Cosmic Ray

The author of Fahrenheit 451, Something Wicked This Way Comes and The Illustrated Man is still searching for respect.


"PEOPLE are afraid of fantasy," says Ray Bradbury. "A lot of intellectuals think science fiction is trivial. And it's pivotal! People are walking around the streets with phones to their heads talking to someone ten feet away. We've killed two million people with automobiles. We're surrounded by technology and the problems created by technology, and science fiction isn't important?"

Bradbury has four books in the works. His new novella is just hitting the bookstores. Ahmed and The Oblivion Machines concerns a boy left behind by a caravan, whose failing tears wake an ancient god from enchantment. In gratitude the deity gives the child the gift of traveling through space and time. While the slender illustrated fable resembles much of Bradbury's earlier work in the richness of its prose, it has an ecstatic quality to it that calls to mind the fables of Oscar Wilde. A filmed remake of the classic Fahrenheit 451, directed by Mel Gibson is slated to begin production in 1999. His works including The Martian Chronicles, Dandelion Wine, and The Illustrated Man continue to be highly influential.

And yet, Bradbury still isn't taken completely seriously by the literary establishment. His work has never been reviewed by the New York Review of Books. And even the folks at Mel Gibson's Icon Productions haven't been returning his calls lately.

"I'm going through this process with Mel Gibson," he grumbles. "I wrote an adaptation. The studio never calls."

It's obviously nagging at him, but he doesn't dwell on it.

"I could get hurt or feel resentful," he allows. "But I'm too busy. I have to write these books and help change the future."

When Bradbury speaks, he rushes forth with a torrent of speech, sometimes meandering into childhood recollections of favorite literary works, from Bible stories to comic books, but always reasserting his belief in the supreme value of literature. "I have an ant farm in my head," he says. "Metaphors and ideas crawling all over each other."

"Reading is the most important thing in the world," says the author. "Our prisons are full of people who don't know how to read and write. To live as a civilized human being, you've got to have something in your head."

Born in 1920 in Waukegan, Illinois, Bradbury's fascination with literature began early.

"I was born a collector of metaphors," he says. "Metaphors are the center of life. I'm deeply influenced by Greek mythology, Roman mythology. The colorful stuff, anything magical. I've had all this stuff in my head from the age of three on. When I was six or seven in Sunday School, we read about Daniel in the lions' den. I thought, 'wouldn't it be wonderful to be Daniel, to lie down with lions and sleep with them unharmed? I know that influenced my story The Veldt where the lions come out of the walls and eat the parents." Bradbury says he began writing and even in a small way broadcasting, when he was twelve. "I told my friends I was going to be a radio actor. I started to hang around the local station, emptied the trash, ran errands. Two weeks later I was reading the comic strips to the kiddies on the air. I still have all those comics put away. Buck Rogers! My pay was free tickets to the movies: King Kong, The Mummy, The Wax Museum. How lucky can you get!"

Struggling with the effects of the Depression, his family moved to Los Angeles when Bradbury was 14, where he hung around studios and roller skated to movie premieres. "In high school I would go through a magazine called Coronet, looking for photographs by Karsh and Stieiglitz. I'd cut them out and write poems about them." He published his first story when he was 22. "Success was slow as osmosis," he says.

At first he let himself be influenced by other writers, something he now decries. "I read too many novels where you feel the writer wrote what's popular. It's a self-conscious exercise." When a book really needs to be written, Bradbury says, "It's urgent, like literary appendicitis. In writing, you operate on yourself and save yourself."

It was with 1947's The Martian Chronicles that Bradbury established a reputation. In 1950, he began work on Fahrenheit 451's futuristic tale about a society in which literacy is outlawed, books are forbidden, and learning is kept alive by an underground movement. (The book was first made into a film in 1966 starring Julie Christie and Oskar Werner and directed by Francois Truffaut.) Because his young daughters were too noisy for Bradbury to continue writing in the family garage, he moved to the UCLA library. "The typewriter rented for a dime an hour. You thrust your dime in, the clock ticked madly and you typed wildly "

He finished the first draft in nine days. The result was a story that predicts many current technologies, including touch pad entry locks, home viewing systems and disquietingly pervasive video surveillance. Bradbury, however, treats his prescience lightly. "I've never set out to predict. I just write what later seems to evolve and be true." He is tickled, however, by one technology related to the novel. "I was in Japan working on a short film, and one of my hosts came to me and put a Walkman on my ears and said, "Fahrenheit 451, Fahrenheit 451!" The young man who invented it had read [about such a device in] the story and decided to build it."

In 1956, though he had no screenwriting credits, Bradbury says he was approached by John Huston to write the screenplay for an adaptation of Moby Dick.

"When I got to Huston's house in Ireland we were sitting around the fire one night and I said, 'John, how did I get this job?' He said 'It was that story Foghorn, about the dinosaur and the lighthouse. The ghost of Melville was in that story."' Bradbury laughs heartily.

A second encounter with the entertainment industry came in 1961 when Bradbury was hired by MGM to write the narration for Orson Welles to speak in King of Kings. "It was fun to go back and narrate the entire life of Christ. They took my script and came back and said, 'We don't have an ending."' Bradbury laughs. "I said 'Really? Have you tried reading the Bible?"'

Bradbury found an ending, he says, with the miracle of the fishes. Though the scene never found its way into the film, Bradbury still effuses about it: "Peter and the disciples pull their boat ashore after Jesus' death. They see Christ standing by a bed of charcoal cooking fish." Bradbury gives Christ's dialogue: "'Take of these fish and feed the brethren and take my message and go throughout the cities of the world.' Then I thought, how can you put the Ascension on the screen so it's not silly; Christ shooting straight up in the air? I thought: make it sunrise. The horizon is always above your line of vision, so if He walks up the shoreline toward the sun, with the heat rippling off the hot sand, he'll appear to ascend just by walking. The rippling air dissolves him, and his footprints are left on the shoreline. The footsteps blow away, and the camera pulls back and we see the disciples radiating outward from where He stood like the spokes of a gigantic wheel. Then their footprints blow away. isn't that beautiful? That's all me." Then he adds, entirely without rancor, "They never used it."

But as Bradbury himself says, he has no time to indulge in regrets. At the age of 78 he still travels and lectures extensively. He also serves as a consultant, having collaborated, for example, in the design of a pavilion in the Epcot Center at Walt Disney World. He also advises businesses. "I talked to the Bank of America. I said, 'I suppose you think you're in the business of making money. But you're in my business, the business of predicting the future accurately enough to invest wisely. If you predict poorly you invest in the wrong future."'

But his primary occupation is exactly what it has been for more than 50 years. "I never know from day to day which of my books I'll be working on," he says. "I lie in bed at seven in the morning and the voices of my characters talk to me. They control everything. I write hurrying on, hoping to find out what will happen next."

Reprinted with permission from Book Magazine
December 1998/January 1999