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.
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
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
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.
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
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
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.