B is for Bradbury: How The Human Side of Sci-Fi Kept Me Sane

Perhaps no author has left a more ineffaceable impression on my very being as fantasy/science-fiction writer Ray Bradbury, who passed away June 6, 2012, but who left behind a treasure trove that will stand the test of space-time.

Like many other lovers of literature who have been fortunate enough to discover Bradbury’s wide and wondrous worlds, I was introduced to this master storyteller by way of a true classic –– Fahrenheit 451, which tells of Guy Montag, a fireman whose job it was to burn books. Ever since reading it in my mass media class back at Weehawken High, its immortal first sentence still burns brightly in my consciousness: “It was a pleasure to burn.”

While studying English at New Jersey City University, where I was bombarded with everything from Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein to Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, I started reading even more Bradbury. I was a much more timid person as a college freshman, and I didn’t do all that much after school because I’d have to hurry home and take care of my Dad, who had been recently diagnosed with cancer. A few times a week, I would drive him to Jersey City’s Christ Hospital for radiation therapy. Then there were frequent visits to Saint Barnabas Medical Center for tests and other kinds of therapy after he’d had his larynx removed. During those trying times, which would ultimately forge me into the man I am today, I needed a bit of an escape from reality.

Bradbury was my escape pod. While witnessing my Dad slowly becoming a different person, going from a man who loved each and every breath to one struggling to get up some mornings, I blew into a small town with a lightning rod salesman and a devilish carnival in Something Wicked This Way Comes. I saw The Illustrated Man’s tattoos writhe to life through intense imagery, and listened as each of them told harrowingly original stories. Then I rocketed up past the earth’s heavy atmosphere, and reaching our sister planet, I uncovered The Martian Chronicles, a set of short stories that could be read individually and as a collective history of the red planet. I visited the unchartered territories of The October Country, sat on a porch and drank the Dandelion Wine of summers that never seemed to end –– for both my father and myself. We hid under The Halloween Tree waiting to see what tomorrow might bring. For my Dad, tomorrow brought more of the same. For me, those “wilderness years” would leave me well-versed in Zen and the Art of Writing.

Comic book adaptation of “There Will Come Soft Rains” by Al Feldstein and Wallace Wood (Weird Fantasy No. 17; 1953).

After my Dad’s therapy sessions ended, my passion for Bradbury remained. I went on to read many more short story compilations –– R Is For Rocket, which includes the classic time travel tale “A Sound of Thunder,” S is for Space, and even his lesser known collections Quicker Than the Eye and Driving Blind. For a long time I seemed to live, think, and breathe Bradbury. It had been my medicine for melancholy, for sure, but it was also a kaleidoscope of wonder that opened up before me a softer, intrinsically human science-fictional universe that didn’t seem to exist in the cold, theory-heavy works of Isaac Asimov, Ben Bova, and H. G. Wells. If the plays of Shakespeare teach us what it means to be human in an inhumane world, then Bradbury’s stories teach us how to remain human amidst inhuman worlds.

Novel after novel and story after story, Bradbury kept my mind immersed in not only the worlds he created, but in the unique way he articulated those worlds. Bradbury could do with prose what some of the greatest poets have done with meter to create the kind of imagery that lingers in the forefront of our imaginations, making us truly experience the realms others would only allow us to see. There was something enthusiastically individual about his stories. There was nothing too detailed because Bradbury knew early on that readers don’t necessarily care how a sci-fi world works, but rather that the people worked within those worlds, be them human, android, or extraterrestrial.

Behind every great man is a great cat.

I am proud to say that my happiest memories of Ray Bradbury are intimately linked to the more difficult ones of my Dad, creating the balance I needed to come out of the whale’s belly a stronger person. And of course, a better writer, since I owe much of my uncanny attention to detail to Mr. Bradbury. And so with a scent of Sarsaparilla in the air, let the fog horn blow to send off a master of written words and worlds to a better world. Let the long rain fall knowing that this is not the last night of the world, but rather the best of all possible worlds. Let him enjoy a well-earned million-year picnic while we continue to enjoy the golden apples of the sun he left behind.

My Top Five Ray Bradbury Reads

  1. “The Third Expedition” (from The Martian Chronicles)
  2. “A Sound of Thunder” (from R Is For Rocket)
  3. Fahrenheit 451
  4. “The Earth Men” (from The Martian Chronicles)
  5. Zen and the Art of Writing

I used nine story titles throughout my blog post. Can you uncover some of them? Also, what are some Ray Bradbury stories you remember most?

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