Ray Bradbury’s Butterfly Effect

Go to the edge of the cliff and jump off.
Build your wings on the way down.

—Ray Bradbury

I discovered Ray Bradbury that same way everyone else did—on the verge of adolescence. I must have been about eleven when I spied a paperback edition of The Golden Apples of the Sun on the book rack at the corner drugstore. I bought his other books one by one—The Illustrated Man, A Medicine for Melancholy, The October Country, Fahrenheit 451—and devoured them with a bewildering mixture of pleasure, wonder, and disorientation. I loved the plots and situations, but they also contained something just beyond my reckoning. Finally, reading The Martian Chronicles late one night in the dark bedroom I shared with my younger brother, I understood what had simultaneously confused and enchanted me. Bradbury’s prose was touched by—I had no other name for it then—poetry. His elegant and evocative language exceeded the purely narrative requirements of the stories, conjuring something greater than mere suspense. He created an emotional atmosphere that filled his work with a characteristic fragrance of longing, wonder, and dread. Whereas another sci-fi writer might simply state that a time machine moved back through the ages, Bradbury wrote: “The Machine howled. Time was a film run backward. Suns fled and ten million moons fled after them.” For the first time in my life—except for the poems my mother recited—I was experiencing literature.

For the first time in my life—except for the poems my mother recited—I was experiencing literature.Bradbury proved a catalyst. The sensibility and appetites he awakened soon led me to Aldous Huxley and George Orwell, who offered elements of science fiction. Those authors led me in turn to mainstream literary fiction. Yet Bradbury remained my avuncular early mentor. Talking to other readers over the years, I’ve been impressed by the deep affection and gratitude they, too, felt for Bradbury. He was not merely a writer. He was the old friend who had been a guide during the awkward years between childhood and adolescence. Significantly, he also proved a friend who kept reappearing through our lives—in books, films, television, and the media. Then as we aged into parents, we watched our children discover him with equal pleasure.

Although Bradbury lived to be 91 and enjoyed six decades of extraordinary fame, his long and eventful career has never been well understood. He was too prolific, wide-ranging, and uneven to assess easily. There were too many books, stories, poems, plays, screenplays, articles, and interviews. Moreover, much of the writing, particularly in the later years, was spotty. His immense celebrity had drained some essential energy from his fiction. The particular quality of his best writing was also elusive. It didn’t fit the critical models for either science fiction or literary fiction. Luckily, Bradbury never had to depend on the critics—in either camp—for readership. He was supported by an astonishingly large and diverse audience. At his death, however, the famous public man left an oddly muddled legacy. While the obituaries ran on the front pages of the major newspapers, the long and sincere tributes seemed curiously vague. Everyone agreed he was an important writer, but few people could articulate exactly why—except by invoking his sheer popularity and the notion that some of his books, especially Fahrenheit 451, contained important themes.

Was Bradbury really a major writer? Or was he simply the amiable pioneer of a dynamic popular genre? The question persists, so let me offer what I believe will be Bradbury’s particular claim to literary posterity. For one astonishingly productive decade—from 1950 to 1960—Ray Bradbury was probably the most influential fiction writer in the English language. Please note that I’m not claiming he was the best writer or that he exerted the most influence on his fellow writers. In strictly literary terms, Bradbury was not remotely the equal of Flannery O’Connor, Graham Greene, Chinua Achebe, John Cheever, or a dozen other of his Anglophonic contemporaries. Bradbury’s enormous impact was felt mostly outside the literary world—on scientists, filmmakers, architects, engineers, journalists, librarians, artists, and entrepreneurs. Above all, his influence was felt on the young, the generation of adolescents who would shape the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries. Bradbury’s impact is still evident from Disneyland to Cape Canaveral, from Hollywood to Silicon Valley. It is even evident on other planets. When the Mars rover Curiosity touched down two months after the author’s death, NASA scientists named the spot Bradbury Landing. He was the paperback bard of book burning, the Butterfly Effect, virtual reality, and the full-body tattoo. Bradbury’s dreams and nightmares of space travel, nuclear holocaust, interactive media, robotics, censorship, mass illiteracy, and environmental payback provided the mythic structure for millions of other dreamers in science, entertainment, and technology.

Bradbury achieved this prophetic status in a remarkable series of books—one novel and six short story collections published in quick succession in his decem anni mirabilesThe Martian Chronicles (1950), The Illustrated Man (1951), The Golden Apples of the Sun (1953), Fahrenheit 451 (1953), The October Country (1955), Dandelion Wine (1957), and A Medicine for Melancholy (1959). (Although marketed as novels, The Martian Chronicles and Dandelion Wine are books of linked short stories.) Simply to list these famous titles evokes the Golden Age of American science fiction.

During that decade of economic optimism, technological innovation, and international anxiety, Bradbury emerged as the public face of science fiction and fantasy. He stood at the head of a small, scruffy group of West Coast pulp writers—including Robert Heinlein, Richard Matheson, Philip K. Dick, Fritz Leiber, Poul Anderson, Jack Vance, and Frank Herbert—who reinvented popular fiction in ways that eventually reshaped popular culture. Barely in his thirties, Bradbury precociously became the grand old man of science fiction and fantasy, a role he cherished for half a century with boyish glee. No public man ever loved his fans more than Bradbury, and the romance was reciprocated. But that early fame came at the price of his literary mastery.

After 1960 Bradbury would never consistently write so well again. Fortunately he didn’t have to. The early books never went away. They have stayed in print for seven decades and have been translated into dozens of languages. They have also been adapted into every major literary medium—radio, film, television, comic books, graphic novels, theater, ballet, and opera. It is difficult to imagine contemporary film and television without Bradbury. His influence is visible on Steven Spielberg, James Cameron, and George Lucas. For seven years (1985-1992), the author even had his own cable TV series, first on HBO, then on USA—The Ray Bradbury Theater, which eventually presented sixty-five adaptations of his short stories. Long before cable, however, Bradbury had already helped refashion the possibilities of film and television narrative. In 1950, science fiction and fantasy were marginal genres in popular entertainment. Today if you research the fifty highest-grossing films of all time, you will discover that forty-eight of them are science fiction or fantasy—an inconceivable situation in 1950. In creating fantastic situations and narratives that appealed to audiences beyond the coterie of pulp sci-fi, Bradbury helped change the sorts of stories the public preferred.

In the comfortable acclaim and affluence of Bradbury’s later years, it was hard to remember the hungry young man who had been a literary trailblazer. He was the first American to bring science fiction into the mainstream. His literary transformation met with initial resistance from editors in both the pulp and slick journals. Neither group of literary gatekeepers understood what he was after, but Bradbury, who could barely afford the postage to submit his early work, was not motivated by commercial considerations. He deepened his style out of some inner necessity to reconcile his love of high and low literary culture. Starting out in garish pulp journals such as Weird Tales, Dime Mysteries, and Thrilling Wonder Stories, Bradbury soon published in Saturday Evening Post, Esquire, The New Yorker, Life, and Playboy. Martha Foley anthologized him in her annual Best American Short Stories. He was the first sci-fi author to appear in school textbooks. He also became one of the last American writers to become internationally famous by writing short stories.

How did Bradbury popularize what had been considered an escapist genre created for adolescent boys? He took the premises of science fiction, fantasy, and horror—pulp genres that exploited sensationalism and wish-fulfillment—and humanized them with sensitive characterization, evocative prose style, and simpler plots. Although Bradbury could create ingenious narrative turns when necessary, his stories focused on the psychology of his characters. Bradbury was not a consummate stylist, but he was an attentive one, and his stories displayed a quiet charm and considerable fancy. He was also an allusive writer, something quite rare in “Golden Age” sci-fi. Even the titles of his stories display a breadth of literary culture: “The Golden Apples of the Sun,” “There Will Come Soft Rains,” “Dead Men Rise Up Never,” “I Sing the Body Electric” (memorable phrases borrowed respectively from Yeats, Teasdale, Swinburne, and Whitman). When Bradbury took his readers to Mars, there were no interplanetary battles or extravagant monsters. Instead, the readers learned what it felt like—at least in the author’s imagination—to stand on the dry Martian plains as night fell and feel an alien wind caress their sunburned cheeks. He mixed the fantastic with the familiar in ways that seemed both credible and alluring.

Bradbury did not quickly win the respect of academic critics. Having been too poor to attend college, he was an autodidact who didn’t write in the ways academics were trained to appreciate. He was a fabulist, not a realist. He worked better in short forms than extended ones. He belonged to the traditions of Romance rather than social or psychological Realism. It would take half a century of cultural change—from Magic Realism and Post-Modernism to big budget fantasy films and graphic novels—to demonstrate to the professoriate the avant-garde nature of Bradbury’s gentle fictions. When the critics’ slow and stinting approbation finally arrived, he was an old man in a wheelchair. By then their parsimonious admiration didn’t matter. Bradbury’s stature was a fact of cultural history.

It is interesting to see in retrospect how the arts establishment misses huge cultural changes—such as the development of science fiction and fantasy into serious literary forms. In the decade of Bradbury’s major work, who got the big awards? Here are the authors who won the Pulitzer Prize between 1950 and 1960: A. B. Guthrie, Jr., Conrad Richter, Herman Wouk, Ernest Hemingway, William Faulkner, MacKinlay Kantor, James Agee, Robert Lewis Taylor, and Allen Drury. Except for Hemingway and Faulkner, who won for weak late novels, these “prize-winning” novelists (even James Agee) have mostly vanished from both critical and popular acclaim. Ironically, from the perspective of the new century, Bradbury’s name would have added credibility to this roster. His absence from the Pulitzer list eventually became too conspicuous. In 2007 he was awarded a special lifetime award—the first and only sci-fi or fantasy writer ever to win a Pulitzer.

Bradbury is best understood as a mythmaker. In this sense, he resembles his heroes, Charles Dickens and Edgar Allan Poe, both long underestimated popular writers whose characters and stories didn’t stay only on the page but moved easily into stage, film, and the visual arts. More than any other contemporary writer, Bradbury created the stories, situations, characters, and symbols by which late twentieth-century America envisioned the Space Age and post-industrial world. His work unleashed a creative Butterfly Effect (a concept one of his short stories anticipated), influencing not only writers but also filmmakers, artists, architects, scientists, and social planners. Bradbury may have said, “I don’t try to describe the future. I try to prevent it,” but he was one of the leading futurists of his age. He was especially influential on the future of storytelling, which he knew no longer happened only in print.

Bradbury’s role as mythmaker is especially clear in the huge cohort of films made from his novels, stories, and screenplays—more than 150 works, not only in English but also in Spanish, Russian, Italian, German, Bulgarian, and Swedish. His stories, novels, and screenplays have been filmed by François Truffaut, John Frankenheimer, John Huston, and Tim Burton. Alfred Hitchcock produced seven stories for his classic Alfred Hitchcock Presents. Rod Serling adapted only one story for the original Twilight Zone, but he so consistently plagiarized elements of Bradbury’s fiction that its sensibility pervaded the influential television series. Even Bradbury’s minor works sent butterfly wing vibrations through the culture. The 1953 Bradbury-based film The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms (with special effects by his lifelong friend, the incomparable Ray Harryhausen) initiated one of the enduring mini-genres of science fiction cinema—the prehistoric beast wakened from the sea by human interference, in this case nuclear testing. Bradbury’s script for the low-budget It Came from Outer Space (also 1953) helped popularize, though not invent, another sci-fi premise—the solitary alien who crashes on the earth. There would probably have been no Godzilla or E.T. without Bradbury.

Such film and television versions will not impress literary critics for whom textual integrity is everything. The professors have mostly forgotten that literature once had resonance outside the English Department. The sheer number and diversity of Bradbury adaptations demonstrate the porous quality of his mythic imagination. His work could accommodate itself to vastly different audiences. While Martha Foley and other reputable editors were anthologizing his early stories, they were also being adapted—over two dozen times—in E. C. Comic’s lurid Tales from the Crypt, Weird Science, and Vaults of Horror. What other sci-fi writer could have inspired a rock video like comedian Rachel Bloom’s Fuck Me, Ray Bradbury (2010)? This parody of a teenage love song, which portrays a sexy high school nerd with the hots for her favorite author, manages to be at once catchy, obscene, literate, and genuinely sweet. Bloom’s salacious tribute also reminds us that Bradbury was the only male sci-fi writer of his generation to have attracted as many female as male readers.

I knew Bradbury in the last decade of his life. He was already confined to a wheelchair, but he remained preternaturally buoyant and optimistic. I visited him half a dozen times in his large Cheviot Hills home in Los Angeles where he had lived since 1958. His wife was dead and his four grown daughters had long since moved away, so the house had a slightly forlorn atmosphere, not successfully brightened by the hundred or so stuffed animals who silently congregated in the dusty living room. Ray nonetheless sat merrily in the den. It was a good-sized room but felt small since it overflowed with stuff—books, awards, paintings, movie posters, comic strips, toys, photos, and gadgets. There was an Oscar (not his), a Tyrannosaurus Rex, the National Medal of Arts, the Disney model for the Nautilus, a rocket ship, and inevitably a cat. No boy ever had a cooler clubhouse or enjoyed it more.

I vividly recall one revelatory moment with Ray. In 2008 he asked if I would introduce him at a science fiction conference sponsored by the University of California at Riverside, where he was to be the keynote speaker. So many people poured into the student union to hear him that the local fire marshals came to turn people away. The huge crowd waited noisily, but there was no easy way to get Ray’s wheelchair into the massive complex. Eventually we entered via a ground-level delivery dock and snaked our way through corridors until we came to an enormous elevator next to the food service kitchens. As the professors and I pushed Ray into the elevator, we were joined by half a dozen young Hispanic men from the cleaning crew. The professors stiffened, somewhat embarrassed by the mops and buckets. I turned to the fellows and told them in a mix of Spanish and English that I wanted to introduce them to a famous American writer, Ray Bradbury. My academic host gave me a look of bewilderment. The kitchen crew seemed surprised, too, until one of them said, “Ray . . . Ray Bradbury?” Then another responded, “Ray Bradbury!” They began excitedly speaking in Spanish, and suddenly they were producing scraps of paper for autographs. Ray beamed and began signing. We reached the top floor and rolled our guest of honor into the auditorium. The kitchen crew helped push him up the ramp to the stage, and then the crowd began to cheer.

First published in Radio Silence #2 (2013)