I’m a serious fan of classic science fiction writing. For we old school types, the title of “Grandmaster” has some meaning. While it used to apply to any of the Golden Age‘s most prolific producers, in the 1970s it took on official status with the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America officially honouring Robert Heinlein with the title of first Grandmaster. This list of recognized Grandmasters is quite exhaustive. But, for my money, there were only ever four true Grandmasters of SF: Heinlein, Asimov, Clarke and Ray Bradbury. And with Bradbury’s passing last week, the last surviving Golden Age Grandmaster left this mortal life.
Bradbury was quite unlike the other names on that hallowed list. First, he never considered himself a science fiction writer. He believed that what he wrote was fantasy. And I’m inclined to agree with him. Unlike the technical genius of Clarke or the professorial training of Asimov, Bradbury had no inkling of what true science was like. Lovers of “hard” SF would wince at his descriptions of space travel or alien lands. Clearly, the man had no sense of the prevailing understanding of the universe he presumed to write about.
But that was entirely beside the point. While it’s true that Bradbury placed his stories in alien or futuristic environments, that was only to lend them a shimmer of otherworldliness. While Clarke explored the world of the possible by pushing the boundaries of speculative science, Bradbury cared more for the state of the soul in the present and the past.
I came late to the writings of Bradbury. And by late, I mean early teens. By then, I’d already consumed the full works of Asimov, Clarke, Heinlein and Niven, and was looking for my next fix. The Martian Chronicles was a famous book that had the word “Mars” in it, so I was naturally drawn to it. Instead of the mind-expanding speculative science that I’d got used to feeding my growing scientist’s brain, I found in that book sustenance for the spiritual imagination. The images and mood lingers with me to this day; and I will never forget the quiet sensibility of the closing moments of the TV miniseries of the book, starring Rock Hudson.
One particular concept resonates with me still, these many decades hence. It’s from a scene in which a Martian contemplates his “sound sculpture.” It doesn’t matter what that is, or whether it’s even possible. What mattered was the stillness and presence of this exotic mind, as he considered his struggle and artistry.
Bradbury’s stories were fodder for a generation of mostly boys. Yet I’m told his sensibilities attracted a fair number of female fans, as well. His forte was the short story collection that masqueraded as a novel. The Martian Chronicles and The Illustrated Man are two such examples of transcendent, soulful yet intentionally disjointed storytelling.
But despite the man’s deep sense of literary self, insofar as his works expressed such things, there was another side to Bradbury that I found rather unattractive. (Readers might be interested in the “10 things you didn’t know about Ray Bradbury.”) The man troubled me when he vocally objected to Michael Moore naming his film, Fahrenheit 9/11, since it was clearly based upon Bradbury’s opus, Fahrenheit 451. He called Moore some nasty names, claiming that his objection wasn’t to Moore’s Bush-bashing politics, but to his use of the title without permission.
Bradbury’s hypocrisy, of course, is that he had called one of his books, Something Wicked This Way Comes, directly stealing the name from Shakespeare. So when he claimed his objection to Moore was apolitical, I was hesitant to believe him. His case is not helped when you realize that Bradbury had also said that, “[President George W. Bush] is wonderful. We needed him. Clinton is a shit head and we’re glad to be rid of him.”
The duplicity of denying a political platform that he clearly espoused is not an attractive behaviour. And, sadly, I will always have a problem divorcing my love of the man’s books from the reality of his beliefs.
But I will leave you with a lovely obituary written by io9.com reader, Kip Russell:
Somewhere in America, a boy tap-dances a on a tuned segment of discarded wooden sidewalk, calling his friends to run over the hills by moonlight…
Out on the Veldt, the animals pause for a moment, as though something unseen had passed through their midst…
Somewhere on Mars, a new silver fire is burning to welcome him…
By the river, a Book stops it’s recitation for the day, to remember a fine man who wrote such fine, fine things.
Thanks be, for Ray Bradbury, who taught me that there could be poetry in prose.
If you’ve read and loved the works of Bradbury, then you know how apropos those words really are.
3 thoughts on “Ray Bradbury: Last of the Grandmasters”
The TV series of the Martian Chronicles seemed at first just crappy cowboys in space stuff but the poignancy & sadness that pervaded it once the story line had been established was gut wrenching.
Fahrenheit 451 to me is the template for what has happened in much of the West but especially the US. Can’t say we weren’t warned, almost 60 years ago.