Ray Bradbury died, and you've got to wonder if they're going to cremate him, and if so whether the temperature at which a human burns is the same at which a book burns: Fahrenheit 451.
Bradbury was very old, and had become an old fashioned irascible old coot, belying his legacy as the creator of so much genre-defining futuristic fiction. He made headlines earlier this year because he'd finally had to cave and let Fahrenheit 451 be published as an e-book. He'd resisted the inevitable for years and only succumbed because it was a non-negotiable aspect of a lucrative contract renewal with his publisher.
Not allowing a book about book-burning to be available in a format in which it can never be burned? Curious. Especially since Bradbury had seen fit to narrate, somewhat clunkily, an audiobook version of the same novel, and allowed it to be adapted into movies, TV miniseries and comic books.
I've met writers and promoters who were afraid to deal with Bradbury, not just because of the whole curmudgeonly thing but because they genuinely respected him and feared that he wouldn't live up to his reputation as a visionary if he started spouting some of his longheld reactionary views.
This doesn't bother me. Bradbury' s contradictions and exasperations are probably what made him such a great writer. Also, everybody' s got their own private image of Bradbury, and of his works, and they don't lounge up exactly with anybody else' s.
A few years ago, I was part of a panel discussion about Fahrenheit 451 at the Yale Barnes & Noble bookstore. It was arranged by the International Festival of Arts & Ideas to coincide with a months-long citywide project to read and discuss the book. What was most memorable about the panel discussion to me was how diverse it was, and how in that entire hour the novel we were supposed to discuss never came up. But everything we did talk about—censorship, technological breakthroughs, the difference between fantasy and science fiction and "sci-fi"—was directly relevant to Bradbury without having to state it obviously.
The obituaries that appeared this week about Bradbury, like Neil Gaiman's tribute in the UK Guardian newspaper, proved one last time something that's been abundantly clear for years: Ray Bradbury had some really cool friends. I interviewed Stan Freberg, the great humorist, once, and he raved about Ray Bradbury; he’d even written a Sunsweet prunes TV commercial for Bradbury to star in.
A lot of the obits are mentioning the important films made from Bradbury books and stories. No kidding! Truffaut! (Even though Bradbury reportedly didn't like that one.) But there are two pop-culture mediums where he did even better: radio and comic books. Find some of the episodes of X-Minus 1, or the 1950s EC science fiction comics, which brilliantly adapted Bradbury stories for mass audiences, and you’ll see how good he was at making the impossible seem achievable, accessible. More than most other science fiction writers, he made fantasy seem practical. The more he wrote about things gone wrong, the more real the ideas seemed, and the more reasonable it seems that we have them now. Virtual realities, automated dwellings—these are things Bradbury conceptualized. His scientific imaginings have real-life consequences, which make for great drama.
Ray Bradbury wasn’t all about repressive governments and tyrannical aliens. His stories about thinking beyond the moment and beyond the immediate. They were also about things happening despite the deaths of the people pioneering or creating those things. So the death of Ray Bradbury himself should be seen as part of a continuum. Don’t mourn him—he’s already charted our future.