The Bradbury Chronicles

by John D. Spalding

Ray Bradbury is never at a loss for opinions.

And as we discovered when we spoke with the tireless master of science fiction recently, those opinions can be both surprising and controversial-covering everyone from Fellini to Buck Rogers, and everything from restaurants to the recession, modern art, Reaganomics, television and the homeless. His latest passion is urban design.

Bradbury has long been a favorite of Santa Barbarans -- for 19 years he has delivered the opening address at the Santa Barbara Writer's Conference. In February, Joshua Odell Editions at Capra Press is publishing Yestermorrow: Obvious Answers to Impossible Futures, Bradbury's new manifesto for more efficient and humane cities.

Certainly Bradbury is best known for classics such as The Martian Chronicles, Fahrenheit 451, Dandelion Wine and Something Wicked This Way Comes. But his latest imaginings are just as stimulating, just as refreshing, and sometimes even more astounding.

Will you explain your book's subtitle -- Obvious Answers to Impossible Futures?

The more you see of civilization and cities and people and design and habit, the more you realize our problems are very obvious, yet we don't do anything about them. And I come along with what seem to me obvious answers. I just look at things and say, 'Hey, it's not working.' No one is in charge most of the time, and perfectly obvious problems occur.

When I deal with urban problems I ask: What is a city? What is the mystery of the city? What is fun about a really good city? People read my articles and say, "Oh, I'll be darned. Yeah, I thought of that but never said it." That is what my book is full of--solutions that are perfectly obvious, once you've read them. It's not that I'm such a genius, it's just that I pay attention.

Tell us your ideas about shopping malls.

When they started building Century City 21,22 years ago they took me to see it and said, "This is the biggest hole in the world." I said, "But what in hell are you going to put in it -- a big underground garage? If so, you'll terrify everyone because it's not safe." So they, finished building Century City against the rules of civilization. They put theaters on one side of the boulevard and the shopping area on the other. I said, "There's got to be a flow between them, or they won't work."

Sure enough, 10 years went by and Century City wasn't working. They came back to me and said, "What's wrong?" I said, "You're not listening! You need to do what I told you 10 years ago. You've got to have 40 restaurants. Food is the answer to all cities, and you've neglected food here! You need 1,000 tables and 4,000 chairs and 1,000 umbrellas spread throughout the city, so people can take food out, sit, eat, stare and enjoy the California weather. If you do this, you will be a success."

Well, they didn't do it. But, about six years ago they finally built a new adjunct to Century City with 30 or 40 restaurants-some inside, some outside-and they put in hundreds and hundreds of tables, chairs and umbrellas. And by God! The city is beginning to work now. It took them almost 20 years to realize what they should have learned a long time ago from cities like Paris, London and Rome what a social city is.

People say they're going shopping, but they wind up eating. Turn down any street in Paris' Latin Quarter and you'll find 20 restaurants. You've got 400 restaurants within less than a mile, on these little narrow streets. All amidst curio shops, art shops and what have you. You have to cram yourself into the Latin Quarter, it's so popular.

What about cities today?

Our cities are not safe. Hollywood Boulevard has allowed itself to be destroyed, and most major cities in America have gone through this and are recovering. Some are rebuilding, a lot of them are building wrong -- not enough restaurants. They've got beautiful, tall buildings, but at five o'clock the city dies. There's nowhere to go. So people go home, or to a mall. Malls are substitute cities, substitutes for the possible imagination of mayors, city councilmen and other people who don't know what a city is while living right in the center of one.

So it is up to corporations, creative corporations, to recreate the city. And to do it better than the city would have done it. Hollywood is a great example. Tourists from all over come to see Hollywood and Vine-and there's nothing there! All the restaurants are gone. It's a disaster area. Everything is burned out, shut down, torn apart.

They have allowed the homeless to collect on the sidewalks. You've got to get rid of them, you've got to put them where they can live. If you have empty buildings, you give them places to stay. Or you put them back in the lunatic asylums, out of which they came.

We let them come out 20-30 years ago. We had great plans for the insane, and for the alcoholics. We were going to give them medicines, and the doctors said they could

cure these diseases of the mind. And of course, we released 100,000 or so from the insane asylums, and they got out on the street and they wouldn't take their medicines and they went crazy again. And they became alcoholic again, and their families didn't want them.

So we've got a real problem of putting the ugly genie back in the bottle, don't we? And the answer is our loitering laws. We do not allow people to lie on the sidewalks. We try to help them in every way we can and we give them places to stay. It's not as if we're neglecting them, but they're not going to be allowed out, on the sidewalks, to pee on everybody's shoes.

Same way with gangs-apply the old loitering laws. Keep them out of places where we want to socialize. And if they show up, send them on their way, or, if they keep coming back, arrest them. And the city fathers in Hollywood haven't done a thing about that, and as a result nobody wants to go there.

What about Santa Barbara 's tight design and building codes -- any benefit in loosening them?

Not at all. Why change it? There are plenty of ugly cities around with bad buildings and no plans. Don't touch it. It doesn't need fixing -- it's beautiful!

What do you think of the controversial biosphere project that just got underway in Arizona?

Looks like a publicity stunt to me. I'm sure it's interesting, but the boredom that will soon set in will be incredible. I don't know enough to have much of an opinion, but it doesn't have anything to do with us anyway. The results of the experiment are sometime off in the future. In the meantime, we've got to rebuild our cities.

Can science fiction help us address environmental concerns?

It has, for a hundred years. The short stories and novels of people like H.G. Wells, Jules Verne, and Robert Heinlein and a lot of other writers all deal with assimilating new technologies and making sure we use them well.

How has technology affected politics?

It's helped change the face of the world. It used to be that a totalitarian government could keep people from finding out what was going on. But with fax and photocopy machines, you have thousands of people who own printing presses for the first time, and it is hard to keep information from passing from person to person. Ham radio has also helped another science-fictional dream that became a science-fictional fact. Everything starts as a science- fictional dream that blueprints itself and then builds itself. This is a continual process of machines improving people's lives, making the totalitarians run faster to catch up.

But your fiction also deals with the traps of technology, the way it can confuse politics or cloud social realities for the worse ...

The automobile -- it democratizes travel and gives us our own hotel on wheels, so the ordinary person can afford to travel more. But at the same time it kills 50,000 people a year-that's one hell of a big war, isn't it? We've killed two million people with the automobile, and we haven't begun to apply ourselves to solutions.

The Persian Gulf War was like something out of science fiction, fought from great distances with space-age technology. Has it affected the way we think of war?

I hope there won't be any war in 10 years. It may be that these inventions will convince people like Saddam Hussein that it doesn't pay to do what he's doing. But the great thing it was being able to pinpoint what you wanted to destroy and not destroy innocent people. So that's changed the face of war.

What about space exploration in the '90s?

I hope it's going to head back to the moon and off to Mars before I get too much older -- I'm going to try and hang around another 20 years if I can. I'd love to see us put men on Mars. It would be tremendously exciting, and I think we ought to have a permanent base on the moon. We've got to galvanize people's attention with the romance of space travel again. We've lost sight of that.

Your new book has a chapter on It Federico Fellini. How did you meet him?

He wrote me, thank God. I wrote a review of a book on his films, and it gave me the chance to analyze why I loved his films. Fellini and I were born in 1920 and both grew up watching Charlie Chaplin and Lon Chaney. You'll find the influence of Chaplin and Chaney -- and comic strips--in both our works. We shared many enthusiasms, and I pointed that out in my article.

Three weeks later I got a letter from Fellini saying my article was one of the best he'd ever read about his work, and that if I was ever in Italy I should visit him. I wrote back immediately and told him that, coincidentally, we were going to be in Italy that summer. As soon as I got there, I called him, and my wife and I went to visit. We had a wonderful time and became great friends. In fact, I saw him again 10 weeks ago. I was in Rome and spent two days with him. It's been fabulous.

You were also influenced by Renaissance scholar Bernard Berenson -- you dedicated A Medicine for Melancholy to him.

Again, I wrote an article that Berenson read, and he wrote me a fan letter that said, "This is the first fan letter I've written in 89 years." And he said the same thing Fellini did -- "If you ever touch Italy, come see me." By God, we had no money to travel then. I was making about $100 a week-when I was lucky. I thought, "I'll never get to travel, I'll never get to see anything. " A year later, John Huston came along and gave me the job of writing Moby Dick. That changed our lives completely. We traveled for the first time and went to see Mr. Berenson.

In what countries is science fiction most popular?

Czechoslovakia is very science fictional. But we science fiction writers are lucky. We're in all the schools in most of the world. When I travel around Italy -- where I'm read in every school-they put on a production of Fahrenheit 451 at a high school near Spoleto. In the Soviet Union, I've sold millions and millions of books. Japan is a complete science fiction society, and they're all madly in love with science fiction films and writers.

How does it affect their societies?

It's part of the living of boys. You've got to entertain boys in order to get them to read. Girls are automatically good readers, in most countries, and they don't read science fiction because they are a different race of people. Women and girls are one race, and boys are another. And boys are technologically oriented by their very nature. They're looking for things to do, and science fiction creates toys for boys and men to play with.

What do you see as our greatest challenges in the year ahead?

The automobile and the economy.

How can people be encouraged to take problems like the automobile personally?

All you have to do is imagine it touching your life. What if God forbid--your mother, or your father, were killed in an automobile accident. I mean, you're never going to get over that. That's what it's all about. What if your best friend were killed, or your girlfriend, or your wife, or one of your children -- God, that's even 10 times worse! To lose a child any way -- through illness or accident-is the most devastating thing that can happen to a family. So, that's the metaphor at the center of society we have to think of in personal terms.

Any predictions for the economy?

Nobody understands economics. I have tried to for years, and I have friends like Arthur Laffer and Milton Friedman and his wife, and they try to explain it to me. But they are the first to admit that, past a certain point, there is no science to economics, It's all willpower, it's all imagination; it's being in love, it's being afraid. If you watch "Wall Street Week" every Friday night, as I do, you discover that nobody can predict anything.

Reagan had a great idea, and it worked: Don't take the money from the people and give it to the government. Give it to the people, and the people will vote for the things they want, that's what money is-a system of voting. And every time you vote with your money, you employ people. That money passes into the society on a multitude of levels, and all of a sudden you have 19 million more jobs.

So, keep your hands off! That was Reagan's idea, and he's not going to get any credit for it. By cutting more taxes, you get more taxes. This allows you to employ people, who in turn give you a wider tax base, and you take in $20 billion more a year in taxes than when you started out. There goes your deficit right there.

The problem is Congress. Congress spends all the money, and they're drunken sailors-they won't stop. We have more taxes coming in this year than ever before, and Congress is going to spend it all-and more. We've got to tie their hands. Then they blame the President for the deficit, which they made themselves.

Is the recession almost over?

If we cheer up and spend our money, this recession will be over. That's all there is to it. It's psychological; we've scared the hell out of ourselves. The problem today is that TV not only wants to talk about the future, it wants to control it. TV imagines it's the government. The recession started a year ago, when TV people began saying, "Is the recession coming?" And then as the weeks and months went by, they said, "Oh, I think, it's coming! It's out there beyond the horizon! Now it's closer, now it's on the door step, now it's in the city-it's here . . . Boom!" Totally created by the psychology of doom.

What art influenced you as a kid?

Art in museums and world's fairs... or wonderful and creative comic strips, like Prince Valiant, which I collected in my teens, and Buck Rogers, when I was nine years old. All these things romance you into becoming. If you can romance young boys and young men so that they dream of becoming something, then when they get into high school they begin to move into areas where they can influence history. That was the story of Walt Disney. He started drawing pictures in his garage in Glendale 70 years ago, and he grew by stages into the man who changed the history of our country and the world.

Art today has to be real. It can't be slapdash, someone standing on a ladder pouring paint on the floor. We're all through with that. We have images that we want to speak of and to tell ourselves about our Civilization. And to ignore the obvious is ridiculous.

Who has most influenced your writing style?

Shakespeare, Frost and all the great poets. The plays of George Bernard Shaw. Steinbeck's novels and the short stories of Eudora Welty and John Collier. Particularly Collier. But there were many others, like Edith Wharton, Jessamyn West, Katherine Anne Porter....

How did you begin writing screenplays?

I'm a natural screenwriter-I think and write in images-so making the transition from short stories and novels to the screen was very easy. Also, I've always loved film and was fortunate enough to have a mother who took me to the movies every week. And I have total recall. So, I always write in terms of images.

Most everything I've ever written can be put directly into film. My characters say very little; their actions tell the story. It's very visual.

Everything that I do--from writing short stories, novels, plays, screenplays and operas to my interests in architecture and art history--is a pursuit for metaphors. I try to find the image, the metaphor, that says what something is.

Did you see the recent Los Angeles Times article in which a former Soviet air force colonel involved with UFO research claimed that Leonardo da Vinci, Jules Verne and Ray Bradbury were messengers -from outer space?

This is the first I've heard of it, but what good company they've given me- at last, I'm famous! Maybe that explains the light that radiates from my head onto the ceiling above my bed at night!

What will Ray Bradbury be doing in the future?

Writing more about cities, helping create malls. I've got another novel coming out this year, a book of 10 plays, more stage plays, and another opera. So, I'll be busy.

Reprinted with permission from Santa Barbara Magazine
January/February 1992