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Ray Bradbury, writer brought science fiction to wider public

Ray Bradbury with an illustration that a student made to depict one of his characters.

ASSOCIATED PRESS/FILE 1966

Ray Bradbury with an illustration that a student made to depict one of his characters.

NEW YORK — Ray Bradbury, a master of science fiction whose imaginative and lyrical evocations of the future reflected both the optimism and the anxieties of his own postwar America, died Tuesday in Los Angeles. He was 91.

His death was confirmed by his agent, Michael Congdon.

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By many estimations, Mr. Bradbury was the writer most responsible for bringing modern science fiction into the literary mainstream. His name would appear near the top of any list of major science fiction writers of the 20th century, beside those of Isaac Asimov, Arthur C. Clarke, Robert A. Heinlein, and Stanislaw Lem. His books have been taught in schools and colleges, where many a reader has been introduced to them decades after they first appeared. Many have said his stories fired their own imagination.

More than 8 million copies of his books have been sold in 36 languages. They include the short-story collections ‘‘The Martian Chronicles,’’ ‘’The Illustrated Man,’’ and ‘‘The Golden Apples of the Sun,’’ and the novels ‘‘Fahrenheit 451’’ and ‘‘Something Wicked This Way Comes.’’

Though none won a Pulitzer Prize, Mr. Bradbury received a Pulitzer citation in 2007 ‘‘for his distinguished, prolific, and deeply influential career as an unmatched author of science fiction and fantasy.’’

His writing career stretched across 70 years, to the last weeks of his life. Only a week or so ago The New Yorker published an autobiographical essay by him in its June 4 double issue devoted to science fiction. There he recalled his ‘‘hungry imagination’’ as a boy in Illinois.

‘‘It was one frenzy after one elation after one enthusiasm after one hysteria after another,’’ he wrote, noting, ‘‘You rarely have such fevers later in life that fill your entire day with emotion.’’

Mr. Bradbury sold his first story to a magazine called Super Science Stories in his early 20s. By 30 he had made his reputation with ‘‘The Martian Chronicles,’’ a collection of thematically linked stories published in 1950.

The book celebrated the romance of space travel while condemning the social abuses that modern technology had made possible, and its impact was immediate and lasting. Critics who had dismissed science fiction as adolescent prattle praised ‘‘Chronicles’’ as stylishly written morality tales set in a future that seemed just around the corner.

Mr. Bradbury was hardly the first writer to represent science and technology as a mixed bag of blessings and abominations. The advent of the atomic bomb in 1945 left many Americans deeply ambivalent toward science. The same ‘‘super science’’ that had ended World War II now appeared to threaten the very existence of civilization. Science-fiction writers, who were accustomed to thinking about the role of science in society, had trenchant things to say about the nuclear threat.

But the audience for science fiction, published mostly in pulp magazines, was small. Mr. Bradbury looked to a larger audience: the readers of mass-circulation magazines like Mademoiselle and The Saturday Evening Post. These readers had no patience for the technical jargon of the science-fiction pulps, so he eliminated the jargon. He packaged his troubling speculations about the future in an appealing blend of cozy colloquialisms and poetic metaphors.

Though his books, particularly ‘‘The Martian Chronicles,’’ became a staple of high school and college English courses, Mr. Bradbury disdained formal education. He went so far as to attribute his success as a writer to his never having gone to college.

Instead, he read everything he could get his hands on: the stories ofEdgar Allan Poe, Jules Verne, H.G. Wells, Edgar Rice Burroughs, Thomas Wolfe, andErnest Hemingway. He paid homage to them in 1971 in the essay ‘‘How Instead of Being Educated in College, I Was Graduated From Libraries.’’ (Late in life he took an active role in fund-raising efforts for public libraries in Southern California.)

Mr. Bradbury referred to himself as an ‘‘idea writer,’’ by which he meant something quite different from erudite or scholarly.

‘‘I have fun with ideas; I play with them,’’ he said. ‘‘I’m not a serious person, and I don’t like serious people. I don’t see myself as a philosopher. That’s awfully boring.’’

He added, ‘‘My goal is to entertain myself and others.’’

He described his method of composition as ‘‘word association,’’ often triggered by a favorite line of poetry.

Mr. Bradbury’s passion for books found expression in his dystopian novel ‘‘Fahrenheit 451,’’ published in 1953. But he drew his primary inspiration from his childhood. He boasted that he had total recall of his earliest years, including the moment of his birth. Readers had no reason to doubt him.

Raymond Douglas Bradbury was born in Waukegan, Ill., a small city whose Norman Rockwell-esque charms he later reprised in his depiction of the fictional Green Town in ‘‘Dandelion Wine’’ and ‘‘Something Wicked This Way Comes’’ and in the fatally alluring fantasies of the astronauts in ‘‘The Martian Chronicles.’’ His father, Leonard, a lineman with the electric company, numbered among his ancestors a woman who was tried as a witch in Salem, Mass.

His first big success came in 1947 with the short story ‘‘Homecoming,’’ narrated by a boy who feels like an outsider at a family reunion of witches, vampires, and werewolves because he lacks supernatural powers. The story, plucked from the pile of unsolicited manuscripts at Mademoiselle by a young editor named Truman Capote, earned Mr. Bradbury an O. Henry Award as one of the best American short stories of the year.

With 26 other stories in a similar vein, ‘‘Homecoming’’ appeared in Mr. Bradbury’s first book, ‘‘Dark Carnival,’’ published by a small specialty press in 1947. That same year he married Marguerite Susan McClure, whom he had met in a Los Angeles bookstore.

While Mr. Bradbury championed the space program as an adventure that humanity dared not shirk, he was content to restrict his own adventures to the realm of imagination. He lived in the same house in Los Angeles for more than 5o years, rearing four daughters with Marguerite, who died in 2003. For many years, he refused to travel by plane, preferring trains, and he never learned to drive.

In 2004, President George W. Bush and Laura Bush presented Mr. Bradbury with the National Medal of Arts.

Mr. Bradbury leaves his daughters, Susan Nixon, Ramona Ostergen, Bettina Karapetian, and Alexandra Bradbury, and eight grandchildren.

Though the sedentary writing life appealed to him most, he was not reclusive.

He developed a flair for public speaking and was widely sought on the national lecture circuit. There he talked about his struggle to reconcile his mixed feelings about modern life, a theme that animated much of the fiction and won him a large and sympathetic audience.

And he talked about the future, perhaps his favorite subject, describing how it both attracted and repelled him, leaving him with apprehension and hope.

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