Thursday, June 7, 2012

The Temperature at Which Paper Burns

Ray Bradbury died yesterday, after a rich, long life.  You may think of him as a sci-fi writer, but he was so much more.

In this post at the NPR website, Peter Sagal says, "Heinlein, Asimov and Bradbury; they were the tripod (invasive, moving, with lasers) on which my science fiction education was built in the 1970s."

For me, it would be Clarke, Asimov, and Bradbury, and I liked Arthur C. Clarke and Ray Bradbury much better than Isaac Asimov, but Bradbury was my favorite of them all.  I haven't returned to those authors much, but ten years ago, I did read The Martian Chronicles again.  I found the collection just as awe inspiring and heart breaking as I did when I first read the book in my younger teen-age years.

Other sci-fi I checked out from the library.  I bought Ray Bradbury books.

To understand what this statement means, you must understand my teen-age economy.  I baby-sat, I saved my allowance, all to do my favorite thing:  to go to B. Dalton books and allow myself to buy anything I wanted.  I would go home with armloads of books.

I did the same thing at the library, but when I was younger, there was a magic to actually owning the books.  I was the kind of reader who consumed books and reread them again and again.  I made mental notes and wrote my own stories and wanted to do what my favorite authors did.

Ray Bradbury did so much, from creating imaginative works set on other planets, to writing plays and screenplays, to writing works of realism verging on nostalgia that remember his childhood hometown, to advice to other creative writers.

Now Bradbury would object to being called a sci-fi writer.  He considered Fahrenheit 451 (named when he called the fire department to find the temperature at which paper burns) his only sci-fi work.

I'm sure there will be future graduate students who return to his work and write dissertations that show how much of what he wrote about came to pass.  But his real accomplishment came in not letting the sci-fi part swamp the human part.

This story in The Washington Post includes this wonderful quote:  “'Bradbury took the conventions of the science-fiction genre — time travel, robots, space exploration — and made them signify beyond themselves, giving them a broader and more nuanced emotional appeal to general readers,' said William F. Touponce, a founder and former director of the Center for Ray Bradbury Studies at Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis."

Later, in college, I would discover feminist science fiction, and my world would change again.  But I'll always feel grateful to the guys, as I think of them; I mean both the generation of men who wrote the stories and the sci-fi geeks at my school who extolled their virtues.  I'm a sucker for a book recommendation; if you extol the wonders of a book, I'll likely pick it up.

I still enjoy a good sci-fi book, although my tastes do run to dystopian fiction:  life after the apocalypse.  The Martian Chronicles fits that bill nicely.

It's also perhaps the first book of linked short stories that I ever read.  I was fascinated with that form right from the start, and the fiction project I'm working on now is a book of linked stories.  That form--linked short stories (no matter how tenuous the link)--is so flexible and adaptable.  At the time, I remember being both puzzled and intrigued as I realized that the stories could stand alone--indeed, many of them had been published as stand-alone stories in magazines, but that they worked well together.

I was also amazed at Bradbury's ability to create a masterful short story, a masterful novel, whatever he attempted to do.  Even at a young age, I realized that few writers have the skills to work masterfully across genres.

Bradbury is one of those writers who made me want to be a writer.  I have this vision of Ray Bradbury and Adrienne Rich in Heaven--what a rich conversation they would have.  Are they bothered by Earl Scruggs and Doc Watson who are off making music in that corner?  Or are they all singing, making new celestial songs that we can hear, as if a distant star sent music back to us?

Here are some Bradbury quotes to inspire you to be the best creative person you can be:

“We are cups, constantly and quietly being filled. The trick is, knowing how to tip ourselves over and let the beautiful stuff out.”

“We are an impossibility in an impossible universe.”

“Your intuition knows what to write, so get out of the way.”

“First you jump off the cliff and build your wings on the way down.”

“I don't believe in colleges and universities. I believe in libraries because most students don't have any money. When I graduated from high school, it was during the Depression and we had no money. I couldn't go to college, so I went to the library three days a week for 10 years.”

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