Ray Bradbury, Master of Science Fiction, Dies at 91
By GERALD JONAS
Ray Bradbury, a master of science fiction whose lyrical evocations of the future reflected both the optimism and the anxieties of his own postwar America, died on Tuesday in Los Angeles. He was 91.
His death was confirmed by his agent, Michael Congdon.
By many estimations Mr. Bradbury was the writer most responsible for bringing modern science fiction into the literary mainstream. His name would appear near the top of any list of major science-fiction writers of the 20th century, beside those of Isaac Asimov, Arthur C. Clarke, Robert A. Heinlein and the Polish author Stanislaw Lem.
In Mr. Bradbury’s lifetime more than eight million copies of his books were sold in 36 languages. They included the short-story collections “The Martian Chronicles,” “The Illustrated Man” and “The Golden Apples of the Sun,” and the novels “Fahrenheit 451” and “Something Wicked This Way Comes.”
Though none won a Pulitzer Prize, Mr. Bradbury received a Pulitzer citation in 2007 “for his distinguished, prolific and deeply influential career as an unmatched author of science fiction and fantasy.”
Mr. Bradbury sold his first story to a magazine called Super Science Stories before his 21st birthday, and by the time he was 30 he had made his reputation with “The Martian Chronicles,” a collection of thematically linked stories published in 1950.
The book celebrated the romance of space travel while condemning the social abuses that modern technology had made possible, and its impact was immediate and lasting. Critics who had dismissed science fiction as adolescent prattle praised “Chronicles” as stylishly written morality tales set in a future that seemed just around the corner.
Mr. Bradbury was hardly the first writer to represent science and technology as a mixed bag of blessings and abominations. The advent of the atomic bomb in 1945 left many Americans deeply ambivalent toward science. The same “super science” that had ended World War II now appeared to threaten the very existence of civilization. Science-fiction writers, who were accustomed to thinking about the role of science in society, had trenchant things to say about this threat.
But the audience for science fiction, published mostly in pulp magazines, was small and insignificant. Mr. Bradbury looked to a larger audience: the readers of mass-circulation magazines like Mademoiselle and The Saturday Evening Post. These readers had no patience for the technical jargon of the science fiction pulps. So he eliminated the jargon; he packaged his troubling speculations about the future in an appealing blend of cozy colloquialisms and poetic metaphors.
“The Martian Chronicles” remains perhaps Mr. Bradbury’s best-known work. It became a staple of high school and college English courses. Mr. Bradbury himself disdained formal education. He went so far as to attribute his success as a writer to his never having gone to college.
Instead, he read everything he could get his hands on, by authors including Edgar Allan Poe, Jules Verne, H. G. Wells, Edgar Rice Burroughs, Thomas Wolfe and Ernest Hemingway. He paid homage to them in 1971 in the autobiographical essay “How Instead of Being Educated in College, I Was Graduated From Libraries.” (Late in life he took an active role in fund-raising efforts for public libraries in Southern California.)
Mr. Bradbury referred to himself as an “idea writer,” by which he meant something quite different from erudite or scholarly. “I have fun with ideas; I play with them,” he said. “ I’m not a serious person, and I don’t like serious people. I don’t see myself as a philosopher. That’s awfully boring.”
He added, “My goal is to entertain myself and others.”
He described his method of composition as “word association,” often triggered by a favorite line of poetry.
Mr. Bradbury’s passion for books found expression in his dystopian novel “Fahrenheit 451,” published in 1953. But he drew his primary inspiration from his childhood in Illinois. He boasted that he had total recall of his earliest years, including the moment of his birth. Readers had no reason to doubt him. In his best stories and in his autobiographical novel, “Dandelion Wine” (1957), he gave voice to both the joys and fears of childhood.
As for the protagonists of his stories, no matter how far they journeyed from home, they learned that they could never escape the past.
Raymond Douglas Bradbury was born Aug. 22, 1920, in Waukegan, Ill., a small city whose Norman Rockwellesque charms he later reprised in his depiction of the fictional Green Town in “Dandelion Wine” and “Something Wicked This Way Comes,” and in the fatally alluring fantasies of the astronauts in “The Martian Chronicles.” His father, a lineman with the electric company, numbered among his ancestors one of the women tried as a witch in Salem, Mass.
An unathletic child who suffered from bad dreams, he relished the tales of the Brothers Grimm and the Oz stories of L. Frank Baum, which his mother read to him. An aunt, Neva Bradbury, took him to his first stage plays, dressed him in monster costumes for Halloween and introduced him to Poe’s stories. He discovered the science-fiction pulps and began collecting the comic-strip adventures of Buck Rogers and Flash Gordon. A conversation with a carnival magician named Mr. Electrico that touched on immortality gave the 12-year-old Bradbury the impetus to become a writer.
In 1934 the family moved to Los Angeles, where Mr. Bradbury became a movie buff, sneaking into theaters as often as nine times a week. Encouraged by a high school English teacher and the professional writers he met at the Los Angeles chapter of the Science Fiction League, he began a lifelong routine of turning out at least a thousand words a day on his typewriter.
His first big success came in 1947 with the short story “Homecoming,” narrated by a boy who feels like an outsider at a family reunion of witches, vampires and werewolves because he lacks supernatural powers. The story, plucked from the pile of unsolicited manuscripts at Mademoiselle by a young editor named Truman Capote, earned the 27-year-old Mr. Bradbury an O. Henry Award in 1947 as one of the best American short stories of the year.
With 26 other stories in a similar vein, “Homecoming” appeared in Mr. Bradbury’s first book, “Dark Carnival,” published by a small specialty press in 1947. That same year he married Marguerite Susan McClure, whom he had met in a Los Angeles bookstore.
Having written himself “down out of the attic,” as he later put it, Mr. Bradbury focused on science fiction. In a burst of creativity from 1946 to 1950, he produced most of the stories later collected in “The Martian Chronicles” and “The Illustrated Man” and the novella that formed the basis of “Fahrenheit 451.”
While science-fiction purists complained about Mr. Bradbury’s cavalier attitude toward scientific facts — he gave his fictional Mars an impossibly breathable atmosphere — the literary establishment waxed enthusiastic. The novelist Christopher Isherwood greeted Mr. Bradbury as “a very great and unusual talent,” and one of Mr. Bradbury’s personal heroes, Aldous Huxley, hailed him as a poet. In 1954, the National Institute of Arts and Letters honored Mr. Bradbury for “his contributions to American literature,” in particular the novel “Fahrenheit 451.”
“The Martian Chronicles” was pieced together from 26 stories, only a few of which were written with the book in mind. The patchwork narrative spans the years 1999 to 2026, depicting a series of expeditions to Mars and their aftermath. The native Martians, who can read minds, resist the early arrivals from Earth, but are finally no match for them and their advanced technology as the humans proceed to destroy the remains of an ancient civilization.
Parallels to the fate of American Indian cultures are pushed to the point of parody; the Martians are finally wiped out by an epidemic of chickenpox. When nuclear war destroys Earth, the descendants of the human colonists realize that they have become the Martians, with a second chance to create a just society.
“Fahrenheit 451,” Mr. Bradbury’s indictment of book-burning in a near-future America (the title refers to the temperature at which paper ignites), is perhaps his most successful book-length narrative. It was made into a well-received movie by François Truffaut in 1966. The cautionary tale of a so-called fireman, whose job is to start fires, “Fahrenheit 451” has been favorably compared to George Orwell’s “1984.”
As Mr. Bradbury’s reputation grew, he found new outlets for his talents. He wrote the screenplay for John Huston’s 1956 film version of “Moby-Dick,” scripts for the television series “Alfred Hitchcock Presents” and collections of poetry and plays.
In 2004, President George W. Bush and the first lady, Laura Bush, presented Mr. Bradbury with the National Medal of Arts.
While Mr. Bradbury championed the space program as an adventure that humanity dared not shirk, he was content to restrict his own adventures to the realm of imagination. He lived in the same house in Los Angeles for more than 5o years, rearing four daughters with his wife, Marguerite, who died in 2003. For many years he refused to travel by plane, preferring trains, and he never learned to drive.
He is survived by his daughters, Susan Nixon, Ramona Ostergen, Bettina Karapetian, and Alexandra Bradbury, and eight grandchildren.
Though the sedentary writing life appealed to him most, he was not reclusive. He developed a flair for public speaking, which made him a sought-after figure on the national lecture circuit. There he talked about his struggle to reconcile his mixed feelings about modern life, a theme that animated much of the fiction that won him such a large and sympathetic audience.
And he talked about the future, perhaps his favorite subject, describing how it both attracted and repelled him, leaving him with apprehension and hope.