“And there was a loud of avalanche of big red trolley car that rushed towards the sea every half-hour and at midnight skirted the curve and threw sparks on the high wires and rolled away with a moan which was like the dead turning in their sleep, as if the trolley and the lonely men who swayed steering them knew that in another year yjey would be gone, the tracks covered with concrete and tar and the high spider-wire collected on rolls and spirited away.” – DEATH IS A LONELY BUSINESS, 1985.
The passing of Ray Bradbury last week is an immeasurable loss to fantasy fiction. Here was one of the very greats who seemed, at the age of 91, to have been always there and always would be, writing beautiful works of art to enchant readers the world over. It has occured to me over the past few days that the libraries and bookshops of my childhood had works by Isaac Asimov, Arthur C Clarke, Philip K Dick, Frank Herbert and so many others, back when they were living authors under the same sun and moon as I, and now they are all gone, and Ray Bradbury has now joined them in whatever Valhalla is reserved for literary magicians such as they. Maybe it is simply a sign that I myself am getting older, but it is such a sobering and hateful thing. I am sure there are many good authors out there writing today, but it seems to me that the very last of the truly great has now gone, and that all my bookshelves here at home are full of ghosts.
Ray Bradbury. I remember watching The Martian Chronicles on television back in, what was it, 1980? It starred Rock Hudson and had obvious budgetary limitatons, but was fine for it’s time. Sometime around then I picked up the book from my school library and was instantly entranced by it. I was a self-confessed sci-fi nut, had been ever since I watched the original Star Trek series as a child, but this book surprised me. Contrary to the title, it wasn’t science fiction at all, more like a fable, a series of connected short fantasies that pictured a Mars that never existed nor ever would, and an Earth that was a dreamlike shadow of the world I was living in. It reminded me of The Twilight Zone.
“There was a smell of Time in the air tonight. He smiled and turned the fancy in his mind. There was a thought. What did Time smell like? Like dust and clocks and people. And if you wondered what Time sounded like it sounded like water running in a dark cave and voices crying and dirt dropping down upon hollow box-lids, and rain. And going farther, what did Time look like? Time looked like snow dropping silently into a black room or it looked like a silent film in an ancient theatre, one hundred billion faces falling like those New Year balloons, down and down into nothing.” – THE MARTIAN CHRONICLES (aka THE SILVER LOCUSTS), 1951.
Back when I was in college, I bought The Stories Of Ray Bradbury; a collection of a hundred of his very best tales, it was spread across two paperbacks, one red, the other yellow, housed in a sturdy red slipcase. Here were such classics as The Fog Horn, The Night, The Wonderful Ice Cream Suit, The Lake… I cannot explain to you the power of those stories, unless you yourself have read them too. Sometimes I would sit alone downstairs at night, towards and beyond midnight, the rest of the house asleep, reading those wonderful stories. And often I would close the book at the end of a story either with tears in my eyes or a smile of laughter on my lips. They touched me, those stories, most of them written long before I was born.
Ray Bradbury did a book tour sometime around then. I read in the local paper that he would be in Birmingham at a science fiction bookshop to sign his latest book. I don’t recall if it was a collection or a new novel, in anycase, I could not go. I regreted it then and I regreted it for years after. I regret it even more now. I simply would have loved to have met him; I wanted to shake his hand and say “thankyou” for all those wonderful stories and magical midnights. I’m not a religous man, but maybe one day, eh? Thats as fine a fantasy as any.
But there were so many other books. Something Wicked This Way Comes, Death Is A Lonely Business (perhaps my favourite, until I’m reading Dandelion Wine, when thats my favourite), so many collections of so many short stories. So many books …
I wanted to be a writer. It never happened, life didn’t turn out the way, it kind of made a detour, the way it does. There’s lots of frustrated astronauts and actors and singers who know what I’m on about. And the reality is that, even if life doesn’t knock us onto strange unplanned paths, we are not necessarily good enough to fulfill those hopes and dreams. Ray Bradbury was better than good enough; he was a genius, a painter of words, a conjurer of visions.
Regards his passing, my wife told me about it after I came home from work; she had just heard it on the radio. In this age of Internet and Twitter and all the rest, I think there was something fitting that something as old-fangled as radio should carry the news. I think Ray Bradbury might have appreciated that, as he was somewhat old-fashioned and anti-technology. Well, not perhaps the anti the technology so much as those that championed it, misused it, worshipped it. Bradbury’s stories always seemed to hark back to simpler, more innocent, analogue times, as opposed to the digital world we now find ourselves in, He rebelled against putting his books in e-book format for many years, preferring the old-fashioned paper and ink.
So Ray Bradbury is gone, and there will be no more new stories. The world is an emptier place, and yes, thinking of all those science fiction writers who we have lost during my own lifetime, I feel that I have been lucky to live when I have; and that the loss to this world of so many fine writers is a terrible dark thing, reality intruding upon such fine dreams. I cannot imagine we will see their like ever again. It is simply a different world now.