Ray Bradbury, the prolific and tremendously influential science-fiction writer who over a 70-year career helped shape how we speculate about the world and ourselves, died on Tuesday, June 5, 2012 in Los Angeles at the age of 91.
Bradbury's most celebrated merits include his accessibility and his respect for both subject and reader, and his unfailing ability to spin an involving story around whatever has struck him as remarkable about humanity or the world.
His stories treat complex ideas in ways that engross young and old alike, and even stories with obvious messages or parables -- like his most famous story, Fahrenheit 451 -- are all the more chilling for being clean appraisals of what lies within us to achieve, good and bad, and what is indeed happening all around us already if we choose to see it (the acculturated paranoia about books depicted in 451 is within the bailiwick of Stalinist or McCarthyist thinking), without any need to be didactic.
Alongside awakening us to tipping points of fear and social oppression we've already approached, Bradbury also awoke in the collective consciousness the power of hazard in human and natural events. His brief story A Sound of Thunder, which contains the original image of a trodden-on butterfly in the primordial past reverberating more and more loudly into a startlingly warped future, is credited with anticipating the component of chaos theory known as the "butterfly effect." Before Bradbury the most common approach to writing sci-fi and fantasy history was a linear drafting of lines of probability or destiny; his collective body of work helped open a wider, more fertile field for the imagination.
Picturing the Future
As with human nature, Bradbury consistently wrote about the empowering and ominous aspects or what might be considered an extension of it, technology. The Veldt, for example, involves technology evolving to the point of a threat -- in this case, virtual reality conjuring real man-eating lions from children's daydreams about the African grasslands. But what's most disturbing is not that the heartless machines are working against us, but that the killer beasts emerge from the recesses of a human child's mind.
Bradbury is now, in retrospect, widely credited with visionary status, having predicted not only virtual reality (and reborn movements of puritanical book-burning) but things like flat-screen TVs. The Washington Post ran a list of ten Bradbury predictions that later came true, sometimes decades later. These included the idea of the butterfly effect (A Sound of Thunder); "thimble radios," public surveillance CCTV, automated banking machines, and social interaction through a (literal) digital wall (Fahrenheit 451); the individual isolation born of a screen-oriented society and self-driving cars, which are being pilot-tested by Google and are street-legal in Nevada now (The Pedestrian); and practical artificial intelligence (I Sing the Body Electric!).
What's the best way to commemorate this towering figure in science fiction prose? Well, one way would certainly be physical -- a museum in the town he grew up in, Waukegan, Illinois, for example.
"Ray Bradbury put Waukegan in many ways on the map," said Bradbury biographer Sam Weller, a Columbia College professor in Chicago. "There really should be some sort of place that will house his things that could bring people from around the world to reflect on his legacy." Weller said that Bradbury had recently become enthusiastic about the idea, and money is being raised.
Even more important would be for Bradbury's work to be kept alive on bookshelves and in classrooms -- and not just his most famous stories, which are normally emphasized at the expense of the wider portfolio of his work. One of the most striking images from Fahrenheit 451, of course, is the denouement in which, in a world purged of books, people become books and vice versa -- potently emphasizing the story's underlying theme that books are alive and that their life is a crucial and organic, even symbiotic, element of human society.
A History of Adaptation
Many of Bradbury's stories and novels were adapted for television, radio, film and stage. Most famously his 1953 novel Fahrenheit 451 was adapted as a striking theatrical film in 1966 directed by Francois Truffaut and starring Oskar Werner and Julie Christie.
Much later his 1950 novel The Martian Chronicles was adapted into a miniseries for NBC in 1980 that starred Rock Hudson. Bradbury himself wrote three of the episodes. Many of television's classic anthology shows such as Tales of Tomorrow, Lights Out, CBS Television Workshop, Fireside Theatre and Alfred Hitchcock Presents adapted his stories. During the same period, many of his stories were also adapted to radio dramas, notably for the sci-fi anthology Dimension X.
Bradbury's short story I Sing the Body Electric was adapted into the 100th episode of The Twilight Zone in 1962 and later Bradbury adapted the story himself for the 1982 telepic The Electric Grandmother. From 1985 to 1992, Mr. Bradbury hosted The Ray Bradbury Theater, a syndicated anthology series for television for which he adapted 65 of his own stories.
What are we to make of these adaptations? Even those in which Bradbury had a hand are instructive on the dangers of relying only on the video versions of speculative fiction. The 2005 film of A Sound of Thunder is easy enough to dismiss -- it's a terrible bastardization of Bradbury's story, which was in turn really badly executed. But even the 1966 Truffaut film of 451 is, in some ways, a different story differently envisioned: just the experience of experiencing this story about books through a medium other than a book produces a different experience, quite apart from the ways in which Truffaut departed from Bradbury's original.
Bradbury had a gift for making the envisioning of human and physical possibility approachable and catalytic even to the casual reader. In this impatient age in which books made of paper and glue are more and more time-stamped to an eroding era, it's more important than ever to cultivate in our children a taste for Bradbury and his merry, sobering, important explorations of our shared world.