Mythologist of Our Age
Why Ray Bradbury's stories have seeped into the culture.
Ray Bradbury is one of the most prolific writers of our time—and our parents' time, and our grandparents' time. As he approaches his 90th birthday, he continues to publish, his pace slowed only slightly by a stroke that requires him to write by dictation. (His daughter is his amanuensis; he calls her on the telephone and she faxes him back the typed pages.) Thanks to Fahrenheit 451, now required reading for every American middle-schooler, Bradbury is generally thought of as a writer of novels, but his talents—particularly his mastery of the diabolical premise and the brain-exploding revelation—are best suited to the short form. Two of his better-known novels, The Martian Chronicles and Dandelion Wine, are story collections in disguise, and even Fahrenheit 451 began as "The Fireman," a short story. So while the Everyman's Library edition of The Stories of Ray Bradbury—which includes only 100 stories and runs a mere 1,059 closely printed pages—represents just a microscopic fraction of Bradbury's work, it's not a bad place to start.
The best stories have a strange familiarity about them. They're like long-forgotten acquaintances—you know you've met them somewhere before. There is, for instance, the tale of the time traveler who goes back into time and accidentally steps on a butterfly, thereby changing irrevocably the course of history ("A Sound of Thunder"). There's the one about the man who buys a robotic husband to live with his wife so that he can be free to travel and pursue adventure—that's "Marionettes, Inc." (Not to be confused with "I Sing the Body Electric!" about the man who buys a robotic grandmother to comfort his children after his wife dies.) Or "The Playground," about the father who changes places with his son so that he can spare his boy the cruelty of childhood—forgetting exactly how cruel childhood can be. The stories are familiar because they've been adapted, and plundered from, by countless other writers—in books, television shows, and films. To the extent that there is a mythology of our age, Bradbury is one of its creators.
Science fiction dates as quickly as any genre, and Bradbury is not entirely immune to this. The futuristic rocket ships he wrote about in 1950 look a lot like the first-generation NASA rockets; the music of the future is Rachmaninoff and Duke Ellington; and in the terrifying "Mars is Heaven," the planet bears an eerie resemblance to Green Bluff, Ill., right down to Victorian houses "covered with scrolls and rococo." But the reason Bradbury's stories still sing on the page is that, despite all his humanoid robots, automated houses, and rocket men, his interest is not in future technologies but in people as they live now—and how the proliferation of convenient technology alters the way we think and the way we treat each other.
This is especially vivid in "The Murderer," in which a man is locked in an insane asylum for destroying "machines that yak-yak-yak." "If you're wondering why it's so quiet here," the madman tells his psychiatrist, "I just kicked the radio to death." The story, as might be expected, reveals the patient to be the only sane person in a world indentured to electronic stimuli. But Bradbury's skill is in evoking exactly how soul-annihilating that world is. After the psychiatrist leaves the madman's cell, he returns to his office to busy himself with his work. The terminology might be antiquated, but the mania is not:
Three phones rang. A duplicate wrist radio in his desk drawer buzzed like a wounded grasshopper. The intercom flashed a pink light and click-clicked. Three phones rang. The drawer buzzed. … The psychiatrist, humming quietly, fitted the new wrist radio to his wrist, flipped the intercom, talked a moment, picked up one telephone, talked, picked up another telephone, talked, picked up the third telephone, talked, touched the wrist-radio button, talked calmly and quietly, his face cool and serene, in the middle of the music and the lights flashing, the phones ringing again …