A few months ago, on a visit to my folk’s house in California, I came across a battered paperback copy of “The Vintage Bradbury,” an anthology of stories by the Ray Bradbury, who died on June 5 at the age of 91. Actually, I found the book in a spare bedroom, where I was putting my three-year-old, Judah, to sleep.
I hadn’t read Bradbury since high school and had no reason to do so now. But Judah was having trouble settling down and so, on a nostalgic whim, I opened the book. I didn’t close it for another two hours. Bradbury’s stories are eerily prescient.
I spent the next few weeks churning through his oeuvre, feeling all the while as if I were discovering some unsung literary giant. Bradbury wasn’t so much a major science fiction writer. He was a major writer who specialized in science fiction. Like his contemporary, Kurt Vonnegut, he was an affable Midwesterner whose gifts of invention were placed in the service of rigorous moral and psychological inquiry. Like Vonnegut, he proved as much a prophet as an author.
One need look no further than his most famous work. “Fahrenheit 451,” which takes as its hero a fireman whose job is to burn books, is dependably misread as a broadside against government censorship. But the novel is properly understood as a critique of popular culture. Bradbury paints a world in which Americans have turned away from the inconvenient pleasures of reading in favor of frantic visual diversions, which they absorb via massive flat-screen televisions. He’s writing not about the tyranny of The State so much as the passivity of the people. It is worth pausing here to note that Bradbury published the book in 1953.
Bradbury’s stories, in particular the cycle that make up “The Martian Chronicles,” offer a sharp critique of the American imperial impulse. I remember reading the story “Mars Is Heaven!” as a teenager. Back then, it struck me as nothing more than a grim fairy tale. Astronauts land on the red planet and are shocked to discover a small-town paradise populated by deceased loved ones. The captain fears a Martian ploy, but he and two crew members can’t resist returning to their childhood homes, where they are summarily killed. The story is typical of Bradbury’s subversive vision; the American colonial urge is brought low by a benighted nostalgia.
Even more terrifying is “And the Rock Cried Out,” which gave me nightmares throughout my junior year in high school, and which I therefore read chronically. The story begins like this: “The raw carcasses, hung in the sunlight, rushed at them, vibrated with heat and red color in the green jungle air, and were gone. The stench of rotting flesh gushed through the car windows, and Leonora Webb quickly pressed the button that whispered her door window up.”
The Webbs, Leonora and John, are wealthy, white Yankees vacationing in South America when a nuclear war wipes out North America, Europe, and the Soviet Union. With the old power structure obliterated, the natives take up arms and hunt them down. The story has little in common with the mawkish exploding dystopias cooked up by contemporary Hollywood. It is a Biblical parable, in which the Webbs become a blood sacrifice for centuries of racial and economic hegemony. It, too, was written in 1953, at the height of American power.
But my favorite of all Bradbury’s stories is “Kaleidoscope,” which opens with a rocket being cut “up the side with a giant can opener,” its crew cast into space like “a dozen wriggling silverfish.” The story eavesdrops on the men as they fall away from each other and toward death. “They were all alone,” Bradbury writes. “Their voices had died like echoes of the words of God spoken and vibrating in the starred deep.”
The piece evolves into a dark, lyric meditation on mortality. Our hero, a man named Hollis, passes from stoicism to rage to sorrow, before arriving at a final wish: to do one good thing “to make up for the meanness I collected all these years and didn’t even know was in me!” As he falls, he realizes that he’ll burn like a meteor when he hits the earth’s atmosphere, and hopes someone will see him.
The story shifts suddenly to a boy on a country road in Illinois, who looks up and spots a shooting star. It’s a good bet that boy is a version of Bradbury himself, an artist who spent his life gazing at the heavens.
But the boy I thought of as I read this passage was my own son, Judah, who had finally dropped off to sleep. He’s too young for Bradbury at this point. But he’s already fascinated by storytelling. Every night, he makes me read him a book of stories he composed himself. He understands, as all children do, the essential lesson Bradbury sought to impart: that imagination is a universe of its own, full of wonders and terrors, all of them intended to help us understand, a little better, the inexhaustible mysteries of the human heart.
Steve Almond (firstname.lastname@example.org) is the author of the story collection “God Bless America.’’