradbury considers to be the first really good piece he wrote, we came back to the real world, and drove back to Bakersfield. So not only is Ray Bradbury a genius of the first order, he is a kind man. Whenever I am a little down, I remember asking him how you could be in love with everything, and he said you can't – but if you hate something, hate it with passion. Just be passionate about what you are feeling. And – I know this is running long – but I taught F451 in 7th grade, and Bradbury may not have tied his writing into the scientifically possible, but he sure was prescient because he understood the human condition. The interactive TV walls in the parlor, people walking around with the seashell radios in their ears, ever tuned in – becoming callous about such things as death or injury. Well, I think we are pretty much there. And I don't think it's long until the rooms come alive as in The Veldt. Ok, enough. But I can't say enough about Ray Bradbury the author and the man. He is tops.

  6. Thanks to the wonders of the internet Steven Paul Leiva's wonderful essay about Mr. Ray Bradbury could also be read in Cologne, Germany. Cologne is the home of the former Alweg monorail company that helped design and build the 1959 Disneyland-Alweg Monorail that just had its 50th anniversary. Alweg also built the 1962 Seattle Monorail, still in service today. And Alweg was the company that once offered to build a monorail system for Los Angeles, but was turned down. In those days Ray Bradbury began to champion the "monorail cause". In memory of my father, veteran Alweg mechanical engineer (responsible e.g. for the mechanical side of the Seattle Alweg project), I have been researching Alweg history since the year 2000. Results can be seen on my website http://www.alweg.com. My work also deals with state-of-the-art Alweg-type monorails built by Hitachi of Japan and Bombardier of Canada. One of the often repeated questions about monorails is, why aren't more built. Many inconclusive answers have been given. Intellectual supporters of the monorail concept are usually simply brushed aside. But how long can for example L.A. brush aside timelessly correct advice for monorail by someone like Ray Bradbury? Steven Paul Leiva has added a new dimension to this by lyrically describing, what a metropolitan area like L.A. could like like if interconnected by monorail. Amazingly his interpretation of monorail actually has a brandnew scenario and environment in future plans for the metropolitan area of Paris, France. In this plan a monorail system is to encircle the entire area to merge all suburbs into one coherent, ecologically planned region, with the emphasis on ending the isolation of those troubled suburbs that just yesterday were in the headlines again because of violent protests in connection with the National Holiday in France ("Bastille Day"). I'd like to thank Steven Paul Leiva not only for his wonderful essay about Ray Bradbury, but also for his Bradbury-inspired monorail vision that in these days of global economic woes also shows that intelligent decisions for economic and airy monorails versus costly and time-consuming subways (good for "big money" and no one else) could still save huge metropolitan areas like Los Angeles.
    Reinhard Krischer
    Cologne, Germany

  7. Thanks to the wonders of the internet Steven Paul Leiva's wonderful essay about Mr. Ray Bradbury could also be read in Cologne, Germany. Cologne is the home of the former Alweg monorail company that helped design and build the 1959 Disneyland-Alweg Monorail that just had its 50th anniversary. Alweg also built the 1962 Seattle Monorail, still in service today. And Alweg was the company that once offered to build a monorail system for Los Angeles, but was turned down. In those days Ray Bradbury began to champion the "monorail cause". In memory of my father, veteran Alweg mechanical engineer (responsible e.g. for the mechanical side of the Seattle Alweg project), I have been researching Alweg history since the year 2000. Results can be seen on my website http://www.alweg.com. My work also deals with state-of-the-art Alweg-type monorails built by Hitachi of Japan and Bombardier of Canada. One of the often repeated questions about monorails is, why aren't more built. Many inconclusive answers have been given. Intellectual supporters of the monorail concept are usually simply brushed aside. But how long can for example L.A. brush aside timelessly correct advice for monorail by someone like Ray Bradbury? Steven Paul Leiva has added a new dimension to this by lyrically describing, what a metropolitan area like L.A. could like like if interconnected by monorail. Amazingly his interpretation of monorail actually has a brandnew scenario and environment in future plans for the metropolitan area of Paris, France. In this plan a monorail system is to encircle the entire area to merge all suburbs into one coherent, ecologically planned region, with the emphasis on ending the isolation of those troubled suburbs that just yesterday were in the headlines again because of violent protests in connection with the National Holiday in France ("Bastille Day"). I'd like to thank Steven Paul Leiva not only for his wonderful essay about Ray Bradbury, but also for his Bradbury-inspired monorail vision that in these days of global economic woes also shows that intelligent decisions for economic and airy monorails versus costly and time-consuming subways (good for "big money" and no one else) could still save huge metropolitan areas like Los Angeles.
    Reinhard Krischer
    Cologne, Germany

  8. John Sasser says:

    Steven,
    You've written perhaps the finest essay I've read recently on Ray Bradbury. I've known Ray for several years, and having spent time with him in his home, at his lectures, at his plays, at dinner, and in his limo during late-night prowls of Hollywood, listening to his stories and witnessing his life-force, I can assure you that you have captured him perfectly.

  9. Steven Paul Leiva says:

    I thank everyone for their really kind comments, and their own personal stories. Will anyone ever be able to count the number of lives Ray has touched?

  10. Sophie says:

    What are some forms of irony that he uses in his short story "A Piece if Wood"? I Love the story but am having a hard time realizing the contrast in characters and the irony he used.

  11. […] and I have something in common. He never learned how to drive. But he was most certainly a driven […]

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