Ray Bradbury: Big talent on a small planet
There are a handful of books that I return to after another of life's transitions, and I've begun the path of a new journey. Ray Bradbury wrote two of these books, Dandelion Wine and The Martian Chronicles. One lazily spins the tale of innocence and youth; the other is slap at mankind's follies and the nobility of his dreams. Long after their publications, many mainstream critics have backhanded both books as both excessively sentimental and lacking the elegant sophistication of a Philip K. Dick. They, of course, miss the forest while dissecting a blade of grass.
Bradbury wrote for the reader and for himself, the most dangerous route any author can take. In reading his works, we can often glimpse Bradbury himself, breaking that "fourth wall" and whispering to us that this moment, this emotion, this discovery is vital, rich and joyful.
Here are the first paragraphs of Dandelion Wine. Bradbury needed just eleven sentences to create a lyrical tapestry for the soul.
It was a quiet morning, the town covered over with darkness and at ease in bed. Summer gathered in the weather, the wind had the proper touch, the breathing of the world was long and warm and slow. You had only to rise, lean from your window, and know that this indeed was the first real time of freedom and living, this was the first morning of summer.
Douglas Spaulding, twelve, freshly wakened, let summer idle him on its early-morning stream. Lying in his third-story cupola bedroom, he felt the tall power it gave him, riding high in the June wind, the grandest tower in town. At night, when the trees washed together, he flashed his gaze like a beacon from this lighthouse in all directions over swarming seas of elm and oak and maple. Now . . .
"Boy," whispered Douglas.
A whole summer ahead to cross off the calendar, day by day. Like the goddess Siva in the travel books, he saw his hands jump everywhere, pluck sour apples, peaches, and midnight plums. He would be clothed in trees and bushes and rivers. He would freeze, gladly, in the hoarfrosted icehouse door. He would bake, happily, with ten thousand chickens, in Grandma's kitchen.
And here are the opening paragraphs from Ylla, the second chapter of The Martian Chronicles. We can see the strong influence of Edgar Rice Burroughs and his vision of Barsoom, that Bradbury so energetically emulated.
They had a house of crystal pillars on the planet Mars by the edge of an empty sea, and every morning you could see Mrs. K eating the golden fruits that grew from the crystal walls, or cleaning the house with handfuls of magnetic dust which, taking all dirt with it, blew away on the hot wind. Afternoons, when the fossil sea was warm and motionless, and the wine trees stood stiff in the yard, and the little distant Martian bone town was all enclosed, and no one drifted out their doors, you could see Mr. K himself in his room, reading from a metal book with raised hieroglyphs over which he brushed his hand, as one might play a harp. And from the book, as his fingers stroked, a voice sang, a soft ancient voice, which told tales of when the sea was red steam on the shore and ancient men had carried clouds of metal insects and electric spiders into battle.
Mr. and Mrs. K had lived by the dead sea for twenty years, and their ancestors had lived in the same house, which turned and followed the sun, flower-like, for ten centuries.
Ray Bradbury added to our small planet's store of knowledge with his vivid imagination, his acceptance of our human foibles, and his delight in our dreams. And occasionally, Ray thoughtfully indicating to our species that we should slow down, as there are still dangerous curves ahead.
Bradbury died in Los Angeles on June 5 after a lengthy illness.