Ray Bradbury, 1920-∞: At Play in Space and Time

While in Seattle for a conference a couple of years ago, I ditched the scheduled luncheon and scooted over to the EMP Museum, a flashy, entertaining, interactive museum devoted to music, popular culture, and science fiction. When I went down to the basement annex, I found the Science Fiction Hall of Fame packed, wall-to-wall, with deeply absorbed science-fiction fans, some in alien makeup or mocked-up space suits. I never counted myself as one of these fans. Until that is, while following the timeline of the inducted authors that framed the short stories, novels, film adaptations, and toy spin-offs, I realized that I was more like the other visitors who were painted green and dressed in silver than I thought; I’d read nearly all of these writers.

There enshrined on the wall were Poul Anderson, Isaac Asimov, James Blish, Arthur C. Clarke, William Gibson, and Harlan Ellison, followed by Ursula LeGuin, Fritz Lieber, Andre Norton, Mary Shelley, and Jules Verne. The exhibit featured at least four dozen more of the most inventive minds this planet has ever produced. These authors played with time and space, exploring alien sensibilities and alternate histories, casting their minds to capture the plausible existential threats and inexhaustible promise of the way out human prospect. Science-fiction took hold especially in the United States, where future utopias and dystopias delighted generations of kids who would grow up to become rocket propulsion engineers, cosmonauts, videogame designers, cyberspace explorers, World’s Fair exhibit designers, molecular geneticists, environmentalists, astrophysicists, and aspiring writers. America produced an inspiring literature of ideas and this is surely represented in the stories written by the authors honored in the Science Fiction Hall of Fame.

The wall also celebrated one of the towering figures of the genre—Ray Bradbury, of course. Self-educated and filled with cranky opinions, Bradbury displayed a rich talent for playing memorably with strange premises and fantastic scenarios: a tormented “fireman” hired by a totalitarian government to burn seditious books (Fahrenheit 451), for example, or a criminal genius who’s comically caught while obsessively polishing away fingerprints at the scene of the perfect crime (“The Fruit at the Bottom of the Bowl”). Then there’s the one about a virtual reality screen that vengefully comes to life (“The Veldt”), and another about intrepid spacemen who probe the solar surface (“The Golden Apples of the Sun”). Or the melancholy and hopeful story of a group of priests who leave for Mars in pursuit of creatures of good will (“The Fire Balloons”).

Bradbury was a writing machine. He wrote every day for the last 75 years, and so produced 27 novels and an astounding 600 short stories and essays that roughly balanced bright promise with awful warning. The final piece, a brief, wistful autobiographical note, appeared in the New Yorker shortly before his death at age 91.

For “Take me Home,” Bradbury retrieved a memory from some 85 years before, and recalled joining his grandfather to launch a tiny “fire balloon” that glowed as it rose and diminished in the gathering dusk of an Illinois night. “It floated up above the apple trees,” he wrote, “over the beginning-to-sleep town, and across the night among the stars.” In this tender last fragment, the writer traced a mental trajectory as his own powerful, playful imagination first took flight.