Sunday, 10 June 2012

Ray Bradbury (1920-2012)

"The problem with death is that it's so damned permanent" - Ray Bradbury

This week saw the passing of one of the great visionaries of modern literature, and possibly the last of the great SF writers from the field's true golden age.

Ray Bradbury was a writer everyone had at least heard of, even if they hadn't actually read anything of his. I didn't read any of his work until the end of 2010, when I read Fahrenheit 451 for Law and Literature. But I knew of him and his influence. Fahrenheit 451 had been on my to-read list for upwards of two years before reading it. I'd heard of The Martian Chronicles and The Illustrated Man. I knew of Bradbury's place in the pantheon of great SF writers, alongside the Isaac Asimovs and Arthur C. Clarkes of the world.

When it came to the dystopia workshop for Law and Lit, I could easily have got away with not reading anything. The other options were all books I'd read: 1984, Brave New World, and The Road. Of those, I could talk about 1984 until the cows came home from a night out in Newcastle. But instead, I chose to use it as an excuse to read Fahrenheit 451. It was a good decision.

Bradbury was never a prolific novelist. His strength lay in his short fiction, and that strength shone through in the short novel that will probably be remembered by many as his seminal work. There's a tightness to the lyrical prose that you just don't get from someone who isn't an expert short story writer. And it's a joy to read.

For anyone who doesn't know, Fahrenheit 451 is ostensibly a book about censorship. Set in a future where books are banned, Guy Montag is a fireman, responsible for burning books that people may hoard in their homes. Most entertainment in this future world is provided via the television, and is focussed on the attention-deficient masses. Bradbury himself went on record arguing that the book is about the rise of new media and its affect on reading (and, given the way things seem to be going in entertainment for the masses, I'm not going to argue with the author's interpretation of his own work). However you want to read it, Fahrenheit 451 is a thought-provoking novel that should be read at some point in a person's life - the earlier, the better.

When it came to the two-hour Monday afternoon workshop, I ended up in a group that discussed The Road (as only one of two people in the whole group of around 16 who had read it at any point, even if it had been two years previously for me) rather than Fahrenheit 451. But I was determined to read more of Bradbury's work. Earlier this year, I dipped into his short fiction for the first time. The Illustrated Man is a collection linked together by Bradbury himself, with a prologue to the collection that focusses on the Illustrated Man, who has a series of tattoos on his body which tell the the stories contained in the collection.

As a framing device, it's OK at best. But the stories it frames are far from merely acceptable. Again, there's that satisfying tightness to Bradbury's prose. His style isn't jarring like other tight, precise prose, however. It flows with lyrical abandon. Every writer should read it and take notes.

The stories themselves range broadly through the SF spectrum. But there's always a sense of bleakness to them which counters the occasional whimsy of the prose and characters superbly. It can be seen in 'The Veldt', initially a charming tale seemingly about the fantasies of children which takes on a darker edge. This isn't the cosy 1950s SF people seem to expect - it's far more compelling than that. And it gives me a spur to pick up more of his short fiction (once I'm caught up with Interzone and the anthologies I've started and haven't finished).

So where does Bradbury rate for me amongst the great SF writers? Better than Vonnegut? Better than Asimov? To look at his works as a whole, it's worth noting that he was prolific, but never as prolific - or over as long a period - as Isaac Asimov, and his technological and scientific influence never reached as far as Arthur C. Clarke. Bradbury's career had a distinct peak in the 1950s, unlike other writers of his time who produced cornerstone works of SF over several decades (again, just look at Clarke - Childhood's End in the 1950s, 2001 in the 1960s, Rendezvous With Rama in the 1970s, and The Songs of Distant Earth in the 1980s). But he still stands as one of SF's greats, the last of the Golden Age writers to pass on to the publishing house in the sky. He'll be missed, even as his works are cherished by future generations.

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