Skip to main content

Bradbury was a writer of perils, possibilities and wonder

By Gene Seymour, Special to CNN
updated 12:19 PM EDT, Sat June 9, 2012
Ray Bradbury, the science fiction writer credited with bringing the genre into the literary mainstream. pictured in 1980.
Ray Bradbury, the science fiction writer credited with bringing the genre into the literary mainstream. pictured in 1980.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Gene Seymour: Ray Bradbury could mix menace with magical possibilities
  • He says Bradbury drew on his Illinois hometown to juxtapose familiar things with the future
  • But his approach, deceptively simple on the surface, held social message along with dread
  • Bradbury died Wednesday at age 91

Editor's note: Gene Seymour has written about movies, music and culture for The New York Times, Newsday, Entertainment Weekly and the Washington Post.

(CNN) -- You could likely count on one hand the number of writers who could scare the daylights out of you as effectively as they could cheer you up. And there aren't too many fingers on that hand representing those writers who could do both in the same story or even on the same page and convince you that they know what they're doing.

Overheard on CNN.com: Ray Bradbury was 'very down to Earth,' or maybe Mars

Ray Bradbury, who died early Wednesday at age 91, knew what he was doing when he threw you into a dark place leaking menace and dread at every corner and when he lifted you into an enchanted realm bursting with magical properties.

Favorite quotes from Bradbury's 'Fahrenheit 451'

At times, these places -- light or dark, weedy or glistening -- were part of a distant past closely resembling Bradbury's Waukegan, Illinois, childhood of blessed summer evenings and portentous autumn twilights -- evoked most memorably in his 1957 autobiographical novel, "Dandelion Wine." At others, they were places conceived in a hypothetical future that often looked like a hyped-up version of the present day -- or at least whatever "present day" Bradbury happened to be writing.

Top five Bradbury films

Gene Seymour
Gene Seymour

Think, for instance, of "The Martian Chronicles," a collection of short stories regarded as Bradbury's breakthrough when it was published in 1950, even though he'd been writing and publishing fantasy, horror and science fiction for at least a decade before. Bradbury imagined a red planet whose colonization by Earthlings brings upon its dry terrain both the sweetly nostalgic graces of early to mid-20th-century Americana and some of the harsher aspects of human nature -- disease, war, bigotry and so on -- over time wreaking irrevocable havoc upon the native Martians and their civilization.

News: Sci-fi legend Ray Bradbury dies

1997: Bradbury's humble love of books
Author Ray Bradbury looks back

Bradbury was hardly the first to use the medium of science fiction -- or as its more serious followers prefer, "speculative fiction" -- to engage social issues. But his success in bringing his futuristic Gothic tales to such publications as Esquire, the Saturday Evening Post and Mademoiselle broadened the audience for science fiction and elevated the genre's standing in the literary mainstream.

My last conversation with Ray Bradbury

Wherever he was published, whatever he wrote about, Bradbury spoke to his readers in a style described by critic Gilbert Highet in his introduction to the 1965 collection, "The Vintage Bradbury" as "a curious mixture of poetry and colloquialism ... so brisk and economical that it never becomes cloying, so full of unexpected quirks that it is never boring."

Interview: Sci-fi legend Ray Bradbury on God, 'monsters and angels'

Some disagreed. Even Highet conceded in the same paragraph that he "occasionally" found Bradbury's writing "a little too intense and breathless." Still others griped that they found Bradbury's blend of robust affirmation and astringent gloom too glib and calculated to please as wide an audience of soreheads and romantics as possible. But Bradbury's more intelligent and incisive readers found greater resonance in his writing than his deceptively simple approach evoked on the surface.

Rainn Wilson, others tweet tributes to Bradbury

One such fan was the Argentine fabulist and poet Jorge Luis-Borges, who in his introduction to his Spanish-language translation of "The Martian Chronicles, asked: "What has this man from Illinois done, I ask myself when I close the pages of his book, that episodes from the conquest of another planet fill me with horror and loneliness?"

And there was nothing calculated or contrived about Bradbury's blend of optimism and pessimism. The man who once wrote a guide entitled "Zen in the Art of Writing" (1994) embraced all his contradictions -- light and dark, elegist and gadfly, dreamer and skeptic -- as one with a universe whose perils and possibilities he greeted with the same open-hearted wonder.

"I prefer to see myself," he told an interviewer for the Paris Review in 2010, "as the Janus, the two-faced god who is half Pollyanna and half Cassandra, warning of the future and perhaps living too much in the past -- a combination of both.

"But," he added, "I don't think I'm too overoptimistic."

What did Bradbury mean to you? Share with us on CNN iReport!

Follow @CNNOpinion on Twitter.

Join us at Facebook/Opinion.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Gene Seymour.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
updated 8:27 PM EST, Fri December 26, 2014
The ability to manipulate media and technology has increasingly become a critical strategic resource, says Jeff Yang.
updated 11:17 AM EST, Fri December 26, 2014
Today's politicians should follow Ronald Reagan's advice and invest in science, research and development, Fareed Zakaria says.
updated 8:19 AM EST, Fri December 26, 2014
Artificial intelligence does not need to be malevolent to be catastrophically dangerous to humanity, writes Greg Scoblete.
updated 10:05 AM EST, Fri December 26, 2014
Historian Douglas Brinkley says a showing of Sony's film in Austin helped keep the city weird -- and spotlighted the heroes who stood up for free expression
updated 8:03 AM EST, Fri December 26, 2014
Tanya Odom that by calling only on women at his press conference, the President made clear why women and people of color should be more visible in boardrooms and conferences
updated 6:27 PM EST, Sat December 27, 2014
When oil spills happen, researchers are faced with the difficult choice of whether to use chemical dispersants, authors say
updated 1:33 AM EST, Thu December 25, 2014
Danny Cevallos says the legislature didn't have to get involved in regulating how people greet each other
updated 6:12 PM EST, Tue December 23, 2014
Marc Harrold suggests a way to move forward after the deaths of NYPD officers Wenjian Liu and Rafael Ramos.
updated 8:36 AM EST, Wed December 24, 2014
Simon Moya-Smith says Mah-hi-vist Goodblanket, who was killed by law enforcement officers, deserves justice.
updated 2:14 PM EST, Wed December 24, 2014
Val Lauder says that for 1,700 years, people have been debating when, and how, to celebrate Christmas
updated 3:27 PM EST, Tue December 23, 2014
Raphael Sperry says architects should change their ethics code to ban involvement in designing torture chambers
updated 10:35 PM EST, Tue December 23, 2014
Paul Callan says Sony is right to call for blocking the tweeting of private emails stolen by hackers
updated 7:57 AM EST, Tue December 23, 2014
As Christmas arrives, eyes turn naturally toward Bethlehem. But have we got our history of Christmas right? Jay Parini explores.
updated 11:29 PM EST, Mon December 22, 2014
The late Joe Cocker somehow found himself among the rock 'n' roll aristocracy who showed up in Woodstock to help administer a collective blessing upon a generation.
updated 4:15 PM EST, Tue December 23, 2014
History may not judge Obama kindly on Syria or even Iraq. But for a lame duck president, he seems to have quacking left to do, says Aaron Miller.
updated 1:11 PM EST, Tue December 23, 2014
Terrorism and WMD -- it's easy to understand why these consistently make the headlines. But small arms can be devastating too, says Rachel Stohl.
updated 1:08 PM EST, Mon December 22, 2014
Ever since "Bridge-gate" threatened to derail Chris Christie's chances for 2016, Jeb Bush has been hinting he might run. Julian Zelizer looks at why he could win.
updated 1:53 PM EST, Sat December 20, 2014
New York's decision to ban hydraulic fracturing was more about politics than good environmental policy, argues Jeremy Carl.
updated 3:19 PM EST, Sat December 20, 2014
On perhaps this year's most compelling drama, the credits have yet to roll. But we still need to learn some cyber lessons to protect America, suggest John McCain.
updated 5:39 PM EST, Mon December 22, 2014
Conservatives know easing the trade embargo with Cuba is good for America. They should just admit it, says Fareed Zakaria.
updated 8:12 PM EST, Fri December 19, 2014
We're a world away from Pakistan in geography, but not in sentiment, writes Donna Brazile.
updated 12:09 PM EST, Fri December 19, 2014
How about a world where we have murderers but no murders? The police still chase down criminals who commit murder, we have trials and justice is handed out...but no one dies.
updated 6:45 PM EST, Thu December 18, 2014
The U.S. must respond to North Korea's alleged hacking of Sony, says Christian Whiton. Failing to do so will only embolden it.
updated 4:34 PM EST, Fri December 19, 2014
President Obama has been flexing his executive muscles lately despite Democrat's losses, writes Gloria Borger
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT