Ray Bradbury: the science of science fiction

By , Staff correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor

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.

"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.

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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. . . ."

Oh, I understand, . . . I think. Is it that science fact has gone beyond science fiction?

"No, not really, because we've only been on the moon for roughly five days out of 5 billion years of existence for Earth. Our life on the moon is only a few days old; our life on Mars hasn't begun to exist yet. It exists only through our machines. So we're still in a very primitive state. From here on, a lot of science fiction is going to be theological -- a combination of theology and science -- because a lot of the same problems attract theologians and writers. We're all up to the same thing.

"Everything is an act of faith, isn't it? Friendship is an act of faith. If we agree to be friends, that means we're going to have to behave in a certain way, we hope for a lifetime, and we won't break this invisible pact. But y ou can't write it down, and there are no guarantees for it. It's faith just as money if faith, . . . and almost everything we do is based on faith."

A change to the more prosaic: Is anybody carrying on the Bradbury tradition in fantasy and science fiction today?

"I am! I'm still at it. But a lot of my friends -- some of them my disciples, some pupils, some masters -- are at it, too.

"Arthur Clarke is still at it; Robert Heinlein has a new book out -- he's a very vital man. He was my teacher when I was 18 and he around 31. He allowed me to come to his house and he'd read my dreadful stories -- a very kind and helpful man.

"Harlan Ellison is writing well -- very strange, very neurotic at times. But he loves literature and writing, and when I see that in a person, when I see that kind of enthusiasm for libraries that Harlan has, then I'm on his side, even though I don't understand half of what he does.

"We're totally different people, but we're good friends because I'm a library-oriented person.

"I never went to college, so I raised and educated myself in a library."

Are today's young people confusing horror and fantasy with science fiction?And does it matter?

"I define science fiction as the art of the possible. Fantasy is the art of the impossible. Science fiction, again, is the history of ideas, and they're always ideas that work themselves out and become real and happen in the world. And fantasy comes along and says, 'We're going to break all the laws of physics.'

"So, when you see a film like 'Alien,' for instance, it combines the old horror film with science fiction. But it's basically a fantasy about all the monsters that lurk in the back of our minds.

"Most people don't realize it, but the series of films which have made more money than any other series in the history of films is the James Bond series. They're all science fiction, too -- romantic, adventurous, frivolous, fantastic science fiction!

"I love 'Close Encounters of the Third Kind,' too. And 'Star Wars.' I especially love 'The Empire Strikes Back,' because it illustrates Zen principles on a very primitive level. . . . There's that great scene . . . where Luke says , 'But I don't believe.' And the Zen master replies, 'That's why you fail. There is no such thing as trying. There is only doing. If you try, you can never do. If you do, you'll never have to try.'"

Is that Ray Bradbury's philosophy?

"Absolutely! Just do it every day, and never think about it."

What books would he recommend to young people -- or anybody -- who wants his imagination to soar? Which books influenced Bradbury?

"When I was 9 I collected comic strips, which led me into books. I collected Buck Rogers and the later Flash Gordon and Tarzan. I have 40 years of Prince Valiant put away. People made fun of me -- but all the things that people then told me were foolish have turned out to be very serious subjects later in my life.

"When the Smithsonian put out a paperback edition of its collection of comic books three years ago, I saw that everything they have, I have. How come I was so smart when I was 9?

"It's just a matter of having enough brains to go with your love, anywhere in life. So I read Edgar Rice Burroughs, finally Jules Verne, then moved on to Aldous Huxley."

Would Ray Bradbury recommend reading Ray Bradbury?

"You're darn right I would. I represent so many different fields. My new book represents my interest in eight or nine different subjects. I'm very pround of my curiosity. And that is something, coming from someone who doubted his own intelligence until he was 30. I bumped into Christopher Isherwood in a bookstore when I was 30, just after 'The Martian Chronicles' had been published. Three nights later he called me and told me I had written an incredible book. And then he brought Gerald Heard and Huxley into my life. So that was the year I discovered I was bright. But it didn't go to my head. I was humbled by it . . . and scared."

Is he brighter now?

He laughs. "Sure. I make better metaphors now. And I just love the delight I get in discovering a new metaphor that works. You just don't know where it is going to come from. I was going through the Vatican Museum a few years ago, and I looked at the bones of the saints in the reliquaries, the crystal jars with the golden tops. And I came home and got to thinking that we are the reliquaries of all time.

"We don't put the bones away in jars; instead we put away all the information of the world, the dust of data, in video cassettes and video discs and into computers. And one day we will be able to take all that information along on a rocket ship to alpha Centauri and look back and see the total history as the reliquary of all time. And as soon as I had the metaphor, I could sit down and write a poem."

Is there anything left for Mr. Bradbury to do? He has written short stories, novels, screenplays, poems; he has directed plays for West Coast theater groups -- what next?

"I'm working on a new opera called 'leviathan 99,' about Moby Dick in outer space. [He also wrote the script for the John Huston movie based on "Moby Dick, " and claims it is one of the best things he ever did].

"I've helped create a building which is being built in Florida right now, called 'Spaceship Earth.' It's part of Experimental Prototype, Community of Tomorrow which the Disney people are creating down there. It's a permanent world's fair, in effect.

"And I'm working on a new murder mystery. I've loved Hammett for 40 years. I've loved Chandler and Caine.They've all been neglected until the past 10 years. Again, I loved them early. So, now I'm writing my own murder mystery -- a kind of homage to them."

Mr. Bradbury plans to write the mystery on the train on the way home. Originally from Waukegan, Ill., he is still thrilled by the breadth of America on each side of his hometown.

"I love to ride on trains. I love to travel on them alone. And I love to write on trains. The greatest moments come on cross-continental trips at midnight, when I watch all the little towns and all the people out on the summer porches and the little kids playing on the swings.

"I wrote a poem coming across country this time because I saw my Grandpa's house going by again and again and again -- little towns all the same. It helps you to believe in mankind. It gives you an invigorating rebirth of faith.

"I refuse to believe that these are bad people. On the contrary, I look at those people going by in the night, and I think, 'They're all beautiful. I must write about them. . . .'"

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