Thursday, 7 June 2012

Death of a Dystopian

by James Burkinshaw

From Fahreneheit 451, directed by Francois Truffaut (1966)

Ray Bradbury, who died aged 91 on June 5, 2012, was one of the most influential science-fiction writers of the twentieth century. The New Yorker noted that “Even though he considered himself primarily a fantasist, he (and a few other key writers) snapped science fiction out of its adolescent fugue and helped introduce the genre to a broader audience.”

His most celebrated novel was Fahrenheit 451, a dystopian vision of a world in which books had been banned (the title is a reference to the temperature at which paper ignites) and in which people rebel by reading. However, the short story was the form for which he was most famous, in particular the collections The Martian Chronicles and The Golden Apples of the Sun. The English writer J.G. Ballard wrote that “At its best, in (Jorge Luis) Borges, Ray Bradbury and Edgar Allen Poe, the short story is coined from precious metal a glint of gold that will glow for ever in the deep purse of your imagination.” The influence of Poe on Bradbury’s work is clear; they share a preoccupation with the fragile and often phantasmagorical nature of the human psyche. In one of Bradbury’s greatest stories, “The Small Assassin”, a husband and wife become increasingly convinced that their new-born baby is trying to murder  them. In “The Fruit at the Bottom of the Bowl”, a murderer obsessively cleans an entire house in an increasingly frenzied attempt to remove any potential traces of his crime.

Ray Bradbury
(image: City University of New York)
Like all of the greatest science fiction writers, Bradbury’s true concern was with the present as much as the future. Many of his stories (including “The Big Black and White Game” and “The Other Foot”) explored America’s tortured racial history, at a time when to do so was not only controversial but courageous.  Ironically, for a writer so associated with visions of the future, Bradbury avoided flying and never learnt to drive; his preferred mode of transport was the bicycle. His short story, “The Pedestrian”, describes police imprisoning a man in a psychiatric hospital for two crimes: going for a walk and not owning a television (incidentally, Bradbury later described the internet as “largely a waste of time”).

Many of his stories demonstrate concern about the dangers of technological progress and a preoccupation with the theme of loss of childhood innocence. One of his most celebrated tales, “A Sound of Thunder”, describes a safari that enables people to go back in time to hunt dinosaurs. When they return to the present day, the hunters discover that, because one of their number accidentally crushed a butterfly during their journey back in time, the history of the world has changed so that it is now run by a fascist dictator. It has been claimed that Bradbury’s story was the inspiration for the phrase “Butterfly Effect” in Chaos Theory.

Bradbury’s best work was written during a relatively short period, in the 1950s, but his influence has continued: through re-publication of his short stories in magazines (including The New Yorker, Esquire and Cosmopolitan); through film and television adaptations (including an episode of the famed Twilight Zone); and through his influence on later generations of  science fiction and horror writers, such as Stephen King. Less predictably, his fans included the British novelist Christopher Isherwood (who noted that Bradbury’s best work had “the profound psychological realism of a good fairy story”), the Argentinian writer Jorge Luis Borges, novelist Margaret Atwood (see her tribute, below) and Soviet leader and reformer Mikhail Gorbachev. Bradbury himself cited L. Frank Baum, author of The Wizard of Oz (a children’s work that is itself part fairy story, part science fiction and part horror), as a major influence.

Read Margaret Atwood's tribute to Ray Bradbury

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