Ray Bradbury Was Better Than A Literary Icon. He Was A God of Pulp.

Dissecting the mainstream.
June 6 2012 11:15 AM

Ray Bradbury, Pulp God

The fabulist of the Space Age was half doomsday prophet, half man-child.

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"A Sound of Thunder" derives its deeper effects from Bradbury's distinctive combination of boyish wonder and preoccupation with the violence of the adult world. Spooked by the Tyrannosaurus, Eckels panics and steps on a butterfly, setting off ripples in time. Returning to the present, he discovers that the presidential election has been won by a Teutonic militarist named Deutscher; Time Safari's signage has been rendered into phonetic Germano-English ("Wee taek yu thair"). Bradbury's fear of an American Reich is the product of a particularly paranoid historical moment, one Philip Roth returned to in The Plot Against America. So are Bradbury's gloomy warnings about technology, but they're worth pausing over for what they illuminate about Bradbury's unusual career.

It would be a profound understatement to call Bradbury a technophobe. He is a technocrank—eager to share his unhappiness about inventions new and old. For sci-fi adherents, this has made Bradbury into something of a strange apostle. In years past, Bradbury has fulminated against automobiles, telephones, and TV sets; more recent targets include ATMs, the Internet, and personal computers. ("A computer is a typewriter," he told Salon in 2001. "I have two typewriters, I don't need another one.") And yet, at the same instant, Bradbury is an exuberant fan of NASA and has proclaimed more than once that mankind should start colonizing Mars. There is a strange disconnect within a man who would live on the Red Planet but insist on in-person banking.

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The critic Gary K. Wolfe suggests that Bradbury is a classic late-adapter: someone who fears technology but gives in when he sees it as a force for good. I think Bradbury's technophobia is slightly more complicated. It emerges from what you might call stunted futurism. Bradbury's worldview is unduly shaped by his Illinois boyhood—when he read Burroughs and Jules Verne and dreamed the dreams specific to 1930s sci-fi: missions to Mars, time machines, etc. When technology follows Burroughs and Buck Rogers, as with the space program, Bradbury rushes to embrace it. When technology veers off in an unforeseen direction, as with the Internet, he reverts to a defensive crouch—a Cold War worldview in which inventions can become, as he once put it, "paranoiacally dangerous devices." He is at once a boyish enthusiast and prophet of doom. "I don't try to predict the future," he has remarked, "I try to prevent it."

Bradbury has a similar ambivalence for his pulp roots, which he is happy to defend until they cost him literary prestige. In 1953, he published a ringing endorsement of science fiction in The Nation: "[T]here are few more exciting genres; there are none fresher or so full of continually renewed and renewable concepts." At the same moment, according to Sam Weller's The Bradbury Chronicles, he was pleading with his New York publisher to remove the words "science fiction" from the cover of his books, fearing it would cost him reviews in tony magazines.

Bryan Curtis is a staff writer for Grantland. Follow him on Twitter.