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In Memoriam, Ray Bradbury

Posted in Other Writing

My old friend Kate Sheehan broke the news to me today via Twitter that Ray Bradbury has died.

Ray Bradbury pontificates, 2009. Photo by Caleb Sconosciuto.

I knew it was coming; No one lives forever and he was 91. The news was still a blow when I read it. Today is a sad day.

Bradbury first came into my hands when I was very young, which is probably the best time to encounter him. My mother forced a copy of R is for Rocket (somehow out of print!) on me. I say forced, because what I recall is a fair amount of reluctance. I don’t remember how old I was, except that I’d only recently discovered that reading was both easy and awesome. That the title was a joke on an imaginary children’s alphabet was lost on me, so I thought it was actually a book for kids; I was at one of those juvenile ages where things that seemed juvenile repulsed me.

Eventually I relented. I don’t remember my reactions to the stories themselves so much as what came after — a lifelong love of both Bradbury’s work and science fiction in general. I read everything by him I could find, from his horror and sf through to his more conventional works about life in Ireland. As a boy, I loved his paeans to boyhood and the joy of fresh new sneakers in Dandelion Wine. I read The Martian Chronicles over and over, breaking the spines of multiple copies.

One of the most visceral experiences I can remember having with a book was while rereading that classic of war and censorship, Fahrenheit 451. I lay on my bed in my father’s house, completely absorbed in the story, my surroundings having disappeared. As the protagonist Montague flees (pursued, if I recall, by his fellow firemen), fighter jets roar overhead. Simultaneously, a jet passed over our house in the real world. The bottom fell out from under me, and for a long moment I genuinely did not know where I was.

Bradbury was there with me during my early battles with authority figures. I remember fighting with a misguided librarian until she let me read Elanor Cameron’s The Wonderful Flight to the Mushroom Planet, which had been placed on a shelf designated for grade levels older than mine. I was secure that my new found love of the genre would protect me from the imagined damage caused by any “hard words” I encountered. More directly, he once got me sent to the principal’s office. We were reading one of his books in class (maybe Dandelion Wine), and the teacher said we could just skip over any “overly descriptive passages.” If you’ve ever seen me really angry, you can probably imagine what happened next.

Ray Bradbury at his best is science fiction at its best — making the reader think about new possibilities while reflecting back on us in the startling new perspective of a fisheye lens. While writing about the alien, the futuristic, or the monstrous, he shed light on what it means to be human — the humor and the horror of it and, once in a while, a glimpse of how we could be better humans too.

Thank you. You will be missed.

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