[The Bradbury Chronicles: The Life of Ray Bradbury by Sam Weller. William Morrow, 2005. 384 pp. ISBN 0-06-054581-X.]
Who is Ray Bradbury? What do we need to understand his writing? Many recent books such as Bradbury: An Illustrated Life by Jerry Weist, and The Cat’s Pajamas (a retrospective story collection by Bradbury), seek in part to answer the question, but none do so as thoroughly as The Bradbury Chronicles by Sam Weller. The book delves into the identity of the man known as “The World’s Greatest Living Science-Fiction Writer,” who could take one into an unforeseen genre or non genre ride in any of his stories. A story by Bradbury could take one almost anywhere, since Bradbury was equally convincing when writing horror, fantasy, science fiction, mystery, and mainstream literature. During his life Bradbury was awarded in all of these areas; in his stories maybe one would go to Mars, to a dark sinister future, to a political parable, to a nostalgic idyll, to a visit to Americana, to a wonderful fantasy, or to a crime scene. If genres are mountains symbolizing the struggle to make it to the top, Bradbury’s work could be found at the top of many of them.
Over his life, Bradbury had many friends, admirers, and open doors. Worried that he would be pigeonholed as a genre writer, Bradbury not only strove to transcend the limitations of “genre” writing, but also was able to give genre writing mainstream appeal. Bradbury, like Philip K. Dick, strove to just be a literary writer. They both succeeded in attracting mainstream readers to genre fiction. Many of us are now “genre readers” because of his influence.
The question Bradbury was most frequently asked was where did he get his ideas for stories? But equally interesting are the questions of what gave him such range and why he received so much admiration and success. These are the questions that biographer Sam Weller delves into here, giving a full portrait of Bradbury's life and work.
Weller, who at Columbia College in Chicago teaches the only college-level class in the United States on the life of Ray Bradbury, endeavors to chronicle this very celebrated life in The Bradbury Chronicles. Bradbury believes Weller has succeeded wonderfully. He writes of Weller’s book: “This is my life! It’s as if somehow Sam Weller slipped into my skin and my head and my heart — it’s all here.”
Bradbury’s writing is distinctive because he takes sentences like this past “my skin” onward to include “my head and my heart. . . . .” One can find raw emotion and poetic lyricism like this in some of Bradbury’s stories. He was also a sentimentalist, and explorer of the human condition whose success came partly from writing for the child in all of us. And though considered a “science fiction” writer, he thought of himself as a “fantasy” writer. Science fiction was once a more encompassing label, which included much of genre writing, but writers of hard science fiction were more likely to consider him a “science fantasy” writer because of his lack of concern for the specifics of scientific extrapolation.
Bradbury was a literary wanderer who transcended genre writing traps. He was afraid of being labeled a genre writer, but it was where he excelled and it brought him fame and eventually fortune. Though considered by some a “poet of the pulps” rather than remaining within the confines of “genre” he sought public acknowledgement for his work in “the slicks” — mainstream publications — which enabled him to quickly move beyond the pulps when he wanted to. Proof of his legitimacy was won when his work began appearing in mainstream “Best of” anthologies and made its way into English-class textbooks.
As Weller recounts, Bradbury was born in 1920 and spent much of his childhood life in Waukegan, Illinois, just north of Chicago. It was this rich but sometimes troubled family setting that Bradbury longed to return to in some of his fiction, the idyllic setting now identified by him as “Green Town.” Bradbury remembered the carnival attractions of such times and sought to share these wondrous childhood experiences with his readers. Bradbury had a rich family life, with other members of his family sharing his interest for “the arts.” He was also deeply affected by the exciting writing he read as a child and acknowledged his debt in some of his introductions. The Bradburys would not stay in Waukegan forever, however, and early in Bradbury’s teens they sought their fortune in the Southwest. They eventually settled in Los Angeles.
Bradbury was also a family man, appreciated and beloved by his four daughters. He and his wife Marguerite had their problems, but they stayed together for the children and for the rest of Marguerite’s life (she died in 2004). The family wasn't very wealthy, but they lived comfortably for much of Bradbury’s later career, and they were able to travel to Paris frequently.
In addition to recounting the personal stories, like those of his childhood and his marriage to Marguerite, Weller deals extensively with Bradbury as an artist. Most of the chapters concern his achievements as a writer. There are chapters about his early writing life, his successes as the “Poet of the Pulps”, and the stories of his many literary achievements, including his first book Dark Carnival and subsequent works.
As to the question of where did he got all his story ideas, for most of his life, Marguerite was his muse. He also drew upon life experiences; it was the adventures and the excitement of his childhood and adolescence that he caputured in his stories. His writing reacted to political situations (Fahrenheit 451 being partly a reaction to Hitler and McCarthyism), and explored his desire for a better life.
One should also understand that Bradbury was not a soldier, but rather was a pacifist (which estranged him from early supporter Robert Heinlein) and had no college education. Bradbury self-educated at the library and says he graduated from it at 28. Though friends with Aldous Huxley he never used drugs. Bradbury did drink alcohol, and eat a lot of ice cream.
His early career regimen included writing one story a week, but Bradbury was eventually convinced by his publishers to meld the stories into longer literary works. It was these works, those such as The Martian Chronicles, The Illustrated Man, Fahrenheit 451, and Something Wicked This Way Comes that brought him wider fame and eventual fortune. (Bradbury said late in life that he could make his living on the royalties from Fahrenheit 451 alone.) Mainly known for his stories and novels, Bradbury’s output also included poetry, essays, comic books, plays, and scripts for film and television. He was also a consultant for Disney, The World’s Fair, and was active on the lecture circuit.
Many of these works had been passed back and forth between Bradbury and his publishers, who gave him guidance and feedback at times and he was willing to rewrite some of his stories based on his publisher’s comments. Bradbury decided not to disappear into Hollywood as a screen writer (for films such as It Came From Outer Space and John Huston’s Moby Dick), instead craving the fame that came along with writing books.
Weller quotes film critic Leonard Maltin on the subject:
I think it’s fair to say that somebody as distinct an individual as Ray Bradbury was never meant to succeed in mainstream Hollywood. Hollywood thrives on people who conform in one way or another-conform to popular taste, conform to current trends, conform to formula, to box office mandates, or bend to a director’s or producer’s wish. None of those things describe Ray. In a way, it makes sense that he doesn’t have a longer list of movie credentials. (p. 294)
Though famous for short story masterpieces like “A Sound of Thunder,” and the books The Martian Chronicles (considered by some the best science fiction book ever written) and Fahrenheit 451, Ray Bradbury would have you instead read his nostalgic book Dandelion Wine.
He is also widely remembered for his darker childhood fantasies, such as his horror books Dark Carnival (later reincarnated as The October County) and his masterpieces in that area, including the story “Homecoming” and the novel Something Wicked This Way Comes. Something Wicked is probably his most representative work — it is truer to the ideology of his break-in book success in the genre field (Dark Carnival) and succeeds in its own right (though Bradbury would tell you to read the book rather than watch the movie which was in Bradbury’s words “boring”).
Surprisingly, Bradbury was a technophobe, reluctant to use the newest technology. He never learned to drive, was scared to fly for most of his life, and didn’t like computers. Despite this, he had an undeniable enthusiasm for exploration. In mid-life Bradbury returned to his enthusiasm concerning the cosmos, wanting to be known as a “spokesman” for the new era associated with space exploration. As he noted it had “made children” of all of us again. In the ‘60s his publishers released his “greatest space story hits” published as R Is for Rocket and S Is for Space.
As Weller chronicles, Bradbury's books can be passed down from generation to generation and still bring fond memories. Bradbury has transcended literary categorizations, and in Weller’s work is presented as he wished to be, and often contributes first-person accounts. Throughout the book, Weller succeeds in explicating how Ray Bradbury could guide us along to many places and times. As Bradbury wished, his books will be on the shelves alongside some of the classics, some of those classics also now being written by himself. For the contemporary reader, Ray Bradbury has been a tough act to follow. Weller succeeds in recounting the adventures of this multisided American literary icon, escaped prisoner and treasure of science fiction.