Rod Dreher

Rod Dreher

Why Ray Bradbury still matters

I have never read Ray Bradbury, but after this Slate essay about why he still matters, I’m planning to stop off at the bookstore on the way home, buy some of his stuff, take it home to read with my oldest son. Excerpt:

Science fiction dates as quickly as any genre, and Bradbury is not entirely immune to this. The futuristic rocket ships he wrote about in 1950 look a lot like the first-generation NASA rockets; the music of the future is Rachmaninoff and Duke Ellington; and in the terrifying “Mars is Heaven,” the planet bears an eerie resemblance to Green Bluff, Ill., right down to Victorian houses “covered with scrolls and rococo.” But the reason Bradbury’s stories still sing on the page is that, despite all his humanoid robots, automated houses, and rocket men, his interest is not in future technologies but in people as they live now–and how the proliferation of convenient technology alters the way we think and the way we treat each other.
This is especially vivid in “The Murderer,” in which a man is locked in an insane asylum for destroying “machines that yak-yak-yak.” “If you’re wondering why it’s so quiet here,” the madman tells his psychiatrist, “I just kicked the radio to death.” The story, as might be expected, reveals the patient to be the only sane person in a world indentured to electronic stimuli. But Bradbury’s skill is in evoking exactly how soul-annihilating that world is. After the psychiatrist leaves the madman’s cell, he returns to his office to busy himself with his work. The terminology might be antiquated, but the mania is not:


Three phones rang. A duplicate wrist radio in his desk drawer buzzed like a wounded grasshopper. The intercom flashed a pink light and click-clicked. Three phones rang. The drawer buzzed. … The psychiatrist, humming quietly, fitted the new wrist radio to his wrist, flipped the intercom, talked a moment, picked up one telephone, talked, picked up another telephone, talked, picked up the third telephone, talked, touched the wrist-radio button, talked calmly and quietly, his face cool and serene, in the middle of the music and the lights flashing, the phones ringing again …

Hey! I resemble that!

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posted May 13, 2010 at 4:06 pm

Holy cow, I’m stunned you’ve never read Bradbury, an indispensable author, but envious of you for reading him for the first time.

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Captain Noble

posted May 13, 2010 at 4:13 pm

Bradbury is an excellent author. I recently read Fahrenheit 451 with my daughters.

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posted May 13, 2010 at 4:13 pm

…and that writer is an incredible twit for referring to Bradbury’s description of Mars in “Mars is Heaven” as “dated.” Really, an incredible, invincible (concept of the day!) twit. Bradbury knew exactly what he was doing with that description, it’s an inseparable part of the meaning and value of the @#$% story. What a ridiculous statement.

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Jake Meador

posted May 13, 2010 at 4:24 pm

Rod – Enjoy it. He’s marvelous. Fahrenheit 451 is a must read. The world Bradbury describes fits in disturbingly well with Huxley’s Brave New World.

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posted May 13, 2010 at 4:28 pm

Bradbury rocks! I read a lot of his stuff in high school and college and ever since then, I keep seeing stuff that reminds me of his writings. Come to think of it, I bet my exposure to his writing in those formative years was an important seed of my ambivalence about ever-advancing technology. I do not eschew technology entirely — obviously, since here I am — but I often have a vague sense of unease with it all. I tend to be willing to consider the predictions that it will lead to some kind of cultural down fall at worst and is not very good for us at best. I haven’t read anything by him in quite a while. I should go back to his stuff and see how it resonates with me today.

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posted May 13, 2010 at 4:29 pm

Rod, never read him, really?
The man is my favorite author, the man who introduced me to the love of words, the man who wrote me back a sweet letter with a coffee stain on it. Ray Bradbury is a sage. I first read him in the 6th grade, plowed through everything he’d written. October has always held magic for me (I read Something Wicked This Way Comes that year, in 1982).
Be well.

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John E - Agn Stoic

posted May 13, 2010 at 4:31 pm

You are in for a treat, reading Bradbury for the first time.
I predict a flurry of Bradbury-related posts in the near future…
May I particularly recommend, “The Messiah” – a story about a would – be missionary to the Martians? It is in his collection, “Long After Midnight”.

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posted May 13, 2010 at 4:35 pm

The Martian Chronicles has been one of my lifelong favorite books, and I still have my dog-eared copy that I purchased while studying abroad. Please pick this one up, Rod!

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Charles Cosimano

posted May 13, 2010 at 4:40 pm

If you are just starting Bradbury, read The October Country. I remember wondering where he got the title from and then one time I found myself in the country way outside of Chicago on a warm October day looking at the sky and the land, the way Bradbury would have seen where he grew up as a boy before everything was covered with buildings.
The title made sense.

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posted May 13, 2010 at 4:46 pm

“Ray Bradbury has drawn the sword against the dreary and corrupting materialism of this century;against society as producer-and-consumer equation, against the hideousness in modern life, against mindless power, against sexual obsession,against sham intellectuality,against the perversion of right reason into the mentality of the television-viewer.” – Russell Kirk.
I hope you will enjoy reading Bradbury, the most humane of the sci-fi writers.

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posted May 13, 2010 at 4:53 pm

Ray Bradbury is terrific. You’re in for a treat. When I worked as managing editor of a very early magazine about personal computing in the early 80s, had the pleasure to talk him into writing for us, as well as Isaac Asimov. “Fahrenheit 451″ is great, though “Something Wicked this Way Comes” is the story that I still think about from time, to time. If you haven’t done so already, don’t overlook Philip K. Dick.

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Mark P. Shea

posted May 13, 2010 at 5:37 pm

Dandelion Wine is a fine piece of work. And I second his Martian Chronicles.
Plus, he’s best buds with Ray Harryhausen, having sworn a boyhood oath to always love dinosaurs. What’s not to love?

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posted May 13, 2010 at 5:40 pm

“Fahrenheit 451″ and “Martian Chronicles” are my two favorite books of his. “Fahrenheit 451″ being the first sci fi dystopia book I ever read back in 1979!

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Erin Manning

posted May 13, 2010 at 6:18 pm

I love Bradbury, Rod! Can’t believe you’ve never read him! You really need this collection: “The Stories of Ray Bradbury,” containing 100 of Bradbury’s best short stories selected by the author (over a thousand pages of greatness!!). It was originally published in 1980 but I just checked, and Amazon has an edition published this year available quite reasonably.
The short story “The Wonderful Ice Cream Suit” was made into a movie back in 1998. I thought it captured quite a bit of the charm of the story, even if there were a few “off” moments. And, of course, “Something Wicked This Way Comes” is also a movie, a chilling and unsettling one.

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Matushka Anna

posted May 13, 2010 at 6:37 pm

I LOVE Ray Bradbury! I can’t believe you’ve never read any of his work!
I see that people have made a lot of great suggestions for where to start. I suggest some of the short stories: The Illustrated Man is still one of my favorite collections. These give you a nice feel for his style and mind before you dive into a novel. Or you could just dive right in!

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posted May 13, 2010 at 7:13 pm

I’ve really been enjoying his short stories the past few years. I have yet to read any of his longer works, besides F.451. He is a really excellent author with an amazing insight into the human condition. To peg him as a “sci-fi” author really doesn’t do him justice.
One of his stories that really has stuck with me, and will appeal to many of the readers of this blog, is entitled “The Pedestrian” about a lone pedestrian in the future getting hassled by the police for not being inside watching TV. It’s really, really good.
His short story “The October Game” was a fun and creepy read at a Halloween get-together I hosted.

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posted May 13, 2010 at 7:54 pm

Interestingly enough, he wrote the script to the *very reverent* 1962 movie about the life of Christ, “King of Kings.” Orson Welles narrated that script.
To paraphrase the Bible…”there were giants in the earth in those days….”

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posted May 13, 2010 at 9:09 pm “The Simpsons: Lisa’s Substitute (#2.19)” (1991)
Martin Prince: As your president, I would demand a science-fiction library, featuring an ABC of the genre. Asimov, Bester, Clarke.
Student: What about Ray Bradbury?
Martin Prince: I’m aware of his work…

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Kris D

posted May 13, 2010 at 11:04 pm

My favorite short story of his is ,”Dark they were & golden eyed.” Fahrenheit 451 is right up there with Brave New World & 1984 for dystopian literature. If the description of big screen TVs, I-Pods, & reality TV hit a little too close to home, you know where it comes from.

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Sotto Voce

posted May 13, 2010 at 11:43 pm

O happy day! If Bradbury still matters, this is good news indeed.
The newest (extremely cool) Star Trek movie led me to a cascade of mini-satori — kind of like zen pachinko pinball — which included a remembrance of Bradbury’s “The Toynbee Convector.”
Basically, science fiction as Bradbury conceived it is a humanistic exchatology. The science fiction writer projects a bold vision of the future to inspire his contemporaries to rush forward to create it.
Roddenberry was of that same generation of sci-fi writers. I had forgotten that the utopian vision of his original Star Trek served as a heartening counter to the nihilistic nuclear dread that permeated the Cold War Years. Star Trek told us that not only did we have a future to look forward to, it was a magnificent one. Go see the new Star Trek movie and tell me that the promise of working toward that utopian future isn’t a welcome tonic to the dread and uncertainty of our present circumstances.
Of course, the original Star Trek was also more or less contemporaneous with the grim vision of Planet of the Apes. It seems that writers of utopian and dystopic science fiction both owe a debt to St. John of Patmos.
Rod, you’ve got some reading to do. Bradbury is the BOMB.

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posted May 14, 2010 at 12:42 am

My four favorite authors, in no particular order, are Dostoevsky, Bradbury, Dumas, and Orwell. Not sure if there’s a common thread.

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Sotto Voce

posted May 14, 2010 at 10:50 am

That’s “humanistic eschatology.” Typo. My bad.

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Chris Floyd

posted May 14, 2010 at 11:01 am

You won’t be disappointed, Rod! Someone above called him “the most humane science fiction writer.” That’s true. He is also probably far and away science fiction’s greatest stylist. (Maybe Phillip K Dick comes close?) It’s greatest poet, really. It says something that many of his books almost require being read at a particular time of the year. Read Martian Chronicles this summer. Then Something Wicked This Way Comes as autumn begins. Then October Country in its eponymous month. Joy!

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Chuck Bloom

posted May 14, 2010 at 1:52 pm

Bradbury was a particular favorite of students in college during my generation, particularly “Fahrenheit 451″ which stood as a shining allagory against repression (THE MAN) and the lack of emphasis on reading (THE TUBE).
As to his work translated onto the silver screen, “451” is a good movie (not as great as it could have been but anything with a young Julie Christie is worth seeing just to see HER) but “Wicked” is a superior film!!! “Martian Chronicles” was tried as a TV mini-series and Rock Hudson didn’t click in the lead role. I hear a new film version of “451” is planned.
Everyone’s suggestions are valid, but some of his lessor known works “I Sing the Body Electric” will suffice as well.

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Anglican Peggy

posted May 14, 2010 at 2:22 pm

I recently had the oddest most unusual experience I have ever had reading science fiction, which has always seemed to me to be a little bit cold.
I cried like a baby while reading Bradbury’s “There Will Come Soft Rains”. I think it may be one of the saddest things I have ever read. In other words, it moved me powerfully in a way I never expected from the genre. I don’t think I will ever forget it.
I have to read more of his work myself now.

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Dan Berger

posted May 15, 2010 at 10:04 am

Peggy, now you need to go read “Uncle Einar.” That will cheer you up. Or go find the story, “The Rocket” (from The Illustrated Man?) about the junk dealer who travels to Mars with his family.
Seriously, anybody who thinks SF is “cold” hasn’t been reading the right SF. And certainly hasn’t been reading Bradbury.

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posted May 15, 2010 at 4:17 pm

Bradbury is great. Warning: some of his stuff is creepy, and will weird you out. I don’t generally like creepy stuff, especially about children, but I will read any Bradbury I can get my hands on. Several of his stories still haunt me. “The Veldt” for instance:
After you have read some of his stories, please let us know what you think!

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