I first encountered Ray Bradbury when I was fifteen, in a copy of The Illustrated Man which I bought, I think, through some kind of book club arrangement at school. It was nothing like anything I had ever read before. There were two things that stood out.
First was the sheer breadth of imagination. The stories in that collection were so finely crafted and yet so wild, spun out of sheer inventiveness.
There was the children’s playroom where the virtual reality comes terrifyingly alive; the trudge through the incessant rains of Venus for the sanctuary of the sun-domes; the man who builds his children a rocket in the backyard. And as I discovered more stories, there are other images which stay with me even now: how one false step off a path changes the course of history; authors spirits dying out as their books are burnt; a weird little tale about a miner who sees goblins passing through rock as if it were water; and all those stories of the colonisation of Mars which were filled with an aching sense of loneliness and loss.
But the second was the voice. He didn’t write like anyone I’d ever encountered. There was poetry in his voice. He wasn’t just an ideas man, anyone can be an ideas man. He was A Writer. This comes through most forcibly, of course, in his novels, Farenheit 451 and Something Wicked This Way Comes:
First of all it was October, a rare month for boys. Not that all months aren’t rare. But there be bad and good, as the pirates say. Take September, a bad month: school begins. Consider August, a good month: school hasn’t begun yet. July, well, July’s really fine: there’s no chance in the world for school. June, no doubting it, June’s best of all, for the school doors spring wide and September’s a billion years away.
There’s that voice at full blast. Nostalgia and a sense of something lost, for sure. But also magic, the thrill of being alive. In Dandelion Wine he writes of the joy of a new pair of tennis shoes, of how a boy who wears those could run like the wind. For me, the first time I read it, young as I was, I remembered what it was like to be ten, a time when you ran everywhere.
So Bradbury taught me what it was to imagine. But he also taught me that imagination is not enough. There was a something in his writing which showed me that you had to work at this thing. Looking back I think he showed me that it was a good thing – an important thing – to be a writer. (One of his least known books is Green Shadows, White Whale, a thinly-disguised autobiographical account of his time working as a writer on John Huston’s film of Moby Dick). There was nothing accidental about his writing. It was the product of years mastering his craft:
“You must write every single day of your life… You must lurk in libraries and climb the stacks like ladders to sniff books like perfumes and wear books like hats upon your crazy heads… may you be in love every day for the next 20,000 days. And out of that love, remake a world.”
A great writer. A great man.