Ray Bradbury

I recently took part in a discussion on Sarah A. Hoyt’s blog about Ray Bradbury. Wishing to scrapbook my remarks for my own future consideration, I reproduce them here. Those not interested in my unformed maunderings are invited to skip this post, with my apologies.

Goldwin Smith, a British-Canadian journalist of the Victorian period, at once praised and damned the then prime minister of Canada, Alexander Mackenzie, in these words: ‘Mr. Mackenzie was a stonemason; he is a stonemason still.’ The qualities that made a good stonemason, he implied, were just those that made a man doctrinaire, clumsy, and incapable in public office. (But then, Goldwin Smith was no treat. An astute historian has remarked that his idea of independence was to be unfair to each side alternately.)

With thanks and apologies to Mr. Smith, I can say that Ray Bradbury is a horror writer, and when writing science fiction or anything else, he is a horror writer still. He reaches for an emotional effect, and does it very well; but he reaches no further. He writes (for instance) stories about little boys who long to become rocket men, and he is very good at making you feel their longing; but he is content with that, and does not take you any deeper into their world. Horror is all about the emotional effect; its job, by definition, is to horrify the reader. Science fiction, when well done, is about the discovery. A story must appeal to the intellect and the sense of curiosity, not to the emotions only, if it is to be successful by the terms of that art. Bradbury seldom makes any appeal to the intellect, and his appeal to curiosity is essentially negative; for a horror story is generally a cautionary tale against curiosity, in which evil things will happen if you go into the haunted house, or inquire too closely into the neighbour with the unearthly manners.

You could, in Bradbury’s heyday, use the tropes of horror to write science fiction that would appeal to the general public, because the general public did not much care about that intellectual appeal. But you could not use those tropes to write science fiction that appealed to science fiction fans, because they wanted to celebrate curiosity and not condemn it – to rush forward and comprehend the unknown, not hang back and fear it. This, I believe, is why John W. Campbell could make nothing of Bradbury, and seldom or never published him in Astounding or Analog. Campbell was publishing for the inside crowd, and what they wanted was not any old story in a futuristic setting, but stories in which the quest for knowledge was good in itself and not a gateway to the hellish.

I like and admire some of Bradbury’s horror stories, but his science fiction does not work for me at all. As a boy I was thoroughly taken with Something Wicked This Way Comes, because it claimed to be a book about the October Country and the Autumn People who lived there, and was exactly that. But I was left cold by The Martian Chronicles, because it claimed to be about Mars, and was actually about the October Country in a thin disguise. I was looking for an alien world, and Bradbury showed me the inside of a crazy man’s skull – which is not a world, and alas, not even very alien.

Fahrenheit 451, I find, is less than the sum of its parts. It tries to be a satire, and fails; it makes you feel abhorrence for its target, but never quite explicitly says what the target is. Bradbury himself, I am told, was frequently appalled by the strange ways that various readers misunderstood that book. The fault was chiefly his own, because he was more interested in evoking the emotion than in aiming it at the specific thing he meant to satirize.


  1. antares says:

    I read Bradbury’s own take on Fahrenheit 451. He said the evil in F451 was not the gov’t but television itself.

    • Which is what he did not make clear; but then, if he had made it clear, the book would have been much less successful, because the idea that television as such is evil is a very stupid one. The idea that TV leads inevitably to book-burning and totalitarianism is so stupid that it is, as they say, ‘not even wrong’. Bradbury was lucky to be so misunderstood.

  2. Yeah, I loved Fahrenheit 451 as a teen, but even then it struck me as kind of stupid. Apparently the author had no idea that improv is a thing, and his characters had never heard of samizdat. (That the “book people” at the end strive to memorize books as opposed to the obvious solution of writing them down on whatever they can — and making sure the copies survive — is beyond absurd.) In retrospect, there’s also the worship towards the exact wording of a given edition of a work, when oral tradition is one of endless adaptation, embellishment and, to come full circle, improvisation. Ultimately, the entire book is an old man’s “get off my lawn” rant, despite the fact that Bradbury was quite young at the time. Go figure.

    For what it’s worth, I also recommend Jimmy Maher’s take on Fahrenheit 451. But yours is a fresh perspective.

  3. As far as a legacy goes, there are worse ones to have for sure!

  4. Stephen K says:

    I could never get interested in Bradbury’s SF, but was never sure why. This explains it to me – thank you.

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