Remembering Ray Bradbury: Author, Dreamer, and Champion of Free Speech

June 25, 2012
By

by Joe Sergi

It was my first San Diego Comic Con (SDCC). I was there promoting a new zombie book I was going to be working on (ironically, it never came to be). Still, I had scored a presenter badge and unfettered access to the show. For anyone who hasn’t been there, SDCC can overwhelm the senses. The movie studios, video game/toy companies, and comic book publishers pull out all the stops with their booths. They are only outdone by the fans, who spend months perfecting their cosplay uniforms. What does this have to do with Ray Bradbury? It is because of the spectacle that is SDCC that I accidentally got to meet one of the most prolific and amazing authors of our — or any other — time.

I was wandering the convention center floor, snapping pictures of everything I could: a life-sized Optimus Prime, a woman dressed as a full-sized dragon, Stan Lee hanging out at the snack bar, etc. In addition, I had found that I had also taken several shots of my feet, the floor, the inside of my bag, the ceiling and things that the cast of Syfy’s Fact or Faked would not be able to reproduce. In no time, I was out of film (or the digital equivalent thereof). I needed to delete some pictures. As I stood in the center of the convention floor squinting to read the tiny LCD screen on my camera in the bright lights, an observant security guard saw my dilemma and (more importantly) my presenter badge and suggested I go to the darker, offstage security area he was guarding. I did.

I stood in that dark access hallway used to ferry VIP guests to their signings and deleted numerous pictures of what could only have been a blurry Olivia Wilde. Then, I heard the sound of a wheelchair coming up behind me. I turned and saw Ray Bradbury, flanked by his assistants and an SDCC volunteer.

“Mr. Bradbury, I’m a huge fan!” I gushed.

The volunteer looked at my badge and, I guess, concluded that I wasn’t a stalker. He turned to one of the assistants and said, “I can’t get them on the radio, but I think he’s right out on the floor.” Then, he looked at me and said something like, “Could you keep Mr. Bradbury company for a few minutes? I’ll be right back.”

I nodded dumbly, and a second later I was talking to one of the single most amazing authors in the world. In my life, I have had the privilege of meeting some pretty amazing people — celebrities, Senators, Congressmen, Supreme Court Justices, several Presidents of the United States, and other high ranking government officials (I have even hung out with Henry Kissinger and Richard Nixon). Still, to this day, Ray Bradbury is one of the most influential people I have ever met.

Bradbury was born on August 22, 1920, in Waukegan, Illinois. He started writing at the age of twelve and never stopped. In fact, The New Yorker published an essay on his inspiration for writing on June 6, 2012, a week prior to his death. Mr. Bradbury wrote every day, which is a noble goal. On his 80th birthday he said,

“The great fun in my life has been getting up every morning and rushing to the typewriter because some new idea has hit me. The feeling I have every day is very much the same as it was when I was twelve. In any event, here I am, eighty years old, feeling no different, full of a great sense of joy, and glad for the long life that has been allowed me. I have good plans for the next ten or twenty years, and I hope you’ll come along.”

And we are glad that he did write every day. People will obviously remember him as a science fiction writer — a label he was never comfortable with. (“First of all, I don’t write science fiction.  . . . Science fiction is a depiction of the real. Fantasy is a depiction of the unreal.”) He wrote novels, poetry, plays, and screenplays on a wide variety of topics and had over 500 published credits, which have sold more than eight million copies and been printed in 36 languages. His stories have been adapted by EC Comics and published in Tales from the Crypt, Weird Science, Weird Fantasy, Crime Suspenstories, Haunt of Fear and others. Just last year, Hill and Wang put out adaptations of Something Wicked this Way Comes and the Martian Chronicles (they had previously released Farenheight 451).

Bradbury wasn’t limited to traditional writing. He consulted on scripts for attractions in the 1964 World’s Fair and wrote the original script for the Spaceship Earth attraction in Walt Disney’s EPCOT Center. I should note that Walt Disney and Ray Bradbury were friends but never collaborated during Disney’s life. In fact, Disney flatly refused to ever work directly with him on a Disneyland project. “It’s no use,” Walt told him. “You’re a genius and I’m a genius. We’d kill each other the second week.”

But, Bradbury wasn’t just a writer, he was also a fanboy. He was one of us.  He loved Edgar Allan Poe, HG Wells, Jules Verne, and Edgar Rice Burroughs (in fact that writing he did at age twelve was an unauthorized sequel to Warlord of Mars.) As a youth, he spent all of his time in the library.  As an adult, he attended science fiction conventions (including First World Science Fiction Convention in New York City), wrote for fanzines (his first published story was “Hollerbochen’s Dilemma”, which appeared in the fanzine Imagination!) and even started a fanzine himself in 1939 called Futuria Fantasia. I’m sure he was blown away when the Disney Company presented him with his own “Halloween Tree” in honor of the 35th anniversary of his novel of the same name.

Bradbury’s love of imagination also comes through in his writing.  He took us to fantastic worlds (The Martian Chronicles), to meet fantastic people (The Illustrated Man), and to sometimes discover the hero in our own house (Something Wicked this Way Comes). But, when Bradbury was at his best, he was showing us ourselves, which takes us to what many consider his greatest work: Farenheight 451. The book mixes social commentary with warnings about modern technology’s dark side. Fahrenheit 451 is one of the earliest books to present a dystopian tale about a future world that is nightmarish rather than hopeful. In its imaginary world, police state “firemen” burn homes containing books, as all books are forbidden by law. We see this world through the eyes of Guy Montag, a fireman whose job it is to burn houses with books, as he is drawn into the world of clandestine book-readers. The novel’s anti-censorship viewpoint is clear as the authoritarian government has decreed that all writing is subversive. This idea is reinforced by a group of outcasts trying to preserve literature by committing entire books to memory. Printed matter can be burned, memories cannot be erased. Reading makes people aware of ideas that may be dangerous to a totalitarian state, but are absolutely necessary for clear thinking.

Of course, Bradbury has insisted that his classic novel Fahrenheit 451 isn’t really about government censorship. He said, “I wasn’t worried about freedom. I was worried about people being turned into morons by tv.”  Despite this, Farenheight 451’s anti-censorship message is too strong to ignore and has often been cited by opponents of book bannings in the United States.

(I should also note that Bradbury’s family experienced firsthand the kind of paranoia that comes from ignorance and intolerance. His ancestor, Mary Perkins Bradbury, was convicted as a witch in the Salem witch trials.)

Ironically, Farenheight 451, which stands as a condemnation of censorship, was itself censored, along with other works by Bradbury. For example, a special school edition was released without Bradbury’s knowledge that modified more than 75 passages to eliminate mild curse words, and to “clean up” two incidents in the book. (In one example, a drunk character was changed to merely be sick in the sanitized version). Bradbury became incensed when he discovered the censorship and demanded that his publisher withdraw the censored version. They did and as a result, some schools banned the book from course reading lists. In response, Bradbury added a coda to the 1979 printing of Farenheight 451, in which he describes the incident:

‘Shut the door, they’re coming through the window, shut the window, they’re coming through the door,’ are the words to an old song. They fit my lifestyle with newly arriving butcher/censors every month. Only six months ago, I discovered that, over the years, some cubby-hole editors at Ballantine Books, fearful of contaminating the young, had, bit by bit, censored some 75 separate sections from the novel. Students, reading the novel which, after all, deals with the censorship and book-burning in the future, wrote to tell me of this exquisite irony. Judy-Lynn Del Rey, one of the new Ballantine editors, is having the entire book reset and republished this summer with all the damns and hells back in place.

The coda does not limit itself to Farenheight 451, but also discusses other censorship that Bradbury has faced. For example, he describes how he said he should add more women in the Martian Chronicles. Similarly, some people complained that the Martian Chronicles are too white, while others complained that it was too black. He describes how his short stories were censored and placed in a compilation with other writers that was so heavily edited that the works of “Twain read like Poe read like Shakespeare read like Dostoevsky read like–in the finale–Edgar Guest.”  The final straw, however, was when a play that he adapted from Moby Dick (set in space, of course) was sent back by a University because it had no woman in it. Of course, nothing was said about the content of the play or the reason it featured only men. Bradbury summed up his thoughts as follows:

The point is obvious. There is more than one way to burn a book. And the world is full of people running about with lit matches. Every minority, be it Baptist / Unitarian, Irish / Italian / Octogenarian / Zen Buddhist, Zionist / Seventh-day Adventist, Women’s Lib / Republican, Mattachine / FourSquareGospel feel it has the will, the right, the duty to douse the kerosene, light the fuse. Every dimwit editor who sees himself as the source of all dreary blanc-mange plain porridge unleavened literature, licks his guillotine and eyes the neck of any author who dares to speak above a whisper or write above a nursery rhyme.

Bradbury’s conclusion is as impressive as the book itself. As he states:

In sum, do not insult me with the beheadings, finger-choppings or the lung-deflations you plan for my works. I need my head to shake or nod, my hand to wave or make into a fist, my lungs to shout or whisper with. I will not go gently onto a shelf, degutted, to become a non-book.

All you umpires, back to the bleachers. Referees, hit the showers. It’s my game. I pitch, I hit, I catch. I run the bases. At sunset I’ve won or lost. At sunrise, I’m out again, giving it the old try.

And no one can help me. Not even you.


Which brings me back to SDCC and my chance meeting. So, here I was with this great man in that dark hallway.  Now, I would love to say that we had a profound conversation that changed my life. Mostly, I gushed and he politely nodded. I asked him if he had any advice for writers. He said the best thing a writer can do is write. “Do what you love and love what you do.” He said, “Write for yourself and don’t do it for the money. And don’t let anyone give you money unless they believe in what you do.” Then, the volunteer was back and taking him away to the signing. Before he left, he asked me if I was a writer. I said I love to write horror, sci fi, and fantasy. He smiled and said, “That’s good.”

Then, I was alone with my camera, realizing I hadn’t taken a single picture.

I remember reading afterward that Bradbury credited his ability to write every day to what he dubbed “a strange and wonderful incident” that occurred in a 1932 visit to a carnival, where a magician named Mr. Electrico, touched him on the nose with an electrified sword and made the young Bradbury’s hair stand on end. Mr. Electrico shouted, “Live forever!”  In part he was correct: Ray Bradbury will certainly live on through his writing.

The stories live on. But, the man is gone. And, we certainly miss him. I would like to think he’s somewhere finishing that sequel to Warlord of Mars with Edgar Rice Burroughs and Edgar Allan Poe as co-collaborators.

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Joe Sergi is a life-long comics fan and author who has written short stories, novels, comics, and articles in the horror, science fiction, super hero, and young adult genres.  When not writing, he works as a Senior Litigation Counsel in an unnamed US government agency.   More information can be found at http://www.joesergi.net/.