Ray Bradbury: the science of science fiction
The author of more than 500 science fiction stories, many about space travel, is afraid to fly in airplanes. That's why Ray Bradbury is stopping over in New York (aside from the fact that he just happens to be promoting a new collection of 100 of his stories ("The Stories of Ray Bradbury," published by Alfred A. Knopf, $17.95). He is returning from Europe (by ship), awaiting his transcontinental voyage (by train) to his home in California.Skip to next paragraph
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"I'm not afraid of flying," this literate, kitschy pixie of a man chuckles. "I'm just afraid of falling."
The new book, his 18th, has not met with universal approval, although in many circles Mr. Bradbury has already become a "classic" writer, studied in the classroom. One critic recently derided him by implying that only those who think Rod McKuen a great poet and Kahlil Gibran a great philosopher could consider Ray Bradbury a great writer. Well, there are many who think highly of McKuen, Gibran, and Bradbury. Perhaps not the literary elite anymore -- but millions of purchasers of books by all three of this pop triumvirate.
Mr. Bradbury is not only a prolific writer, he is a nonstop talker. A conversation with him is a fascinating, meandering ramble through the intricacies of an ambivalently complex- simplistic mind. His ideas are constantly skewed toward sometimes unique, sometimes amazingly old-fashioned Bradbury-esque versions of reality on the planet Earth.
If he had to choose one story that represents the essence of Ray Bradbury, which would it be?
"The one that comes to mind first is 'There Will Come Soft Rains,' which is about a house in the future that goes on living after the city is destroyed around it. All the robots, all the computers, all the poetry-reading machines, all the TV sets, all the toasters and refrigerators go on living after the people are gone. Late at night the house reads poetry to itself and then makes dinners, scrapes the dishes, cleans the rooms. Little mechanical mice come out of the wall.
"Finally, the house burns down and, in hysteria, cries 'Fire! Fire!' and tries to put itself out to save its own life.
"When the fire is finally out and the house is dead, there's one little wall left standing in which the poetry machine repeats a poem -- 'There Will Come Soft Rains,' by Sara Teasdale: 'Spring herself when she woke at dawn/Would hardly know that we were gone.'
"It's a lovely science-fictional semifantasy metaphor of the sadness of the world that existed for us in 1950. We'd just been only five years away from the end of the war, the atom bomb. The hydrogen bomb was just being invented. We were more afraid back then than we are now . . . and for good reason. I think things were more nebulous back then. Now we see that there's a power situation existing in the world which may very well exist for quite a few years -- if we're lucky -- among the three powers. And we may be able to keep ourselves in an uneasy peace. That is my hope. . . ."
Quick, an interruption. Does Mr. Bradbury describe himself as a science fiction writer?
"No, I call myself an 'idea writer.' The history of ideas is what interests me. The fact is that the first science fiction was written in caves in symbol form. A science fiction story is just an attempt to solve a problem that exists in the world, sometimes a moral problem, sometimes a physical or social or theological problem. But the people who lived in caves drew pictures of their problems. For in stance, if they had a mammoth outside the cave which they wanted to eat -- how do you kill and eat a mammoth? So they drew a picture of it all.
"Those were dreams that existed before the fact. And when you solve the problem, the science fiction becomes fact. And then you keep moving on up through science. That whole history of ideas, as ideas alone to start with, and then as they begin to exist in the world and change the world and compete with the world . . . even if you look at, say, the history of castles, the same thing happens. . . ."