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The development of Ray Bradbury - science fiction legend

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I guess it's the long goodbye - but Ray Bradbury's was a long and fruitful life, for the dedicated geek...

Ray Bradbury, the dreamer of the lights in the darkness

The science fiction world suffered a great loss with the death of the legendary Ray Bradbury, who departed this universe on June 5th 2012 at the age of 91. An incredible influence on the genre during the forties and fifties, Bradbury re-defined 20th Century American fiction with a prolific output that tackled a wide variety of subjects. But it was science fiction that he will be best remembered for. Most of his short stories and novels depicted a bleak utopian future ruled by media technology. This was made all the more unique by the fact that Bradbury never drove a car. His most famous works are The Illustrated Man, Fahrenheit 451 and The Martian Chronicles.

Fahrenheit 451 - a seminal Bradbury workRaymond Douglas Bradbury was born in Waukegan, Illinois on 22 August 1922. His father Leonard Spaulding Bradbury was an electrician, and his mother Esther Marie Moberg, a Swedish immigrant. Both Bradbury’s grandfather and great-grandfather worked as newspaper publishers.

The family tree itself had one interesting skeleton in the cupboard. Bradbury’s ancestor was Mary Bradbury, who was tried as a witch during the infamous Salem Witch Trials of 1692. She was married to Massachusetts born Captain Thomas Bradbury. For good measure, Bradbury was related to America’s foremost Shakespearean scholar Douglas Spaulding.

Waukegan's Carnegie Library, arguably a great font of Ray Bradbury's extraordinary outputBradbury’s love of literature stemmed from childhood. He was greatly influenced by Edgar Allan Poe, especially in the way the American writer’s Gothic style created a sense of unease to the reader. His frequent visits to Waukegan’s Carnegie Library allowed Bradbury to immerse himself with H G Wells, Jules Verne and his favourite author, Edgar Rice Burroughs; he was so impressed by the Burroughs’ novel Warlords of Mars that he wrote an unpublished sequel when he was 12.

And with those influences to guide him, it was inevitable for Bradbury to start writing from an early age. In fact he made a habit of writing every day for the rest of his life. The family commuted to Tucson, Arizona regularly as his father pursued employment there. In 1932, Bradbury went to a carnival show and watched an entertainer called ‘Mr Electrico’. When the entertainer touch Bradbury’s nose with his sword (making his hair stand on end), it made the young man see his future career as a writer. The incident also made Bradbury develop his skills as a magician.

The family settled in Los Angeles in 1934. Like many teenagers, Bradbury was an avid film fan, so being near Hollywood was a boy’s dream come true. He furthered his interest by taking writing courses at Los Angeles High School, but the Depression prevented him from attending college. Bradbury spent the next ten years visiting various libraries where he progressed to the works of Leo Tolstoy and Fyodor Dostoevsky. But it was the Utopian visions of Yevgeny Zamyatinand Aldous Huxley that really influenced his first major story.

The interior of UCLA's Powell libraryUCLA’s Powell Library was a frequent place for Bradbury to visit. Students often rented out the typewriters in the study room at 10cents an hour. Using the money earned selling newspapers; Bradbury embarked on an ambitious 250,000-word short story called The Fireman. After selling it to Galaxy Magazine for $9.80, he later expanded it to 50,000 words and renamed it Fahrenheit 451. It was published in serial form by Playboy Magazine, which had just started out this type of publication.

Turned down for military service during World War II due to bad eyesight, Bradbury embarked on a full-time writing career. It couldn’t have come at a better time, with American teenagers going nuts over the sci-fi antics of Flash Gordon and Buck Rogers. There were magazines and fanzines clamouring for his stories. In 1938 Bradbury met lifelong friend Forrest J Ackerman, who invited him to the Los Angeles Science Fiction Society. Among the well-respected writers he encountered included Robert Heinlein.

Futuria Fantasia coverBradbury’s first published story was Hollerbochen’s Dilemma in 1938 for the fanzine Imagination. After briefly setting up his own fanzine Futuria Fantasia, he worked as a regular staff writer for the film magazine Script. His first professional short story, Pendulum, was published in 1941 for Super Science Stories. The following year he was writing full time, contributing to a variety of magazines, including the celebrated Weird Tales, and 1947 published his first collection of short stories, courtesy of by August Derleth’s Arkham House Press, as the anthology Dark Carnival. That same year he married Marguerite McClure, whom he met at a book-store the previous year. They remained married until her death in 2003.

Bradbury followed up Dark Carnival with the 1950 anthology The Martian Chronicles, a series of closely interwoven stories about the colonisation of Mars. The following year his most famous anthology The Illustrated Man was published. This was a series of unrelated stories linked together by the main character, whose body is covered with tattoos, each telling a story from the future. As his popularity increased, his stories were effectively adapted for the comic books Tales from the Crypt, Weird Science and Haunt of Fear.

It was the fifties that secured Bradbury’s reputation. As well as comic books, low budget science fiction films proved very popular with the teenage drive-in theatres. The phenomenal rise of television was also a contributing factor to Bradbury’s profile with many of his stories adapted for the popular anthology shows Alfred Hitchcock Presents, Tales of Tomorrow and The Twilight Zone.

Poster: 'The Beast From 20,000 fathoms'Oddly enough cinema seems to have neglected his work, the few resulting films being far from satisfactory. It Came From Outer Space (1953) and The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms (1954) are the best known movie adaptations, even though Bradbury had no major script input. He did write the screenplay for John Huston’s Moby Dick (1956), which could not be further from the genre he is best known for.

Two big screen adaptations from the sixties did not meet with Bradbury’s approval. François Truffaut’s adaptation of Fahrenheit 451 (1966) owed more to the director’s French ‘New Wave’ approach and less to the basic concept of Bradbury’s efficient story telling. Starring Oscar Werner, Cyril Cusack, Julie Christie and Anton Differing, the conflicting styles of Truffaut and Bradbury never really gelled together, but at least it remains an interesting work.

Certainly better than Jack Smight’s The Illustrated Man (1960) starring Rod Steiger and Clare Bloom. Of the 18 tales, only three were filmed with the remaining movie spending too much time on the linking story and how Steiger’s obnoxious title character got his tattoos in the first place (three more stories could have been filmed instead). The film’s impact was further undermined by a confused narrative and Steiger’s mannered performance. The Illustrated Man met with mixed reviews and Bradbury himself was not happy with the end result.

Rod Steiger in 'The Illustrated Man' (1960)

In addition to science fiction, Bradbury remained a prolific writer of horror and detective stories. He also wrote critically acclaimed essays on the arts. Such was his impact on American culture; it came as no surprise the number of awards he would receive over the years. The list of awards are too numerous to mention but among the many honours he received were The World Fantasy Award Life Achievement, The National Medal of Arts and an Emmy Award for his TV adaptation of The Halloween Tree (1994). For good measure he presented The Ray Bradbury Creativity Award at Woodbury University, received a star on Hollywood’s Walk of Fame and had an asteroid named after him.

Bradbury also remained active as a strong supporter of America’s public libraries. For someone whose work used of modern technology as the basis for his work, he disliked the idea of e-book publications and resisted his own books being converted to this new form of technology. Fahrenheit 451 was eventually published in electronic form under the condition that it could only be downloaded by any library patron.

"Thanks to Ray Bradbury, the science fiction genre moved away from pulp fiction to artistic excellence"

'The Martian Chronicles' (1980)In 1980, the three part TV mini-series The Martian Chronicles was televised by NBC. Starring Rock Hudson and produced by British horror specialist Milton Subotsky, it was a bloated and lacklustre affair. Bradbury himself found the series “very boring.” Slightly more effective was the horror film Something Wicked Comes This Way (1983), an adaptation of his 1962 novel starring Jason Robards and Jonathan Pryce.

From the eighties Bradbury focused more on crime fiction, but sci-fi was never far away. Between 1985 and 1992 Bradbury hosted the anthology series The Ray Bradbury Theatre, which adapted 65 of his stories to TV.

Bradbury suffered a stroke in 1999 that left him partially wheelchair-bound for the rest of his life. But this never stopped him from writing every day. He also made regular appearances at science fiction and literary conventions until poor health forced him to retire. Writing still remained his passion; only a week before his death he wrote an essay for the New Yorker about his life as a writer.

To say that Ray Bradbury was a great writer is something of an understatement. He was a philanthropist, philosopher and intellectual whose impact on American culture was not restricted to literature. Thanks to him, the science fiction genre moved away from pulp fiction to artistic excellence.

R.I.P. to a sci-fi legend.

VIDEO: Ray Bradbury: the prankster
Something Wicked This Way Comes


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