I’m not much for mourning celebrity deaths. I generally don’t care that you were in a few movies or TV shows, or that you wrote some catchy song I haven’t heard in six years. Such passings are sad, but they have little impact on my life.
But Ray Bradbury, who passed away this morning at the age of 91, was more than a mere celebrity author to me. He was a tremendous influence on me both growing up as well as in later years when I began to pursue writing more seriously; a man whose work informed me, inspired me, and solidified my long clung-to dream of being a writer.
Bradbury was a special kind of wordsmith. Unlike most modern authors, he rarely dabbled in novels. Even his best known work, The Martian Chronicles, is less a novel as it is a series of short stories and vignettes. The man was so swollen with ideas, even into his twilight years, that he did not linger long in any particular world he created. He had a message to deliver or a person to introduce you to; he did so deftly and engagingly; and he moved on.
In these days of 700-page novels that dwell with painful detail on every meal, every article of clothing, every pointless scene, his was a refreshing approach to storytelling.
And though he is best known as a science fiction/speculative fiction author, his stories rarely bothered themselves with hard science. Instead, his stories were very much about people. The way we think. The way we interact. The things that frighten us or inspire us or divide us or bring us together. He was as adept at spinning a yarn about a lonely retiree as he was about a flight in a space capsule, and he’d often do so between the covers of the same book.
Finally, Bradbury was poetic. He never forgot that words can move us. He never forgot that there is beauty on the printed page. Witness this beautiful passage from The Martian Chronicles, just one of many I could cite:
On nights when the wind comes over the dead sea bottoms and through the hexagonal graveyard, over four old crosses and one new one, there is a light burning in the low stone hut, and in that hut, as the wind roars by and the dust whirls and the cold stars burn, are four figures, a woman, two daughters, a son, tending a low fire for no reason and talking and laughing.
Night after night for every year and every year, for no reason at all, the woman comes out and looks at the sky, her hands up, for a long moment looking at the green burning of Earth, not knowing why she looks, and then she goes back and throws a stick on the fire, and the wind comes up and the dead sea goes on being dead.
Or some of the closing passages from the heartbreakingly nostalgic Dandelion Wine:
He shut his eyes.
June dawns, July noons, August evenings over, finished, done, and gone forever with only the sense of it all left here in his head. Now, a whole autumn, a white winter, a cool and greening spring to figure sums and totals of summer past. And if he should forget, the dandelion wine stood in the cellar, numbered huge for each and every day.
Bradbury was a writer. In many ways he represented, and still represents, where I’d like to end up. His body of work, how far ranging it is, its balance of engaging and exciting and artful, the enduring nature of beautiful stories such as Dandelion Wine (a major inspiration for my story The End of All Summers), and his ceaseless drive to just keep creating.
His death is a true loss. If J.R.R. Tolkien made me want to be a writer, Ray Bradbury made me want to be a writer LIKE HIM. Still does.
My aspirations of being a Writer with a capital “w,” that’s still a dream in progress — I’ve had a good run the last few years, but there is a long way to go before I’ll feel satisfied with what I’ve done — but with work by guys like Ray Bradbury, Philip K. Dick, Kurt Vonnegut, and J.R.R. Tolkien still out there it will be easy to find the inspiration necessary to keep working towards the dream.
Take care, Ray. As long as your works are still with us, may it never be a pleasure to burn.