“The Poet of the Space Age”: In Memory of Ray Bradbury

In the commentary that follows, John-Henri Holmberg, co-author of The Tattooed Girl, longtime friend of Stieg Larsson’s, and expert on science fiction, shares some of his thoughts on the recent death of Ray Bradbury, who passed away at 91.

As a young Swedish boy in the 1960s, captivated by science fiction [sf] , Stieg Larsson read Ray Bradbury. In fact, every Swede with any interest in science fiction read Bradbury. No other writer associated with sf was even remotely as well known, hailed by critics, written about or respected in Sweden. And Stieg Larsson became not only an sf reader at a very early age, but a full-fledged science fiction fan, for almost ten years publishing and writing in fanzines, attending conventions and club meetings, and in his spare time trying to write science fiction. Bradbury was one of the authors who fascinated and inspired Larsson even before his teenage years. Although Bradbury’s political stands are seldom mentioned, he was one of the few science fiction and fantasy writers who, as early as the 1940s, wrote explicitly about civil rights and about the racist streak in America, including in stories such as “The Big Black and White Game” (1945); later in his collection The Golden Apples of the Sun; “Way in the Middle of the Air” (1950); in The Martian Chronicles; “The Other Foot” (1951); and in The Illustrated Man.

Ray Bradbury was initially translated into Swedish in 1953, when three of his short stories were included in the first Swedish science fiction anthology ever published and his episodic novel, The Martian Chronicles, was published almost simultaneously by another company. But Bradbury’s fame began five years later, when another Swedish publisher made a determined effort to establish him in Sweden. In 1958, Norstedt, a major publishing house and later Larsson’s own publisher, published both Bradbury’s story collection The October Country and his novel Fahrenheit 451; in 1959 his collection The Golden Apples of the Sun; in 1960 his episodic novel Dandelion Wine; in 1961 both his story collection The Illustrated Man and a new edition of The Martian Chronicles; in 1963 his collection A Medicine for Melancholy; in 1964 his novel Something Wicked This Way Comes; in 1965 his collection The Machineries of Joy.

Nine books in eight years from a major publisher makes a writer visible, particularly in a small country like Sweden, at that time with around seven million inhabitants. Not least if the writer has ties to Sweden, and Bradbury had: his mother was a Swede, born Ester Moberg, who was three when her parents emigrated. She ended up marrying Leonard Bradbury in Illinois.

Ray Bradbury was warmly greeted by Swedish critics as well as readers, including two of Sweden’s most highly regarded poets. One of them, Artur Lundkvist (later the secretary of the Swedish Academy and instrumental in picking Nobel Prize winners), hailed Bradbury as a literary magician, a stylist so original and accomplished that he deserved to be called the poet of the space age.

Like Stieg Larsson, Bradbury, too, very early became an avid science fiction reader, then an active fan. Born in 1920, he left school at 17 to publish his fanzine, sell newspapers on a street corner in Los Angeles, and write.  He wrote a short story every day, he claimed, until after three years he finally had one published. Then another. By age 25, he made his living as a writer and was on his way to fame. His tombstone, in accordance with his own wish, will be inscribed: “The Author of Fahrenheit 451”. But Bradbury should be remembered for other things as well. His true strength was in the short story format; his genius in his ability to depict the magical, idyllic, innocent and terrifying world of childhood.

Early in Bradbury’s career, he worked with word associations – he wrote many of his classical stories by choosing a simple noun as a title, and then concretizing the first strong feeling that word brought out in him. In this fashion he wrote “The Crowd,” “Fever Dream,” “The Playground,” “The Savannah,” and “The Pedestrian.” Fear in his stories was evoked by the inhuman, which was often in no sense supernatural: schoolyard bullies, the anonymous lookers-on gathering to stare at an accident victim, the processes in our bodies, racism and intolerance. And not least the technology with which we surround ourselves, but often don’t understand: robots, high-voltage wires, electronic media. His breakthrough book, The Martian Chronicles, depicts a near-future attempt to colonize Mars, but in Bradbury’s telling, it turns into a criticism of mass consumption, banality, the inability to appreciate the unique and different. He was often viewed as the author who, due to his poetic language and his emphasis on human emotions and problems, proved that science fiction could become literary art.

Indisputably, Bradbury was one of the first to bring sf themes, tropes, and visions to a mainstream audience. But he did so by viewing them from the outside, and primarily in an emotional fashion. Bradbury described spaceships as tin cans or Fourth of July firecrackers, let his Martians wear masks of hammered silver, gave his robots ticking clockwork mechanisms and explained the paradoxes of time travel with a stepped-on butterfly. He stated that he had always loved science fiction, but lacked the knowledge necessary to write it. What he wrote, he said, was fantasy, which at best can become myth and help us to understand reality and ourselves by way of metaphors.

In the early books, he managed to do that–perhaps most lastingly in Dandelion Wine, the episodic story of twelve-year-old Douglas Spaulding’s final childhood summer in Green Town, Illinois, a thinly disguised version of Bradbury’s own home town of Waukegan, where the idyllic surface hides chasms of fear and darkness, but also kindness and love. Bradbury often stated that he had never lost contact with the child within, that at eighty he looked on the world with the same wonder as he had at eight. That sensibility sabotaged his attempts to write about adults, but made him an inimitable portrayer of childhood. Douglas Spaulding’s magical summer touches us with smells and light, immediacy and truth. And helped by his grown up child’s eyes, Ray Bradbury could make us share the fear and wonder he felt faced both by the present and the future, by space and time.

In truth, he was the poet of the space age. But also of childhood, of imagination, of nightmares and hope: a nostalgic link between the past and the future, both infused with his joy in life and his optimism.

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