Commissioned and ready long before he left us.

Shortly after hearing the news of Ray Bradbury’s death yesterday morning, I was asked if I would be interested in writing a tribute/obituary.  I passed on the opportunity.  This was partly because my schedule would not permit me to quickly write and publish anything that would do him justice, but it was also because I hadn’t fully thought through what Bradbury’s legacy means.

Despite thinking a bit about Bradbury’s work all day yesterday, I’m still not sure I have a grasp on this latter point.  I read a fair number of mainstream obits/tributes last night (I’ve so far avoided SF sites and fanpages) and none seem to get it right.  I do, however, know what they get wrong.  A number of writers, most memorably to me this writer at Slate who professes to be a “sci-fi nerd” (and has issues with how to use “however” properly), are falling over themselves trying to distance Bradbury from science fiction as a genre.  This is the same thing that happened when J.G. Ballard died–people thinking they are doing  a deceased writer a service by situating him as a serious writer of so-called “literary fiction” instead of that low-brow crap they call “genre fiction.”  In the wake of Ballard’s death, Ursula K. Le Guin rebuked this tendency in a manner I could never hope to replicate, so I’ll just point you toward her piece “Calling Utopia a Utopia.”  I’d love to see the same type of reply from her on the reception to Bradbury’s passing. (As a side note, Le Guin spoke on Bradbury here in Eugene at the public library not long ago as part of the NEA’s Big Read, which featured Fahrenheit 451 as the primary text.  She cares about that book and about talking straight about genre fiction.)

Back to Bradbury’s legacy.  Understandably, the bulk of what people remember him for is (and will be) Fahrenheit 451 and the anti-censorship and anti-authoritarian themes of that book.  That book’s theme of technology’s capacity for distraction and pacification is also explored in most of the tributes I’ve seen.  This is all well and good.  However, to me, none of this is what makes Bradbury matter most.  Earlier authors (Aldous Huxley, anyone?) covered these same bases and made similar points.  What stands out to me, and I’m working with the texts I’ve read most recently and remember best, is his thoughtful and often melancholic engagement with humanity’s capacity for self-destruction.  Bradbury is a Cold War author who often extrapolates the potential for mass destruction overshadowing that era to other settings.  He does so as a meditation on our capacity for violence, a mass-scale violence facilitated by advanced technologies.

One can find this theme engaged in a number of his works, even, I might argue, in his underrated dark fantasy novel Something Wicked this Way Comes, which might be the most memorable thing he wrote.  However, the topic comes through poignantly in two texts I’ll mention briefly.

Ballantine paperback edition. The one I read as a teenager and still have despite its deterioration.

First, the 1953 novel Fahrenheit 451, which is not just a dystopian narrative, but also an apocalyptic one.  In the final chapters of the novel, the protagonist, Montag, has escaped the (probably nuclear) annihilation of Chicago.  One of the survivors, and rememberers of the literary tradition so central to the novel, Granger, stares at their small cooking fire (not the large one engulfing the nearby city) and relates the ancient legend of the Phoenix to Montag.  He draws a parallel between this story and human history:

“[The Phoenix] must have been first cousin to Man. But every time he burnt himself up he sprang out of the ashes, he got himself born all over again.  And it looks like we’re doing the same thing, over and over, but we’ve got one damn thing the Phoenix never had. We know the things we’ve done for a thousand years and as long as we know that and always have it around where we can see it, some day we’ll stop making the goddamn funeral pyres and jumping in the middle of them. We pick up a few more people that remember, every generation.”

Obviously this is an argument for memory and the preservation of texts/stories: the anti-censorship theme writ in the most powerful (and cliched) form of “he who does not remember history . . . ”  It is also a somewhat optimistic take on what the possibilities for humanity’s future are: the concept that failure after genocidal failure will allow us to finally get it right.  To stop making the big fires that kill so many, through understanding our past violence and, perhaps, a more thoughtful and restrained embrace of technology.  But the better, wiser future is not a certainty; Bradbury wrote this during the era where mutually assured destruction was becoming a reality.

The second text that I think illustrates what is best about Bradbury is his story “There Will Come Soft Rains,” the title of which is taken from a 1920 Sara Teasdale poem brief enough to cite in full:

“There will come soft rains and the smell of the ground,
And swallows circling with their shimmering sound;

And frogs in the pool singing at night,
And wild plum trees in tremulous white;

Robins will wear their feathery fire,
Whistling their whims on a low fence-wire;

And not one will know of the war, not one
Will care at last when it is done.

Not one would mind, neither bird nor tree,
If mankind perished utterly;

And Spring herself when she woke at dawn
Would scarcely know that we were gone.”

As with the previous reference to the legend of the Phoenix, this poem is about rebirth and reflects on the costs of war (here probably WWI, but also the possibility of humanity “perished utterly” in some unfathomed apocalyptic event).

Bradbury’s appropriation of the poem’s title comes as a story whose ostensible protagonist is an automated home “living” out its final hours after the demise of the humanity it served.  It is a localized view of the aftermath of human destructiveness that proposes a more widespread “experience” of the end result of our path (one can easily extrapolate this home’s experience to millions of similarly equipped automatons across the globe). The types of technology seen are familiar but the perspective is alien . . . as in Teasdale’s poem, there are no people to see or describe even if any are left.  The optimistic faith in humanity and progress that underwrites our everyday belief systems has proven a lie.

It is these elements of Bradbury that stick with me most.  The big questions about who we are and where we might go.  They aren’t definitive answers, obviously; Bradbury is a fiction writer working with the concerns and ideas of a time, and, in his case, of all times.  While I will certainly remember him as engaging the specters of authoritarianism and censorship, it is this less-easily-answered theme that I thank him for exploring.

If you’ve not read “There Will Come Soft Rains,” there are several short-film adaptations on youtube.  The following is a video of Burgess Meredith’s excellent reading of the story juxtaposed with some futuristic art:

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