I was sad to learn of science fiction author Ray Bradbury’s death on June 5th at the age of 91. In my youth, I read a number of his stories. His short story collections The Illustrated Man and The Martian Chronicles are both in my personal library, and I discovered numerous others of his tales in various sci-fi anthology books. In addition, I frequently watched The Ray Bradbury Theater, which adapted his short stories for television. And I enjoyed reprints of the EC Comics’ adaptations of his writings which were featured in the pages of their famed science fiction and horror titles.
What really made Bradbury’s work stand out for me was that he so deftly blended science fiction with horror. In his stories, the wonders of the infinite universe stood side-by-side with the darkest of primal terrors. Bradbury’s prose could be incredibly poetic. Yet, at the same time, there was a certain disquiet to his writing. The forlorn searching of the sea serpent for another of its kind in “The Fog Horn,” the cruelty that children can exhibit towards one another in “All Summer in a Day,” the descent of the human mind into madness in “The Long Rain;” the stories of Bradbury were often imbued with a sense of palpable anxiety.
There are certain specific stories that Bradbury penned that stand out in my mind. Foremost among them is “A Sound of Thunder,” one of the most brilliant and revolutionary examinations of the theory of time travel, framed around a safari to hunt dinosaurs. The idea that one single minute action could reverberate through the ages was astounding to me. As Bradbury wrote,
“It fell to the floor, an exquisite thing, a small thing that could upset balances and knock down a line of small dominos and then big dominos and then gigantic dominos, all through the years across Time.”
It was my introduction to what I now recognize as the Butterfly Effect, in this case quite literally. And the ending was unremittingly bleak.
(“A Sound of Thunder” was one of the Bradbury stories adapted by EC Comics. Illustrated by the legendary Al Williamson, it appeared in Weird Science-Fantasy #25, cover dated September 1954. In 1993, Topps Comics reprinted the Williamson adaptation in the first issue of the short-lived Ray Bradbury Comics anthology series. That comic also contained a brand-new adaptation, with beautiful artwork by Richard Corben. It’s interesting to compare the two versions, and see the narrative decisions each artist made in translating the story from prose to sequential illustration.)
“The Veldt” was written in 1950, and in retrospect is probably one of the first short stories to postulate virtual reality. Bradbury sees this technological development not as a positive one, but something with effects akin to an addictive drug, complete with isolation from the rest of humanity. This is demonstrated through Peter and Wendy, two children who spend all of their time within their telepathic “nursery,” to the exclusion of all else. The ending is, once again, an especially grim one.
One of the most frightening stories I read when I was younger had to be “Mars is Heaven” (re-titled “The Third Expedition” in The Martian Chronicles). An expedition to Mars arrives on the Red Planet to find what appears to be a pastoral early-20th Century small town populated by the deceased relatives of the rocket ship crew. The astronauts are quickly pulled in by this seeming paradise. But obviously all is not as it appears. Bradbury effectively ratchets up the suspense as the story progresses. It climaxes in something horrible occurring to the crew, and Bradbury leaves it ambiguous exactly what has taken place. He must have realized that the unknown is often much more terrifying than what we do see. Certainly my young mind filled in all sorts of nightmarish possibilities trying to figure out what horrific fate had befallen the astronauts.
Not a stand-alone story as such was the framing device for The Illustrated Man collection. I found it especially effective, the concept that a man had been covered from neck to toe in mystical tattoos, and that the lines of ink come alive to reveal events of the past, present and future, of our world and many others. It was an interesting method of linking together the disparate short stories collected in the volume. And in the denouement of the collection, Bradbury returns to the tattooed man and the narrator, offering a chilling moment of disquiet.
Despite his recent illness, Bradbury was active as a writer up until the end. He contributed an essay, “Take Me Home,” to the recent science fiction themed issue of The New Yorker, which was topped off by a charming cover illustrated by Daniel Clowes. In his essay, Bradbury reflects on his childhood, and the influences that led him to write some of his stories. An idyllic piece, it was a lovely way to cap off a brilliant career that spanned seven decades. It is certainly a fitting tribute to the man and his work.