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The Many Lives of Ray Bradbury By James Tatam

“Stuff your eyes with wonder. Live as if you'd drop dead in ten seconds.” - Fahrenheit 451

For readers, spotting literary references in popular culture is like getting an inside-joke that might fly over the heads of those around you. But it also shows something more than that: a wider sense of cultural significance, a staying power, a symbol of longevity and relevance.

Few writers have the staying-power of Ray Bradbury. You’ll find bits and pieces of him pop up in shows like Ozark, Rick and Morty, The Simpsons and Mad Men; behind the music of Elton John and Deadmau5; in the architecture of rides at Disney World’s Epcot; and an influence on the stories of Neil Gaiman, V.E Schwab, Stephen King, George R.R Martin and Carmen Maria Machado amongst many others. His influence doesn’t stop at the stratosphere either; in true Bradbury fashion, it punches through into the comforting arms of space. NASA’s Curiosity Rover touched down on the Martian soil of ‘Bradbury Landing’, and the crew of Apollo 15 named a lunar-crater ‘Dandelion Crater’ after Bradbury’s coming of age novel, Dandelion Wine. ‘Death doesn’t exist,’ Bradbury once wrote, and with his name appearing in everything from television to music, he sure proved you could outlast it if you ‘left enough of yourself behind.’

Born in 1920 in Waukegan, Illinois (an experience he claims to remember well), Ray Douglas Bradbury grew up a passionate lover of the arts. When the Bradburys moved to Los Angeles in 1934, his proximity to Hollywood only fanned the flames. Though, like a moth drawn to firelight behind a window, Bradbury could only get so close to those glitzy golden studios before slamming nose-first into the cold reality: despite living within throwing distance of opulence, the Bradburys were far from it. Unable to afford further education, Bradbury educated himself as ‘a student of libraries’, often attending the local library as many as four times a week.

As a reader, he cut his teeth on the pulp-fiction tales of Edgar Rice Burroughs, Clarke Ashton Smith and Jules Verne. In those libraries, Bradbury saw not just a way into the illustrious halls of Hollywood and out of his own financial insecurity, but a way to live forever. He cultivated a writing regimen that makes workhorses like Stephen King look lazy, writing every day and averaging a story a week until the end of his life. By the time he died in 2012, he’d left enough of himself behind to last into the far-futurescapes of his stories. Current records have his output at around 27 full-length publications and 600 published short stories. Of course, that’s excluding television screenplays, his famous 1954 film script for Moby Dick, essays, critical works, and radio-plays. It’s an enormous oeuvre, but almost expected from the man who advised ‘to stay drunk on writing so that reality could not destroy you’.

Bradbury lived like a flesh and bone Peter Pan. Even at the age of ninety, he still radiated with youthful enthusiasm. Like a child with too many toys, Bradbury refused to be confined to one genre, writing the mysterious, the horrific, the fantastic and the fabulous, all underpinned with the sense of wonder and tenderness that run through his works. Mummies, robots, spaceships, dinosaurs, aliens, monsters; the playthings of young boys are the bread and butter of Bradbury’s work. ‘I never listen to people who criticise my tastes,’ Bradbury once said. ‘When that happens, I simply pack up my dinosaurs and leave the room.’

He began his career in the realm of science fiction. The 1950 collection The Martian Chronicles details mankind’s repeated efforts to colonise the red planet, bringing with them their old prejudices and arrogance. It’s a touching, elegiac string of stories that focus on themes of colonialism, loneliness, and humans’ ‘ability to ruin big, beautiful things.’ A year later, his collection The Illustrated Man (1951) explored the parallels between advancement in technology and regression in human contact. These are the stories of children reared by virtual reality, cold-war paranoia about bombs and censorship, and even the morose short story The Rocket Man, from which Elton John’s song is inspired. Above all, Bradbury’s love for reading stands out like a flaming beacon. In the story Usher II, a man recreates a mechanical haunted house in the style of Edgar Allen Poe and dispatches with the authoritarian ‘book censors’ in ways reminiscent of famous horror stories. The moral here being, of course, that if the book censors had read the stories then they would’ve seen what was coming long before the pendulum fell. Other science fiction collections The Golden Apples of the Sun and I Sing the Body Electric have titles derived from classic poems. The New York Times referred to Bradbury as ‘the writer most responsible for bringing modern science fiction into the literary mainstream’, and it was through this willingness to draw connections between the literary and the pulp that he managed to elevate an entire genre.

While the dystopian world of Fahrenheit might seem like a far-off fantasy, the novel draws from real-life examples from history to impart a simple warning: it has happened before and it could happen again.

The book perhaps most synonymous with its creator is the dystopian novel Fahrenheit 451, which depicts a society in which books are banned and even the phrase ‘once upon a time’ can be fatal. Written in response to McCarthyism and the cultural crackdown on artists and writers considered to harbour communist sympathies, Bradbury sought to highlight the dangers that came with censorship and pointed toward the book burning of the Nazis as an obvious example. The novel deals with a number of themes, such as overreliance on pharmaceuticals and television, and a hyper-fast society where even speech is kept short enough to match curtailed attention spans. Despite Bradbury’s insistence that he was ‘a preventer of futures, not a predictor,’ Fahrenheit 451 pretty much anticipated flatscreen television, Bluetooth earphones and the Amazon Echo. While the dystopian world of Fahrenheit might seem like a far-off fantasy, the novel draws from real-life examples from history to impart a simple warning: it has happened before and it could happen again.

Outside of science fiction, not even the passing of seasons escaped Bradbury’s typewriter. He was the prince of summer, the pumpkin king of autumn—two seasons that form a Ying-Yang for Bradbury to express his lighter and darker sides. In Dandelion Wine and Farewell Summer, Bradbury waxes lyrical in his more literary efforts, documenting coming of age in his fictional ‘Green Town.’ Bradbury fills summer with the highs and lows of adolescence, exploring how friendship can single-handedly power a small-town, and how the memories we pick up in youth age like wine and stay with us forever.

His autumnal works stumble into what Bradbury called The October Country, a dark netherworld ‘where it is always late in the year […] whose people passing at night on the empty walks sound like rain’. In the eponymous 1955 collection The October Country, Bradbury gathers a tangled web of dark fairy tales that range from the Gothic to the grotesque: people become convinced their skeletons are trying to escape their bodies, a family of monsters stages a family reunion in the style of the Addams family, and a trip to the catacombs of Mexico puts mortality into perspective. While the 1972 novella The Halloween Tree – a Halloween take on A Christmas Carol – spawned a 1992 animated film, for which Bradbury won the Emmy for Outstanding Writing and became a Halloween feature at California’s Disneyland. Bradbury demonstrated that his vision wasn’t just limited to spaceships and aliens, he frequently found enough ‘beautiful stuff’ on earth to spark his creativity too.

As long as we steer clear of the society of Fahrenheit 451, writers will always have cultural currency. Dickens wrote through the smog of London to shine a light on the cruel underbelly of industry; Fitzgerald captured the destructive emptiness wrapped up in the silks and cocktails of the roaring twenties; in contemporary times, writers like Sally Rooney have tapped into the zeitgeist, exploring romance in the age of social media against the backdrop of a post-financial crash world. Bradbury’s chameleon-like output is the reason his influence still permeates so much of popular culture, despite, paradoxically, his novels no longer being as fashionable. While Bradbury’s shelf space shrinks, his name is increasingly cited in the world of modern entertainment. In the last decade alone, Rachel Bloom, star of Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, blessed us with the song ‘Fuck Me, Ray Bradbury’; Deadmau5 gave us ‘The Veldt’; and his name has cropped up in indie films like Escape Room and blockbuster projects like Once Upon a Time in Hollywood.

Bradbury is Hollywood’s inside joke. The man who wanted so badly to get into those golden studios now, even eight years after his death, can’t get out. What a way to celebrate a man who wanted to live forever; a man who still pops up across the entertainment spectrum in fragments, a science fiction influence here, a horror influence there; a man who can never be the sum of all his parts, because the pieces are too kaleidoscopic and too wild to ever fit together.

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Created with an image by Annie Spratt