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Expert Comment: Ray Bradbury

Ray Bradbury Thursday 7 June 2012

Dr Alice Bennett, Lecturer in English Literature at Liverpool Hope, on Ray Bradbury, who died last week.

Ray Bradbury’s death on Tuesday at the age of 91 has only confirmed the great affection in which he was already held by a community of fans, including many of today’s best-known names in science fiction and fantasy writing.

Bradbury’s most well-known work includes the novel, Fahrenheit 451, and the story series, The Martian Chronicles. These works imagine fictional futures set four or five decades after their time of writing in the middle years of the twentieth century. Looking back on his work from the after the future dates he imagined, many of Bradbury’s imagined technologies (flat-screen televisions, in-ear mobile phones, personal media devices) look very prescient. However, Bradbury was most interested in the human relationship with technology. One of the most haunting stories in The Martian Chronicles, ‘There Will Come Soft Rains’, describes a house that continues all its pre-programmed caring functions for a family, even after they have been wiped out in a nuclear disaster. Similarly, in his dystopian fantasy, Fahrenheit 451, the novel’s famous concern with book-burning is as much an investigation of the place of reading in an age of mass multimedia as a critique of state censorship. For Bradbury, the science in science fiction was not a giddy excitement, full of promise and intriguing technological ingenuity; his work explored the ways that we can make comforting or threatening worlds for ourselves using the things we create.

As well as stories that fit into the generic classifications of science fiction and fantasy, Bradbury was a prolific writer in mystery, horror and detective fiction. In the fifties he began to try and place his writing outside these genre fictions’ conventional homes in the pulp magazines, and was successful in gaining critical recognition and a better rate of pay for his work as a result. This was a path that was followed by other crossover SF writers like Kurt Vonnegut and, less successfully, Philip K. Dick. The movement out of the pulps and into the ‘literary’ mainstream has been a significant feature of writing in the second half of the twentieth century; Bradbury’s success is an important early marker of a no-brow appreciation of great writing.

Bradbury’s immediate influence on the current generation of writers both inside and outside science fiction circles is immense, but his work has also directly and indirectly influenced the way that we think about technology and about popular fiction. A quotation from one of the characters in Fahrenheit 451 illustrates Bradbury’s interest in human beings’ creative powers and fans’ feelings about his death:

He shaped the world. He did things to the world. The world was bankrupted of ten million fine actions the night he passed on.

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