The stories of Ray Bradbury.

Reading between the lines.
May 10 2010 9:59 AM

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 …

Bradbury is no ideologue, however, and he is certainly not a Luddite. The collection's most poignant speech, after all, is spoken by a robot. In "I Sing the Body Electric!" the mechanical grandmother stands before her skeptical, adopted family, and tries to win them over. "You ask what I am?" she says. "Why, a machine. But even in that answer we know, don't we, more than a machine. I am all the people who thought of me and planned me and built me and set me running. So I am people. I am all the things they wanted to be and perhaps could not be, so they built a great child, a wondrous toy to represent those things." It soon becomes clear that the clockwork grandmother is not trying to make this family, crippled by the death of their matriarch, love her. She is trying to make them love each other again. Deep down in their metallic hearts, Bradbury's machines are as human as their inventors. They yearn to feel, to love. The tragedies occur when human beings start acting like machines.

The exuberance of Bradbury's prose is at times almost childlike in its purity. You don't need to look further than the exclamatory titles he gives to so many of his stories ("Gotcha!" or "Have I Got a Chocolate Bar for You!" or "Boys! Raise Giant Mushrooms in Your Cellar!"). But his vision is vast enough that he knows what lurks on the other side: disillusionment, disorder, cynicism. For Bradbury doesn't only do science fiction; he also, in equal proportion, does horror. ("Without Ray Bradbury, there would be no Stephen King," King once wrote.) And as these stories remind us again and again, nothing is more frightening than when the chaos of the real world intrudes on the blissful cocoon of youthful innocence. The irony in many of his stories is that the innocents are the adults, while the children are devious little homicidal maniacs.

Bradbury is an optimist at heart, but his head knows that hope may not be enough. He's seen the future, and it's not all grand pink-stoned chess cities on Mars and houses that tidy up after you. It's also knowing that the world is about to end and that there's nothing to do but lie under the covers and wait for oblivion to come. It's a room full of robots telling stories about the people who made them, long after the human race has vanished from the earth. It's a man in a space suit falling through the cosmos at 10,000 miles an hour, feeling his brain disintegrating, wondering what he can do "to make up for a terrible and empty life" in the final moments before he passes into nothingness. You read Bradbury with a growing sense of wonder and joy. It's only on reflection, after the stories take up residence in your head and crawl deep into the dark cracks and corners, that the wonder mutates into something closer to dread.

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Nathaniel Rich is the author ofThe Mayor's Tongue, a novel, and San Francisco Noir, a book of film criticism.