Feature

Ray Bradbury, 1920–2012

The writer who spun science fiction into literature

Ray Bradbury was the poet laureate of the Space Age. Yet for all the rockets and robots in his more than 600 short stories and novels, the author was highly skeptical of modern technology. He refused to take elevators and never learned to drive a car, preferring to pedal around Los Angeles on a bicycle. In 2009 he dismissed the Internet as “a big distraction,” and he stubbornly continued to use a typewriter rather than a computer. “I’m not a futurist,” he said. “People ask me to predict the future, when all I want to do is prevent it.”

As a child growing up in Waukegan, Ill., Bradbury “soaked up the ambience of small-town life—wraparound porches, fireflies, and the soft, golden light of late afternoon—that would later become the hallmark of much of his fiction,” said the Los Angeles Times. An avid reader from an early age, he devoured stories about space adventurer Buck Rogers before moving on to the early science fiction of H.G. Wells and the horror of Edgar Allan Poe. “He was inspired to write his first story at age 12 by Mr. Electrico, a performer at a traveling carnival,” said The Washington Post. The man sent an electric current through Bradbury’s body and proclaimed, “Live forever!” That strange experience would later inspire his 1962 novel, Something Wicked This Way Comes.

After a series of moves, his family settled in Los Angeles in 1934, where he graduated from high school. His parents didn’t have the money to put him through college, so he sold newspapers on L.A. street corners all day, and continued his education at night in the city’s libraries. In his spare time he wrote furiously, churning out at least 1,000 words a day. “His first big success came in 1947 with the short story ‘Homecoming,’” said The New York Times, “narrated by a boy who feels like an outsider at a family reunion of witches, vampires, and werewolves because he lacks supernatural powers.” The tale was plucked from a stack of manuscripts at Mademoiselle magazine by a young editor named Truman Capote, and earned Bradbury an O. Henry Award as one of the year’s best American short stories. 

Buoyed by this success, he began a series of stories about man’s conquest and colonization of Mars—collected and published as The Martian Chronicles in 1950. Unlike most science-fiction writers, Bradbury “was not concerned with how the astronauts got to Mars and how they breathed, but with their human reactions to a new world,” said The Times (U.K.). The novelist Christopher Isherwood praised the book as having “the profound psychological realism of a good fairy story,” and Bradbury crossed over from pulp writer to mainstream visionary.

His next best seller, Fahrenheit 451, was written in the basement of the UCLA library, where Bradbury pumped 10 cents into a rental typewriter every half-hour. “I spent $9.80,” he said, “and in nine days I had Fahrenheit 451.” The short novel, published in 1953, was a fearsome prediction of an America beset by anti-intellectualism and censorship, in which firemen don’t extinguish blazes but instead set fire to books. (The title refers to the temperature at which paper ignites.) 

As Bradbury’s fame grew, so did the outlets for his talents. He wrote the screenplay for John Huston’s 1956 film version of Moby-Dick and scripts for the TV series Alfred Hitchcock Presents, and in the 1980s presented Ray Bradbury Theater, a cable show that dramatized his short stories. But his true love remained writing, and Bradbury eagerly dispensed advice to young authors. “All I can do is teach people to fall in love [with writing],” Bradbury said on his 90th birthday, in 2010. “If I can teach them that, I’ve done a great job.”

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