Like a lot of other boys growing up with an interest in things science-fictional, I was inexorably drawn to the works of Ray Bradbury. Bradbury wrote a lot about ghosts, rocketships and Martians, as well as the joys and horrors of growing up and growing old. I remember devouring my paperback copy of “R is for Rocket” in the back seat of my dad’s car on our yearly trips out west. To be sure, Bradbury was the biggest influence on my early attempts at short fiction, with TV’s The Twilight Zone a close second.* For many years, I claimed Something Wicked This Way Comes as my favorite novel.
During my year in Los Angeles, I attended the 70th birthday party of sci-fi fan extraordinaire Forrest J. Ackerman. Well, not so much “attended” as “crashed.” Carrying an oversized latex bust of Lon Chaney as Quasimodo. It was that kind of time for me.
Anyhow, there was Ray Bradbury. I stood across the lobby outside the hotel ballroom where the dinner was taking place, watching him talk to whom I presumed to be other sci-fi luminaries. And as much as I wanted to go up and tell the man what a profound impact he’d had on me, I was just too chickenshit to step forward. I greatly regretted the missed opportunity…even going so far as to later draft a “love letter” of sorts that I never actually sent.
Sometime in the mid-’90s, I was watching Bill Maher’s Politically Incorrect, a TV series featuring an irreverent roundtable of celebrities, experts and comedians. And I was floored by what was coming out of Ray Bradbury’s mouth: vile, sexist talk about women. I’m not certain whether this was the infamous occasion on which Bradbury defended alleged serial sexual abuser Robert Packwood by saying (I’m paraphrasing here) “who hasn’t pinched their secretary?” but it would’ve been around the right time. I was horrified. This was the man who wrote such beautiful, lyrical prose? Who taught me about the eternal rains of Venus and the dangers of stepping on butterflies?
That disillusionment had subsided a few years later when Bradbury arrived in town for a lecture/book signing at the University of Illinois. After his talk, I was once again in a position to crash the afterparty.** This time there would be no regrets; at a quiet moment, I sat down near him and struck up a conversation. I don’t recall all of what I said. I suppose that I told him about my previous near encounter. I know I asked him if there were any recent sci-fi films that he felt lived up to those he’d enjoyed in his youth (Close Encounters of the Third Kind).
Here too I found myself wondering whom this Bradbury-shaped person really was. He had veered off onto an anti-technological track, proclaiming at one point that no one ever made a friend via a computer.*** It was unsettling. I thought, “This Luddite is the person who wrote so passionately about tomorrow?”
Somewhere along the line Bradbury took a hard turn to the right, politically.**** He went so far as to vociferously claim that his best-known novel, Fahrenheit 451–the story of futuristic book-burners that has inspired librarians for decades–was never about censorship at all. It was about the dangers of television. Okay, sure, Ray. Please back away from the typewriter.
Ray Bradbury’s death earlier this week was the coda for those who most shaped my love of literary sci-fi, the A, B, C of Asimov, Bradbury and Clarke. I wish that I was truly sad about it. I feel that the man whose visions I found so inspirational vanished into the Martian desert years ago.
For the final thing that Ray Bradbury taught me was the importance of never getting to know one’s idols.
*Surprisingly, Ray contributed only one story to TZ, “I Sing the Body Electric,” and it was not one of their better outings.
**Associating with news people doth have its privileges.
***Decidedly not true, in my case. The first time I got laid was with someone I met over a computer. No, it’s not what you’re thinking. She lived in the dorm next door; the computer was how she chose to introduce herself. But I digress.
****Comics writer/historian Mark Evanier’s own obituary of Bradbury offers some similar observations on the unpleasant turn he took in his later years.