By Mike O’Sullivan
Iconic science fiction and fantasy writer Ray Bradbury died Tuesday in California at the age of 91.
Bradbury, who wrote the classic Fahrenheit 451, about a totalitarian future when books are burned, and more than two dozen other novels and 600 short stories, was probably more instrumental than any other 20th century American author in popularizing, and legitimizing, science fiction and fantasy.
Born in a small town in Illinois in 1920, he read popular publications with titles like Weird Tales, Thrilling Wonder Stories and Astounding Science Fiction.
At an early age he resolved that, lacking athletic talents, he would stop competing with his peers and instead do what gave him the most pleasure: reading and writing. He was 12 when he set himself the goal of writing at least four hours a day, a practice that stayed with him throughout his lifetime. He published his first story in Weird Tales when he was 20.
Ray Bradbury recalled in an interview that his parents were poor and he never attended college.
“But I had enough sense when I was 18-years old to start going to the library five or six nights a week,” he said. “Every morning I wrote. Every afternoon I sold newspapers on the street corner, and I graduated from the library when I was 28 years old.”
That love of libraries stayed with him throughout his life, and in a 2010 interview with the U.S. State Department he said, “what I think I can teach people is that a library is more important than a college or university.”
At first he wrote short stories, which by his own description were “unconventional tales of ghosts and haunts.”
He was inspired with tales of Mars by the adventure and science fiction writer Edgar Rice Burroughs. But Bradbury’s The Martian Chronicles, published in 1950, was a social commentary that dealt with current issues: the threat of nuclear war, racism, pollution, censorship, and out-of-control technology.
His love of books and aversion to censorship were the basis for what became his best known work, Fahrenheit 451, a slim 1953 novel about a fireman whose job is to burn books, but who joins an underground group devoted to memorizing the classics in order to preserve them. The book was made into a movie in 1966, starring Julie Christie and Oskar Werner.
Some ideas for Bradbury’s stories and poems came from his vast collection of mementos. Magazines, toys, costumes, all kinds of souvenirs going back to his childhood years cluttered the room in his home that he used as an office. In an interview with CBS news, he said he refused to throw any of them away.
“You never know where you are going to get an idea, and really these are metaphors as I look around at them, and one by one, I pick up on them,” he said. “I say, ‘that would make a short story.’ So I begin to type, I put nouns on the paper. I describe some of these toys. Next thing you know I have a short story. So I’ve learned not to throw things away because that’s what a writer is, a collector of objects, symbols, metaphors. Call them what you will, but you never know when something here is going to turn into another story.”
Bradbury wrote for radio and television, and published collections of his poems and essays.
His advice for those who, like him, aspire to become writers: “Do what you love, and love what you do.”
His admirers have called him an inspired and prolific voice in many genres, and literary critics have said it is misleading to call Ray Bradbury simply a science fiction writer.
Scientist and fellow author Isaac Asimov called Bradbury a writer of “social fiction,” and Bradbury once described his own writings as “speculative fiction.”
For all of his tales about science, technology and the future, however, Bradbury often shunned conveniences of modern-day life.
He refused to drive a car, explaining he witnessed an automobile accident as a young man that left him forever terrified of driving. And for much of his life he refused to fly in airplanes.
He also had a lingering distrust of computers. In his State Department interview, he said the information available to people on computers “is not quite the same as the information you get in a library,” adding that if he had his way, “I would burn the computers and not the libraries.”