As many of you will know, a few weeks ago saw the death of a seminal figure in science fiction, horror and fantasy – and perhaps the best short story writer of all time – Ray Bradbury. A few years ago I was honoured to be asked to write an introduction for a prestige re-issue of one of Bradbury’s best-known collections, courtesy of Peter Crowther at PS Publishing, another lifelong Bradbury fan.
Both the opportunity and the kind note I received from Mr Bradbury after publication represent banner moments in my working life. As a tiny personal tribute to one of the most inspirational figures in the history of genre fiction, I’m reproducing the introduction below.
‘I dedicate these stories to all boys who wonder about the Past,
run swiftly in the Present, and have high hopes for our Future.’
March 28, 1962
There are three authors without whom I would not have wound up writing fiction for a living. One of those, the earliest and perhaps most significant, is Ray Bradbury.
Okay, you might be thinking — so Bradbury shoulders a third of the blame. Big deal. What’s your point?
Well, for a start — don’t be so rude. It’s not becoming. Secondly, my purpose is not to be self-indulgent, more to recognize the fact that when considering Bradbury, I find it impossible not to be personal. I suspect anyone would feel the same. You don’t just mutter ‘Yeah, I read Bradbury as a kid’ in the offhand way you say ‘I played football on most Wednesday afternoons’. Bradbury was a formative experience. Bradbury was news. He isn’t a writer to be referenced with cool appraisal and judicious appreciation, but someone you absorbed, a teller of stories which seeped into your pores until they coated the inside of your bones. Bradbury is the first time you see a tiger, or sense that girls are some day going to become extremely interesting. Bradbury is ice cream.
I started to read science fiction around the age of twelve. I can’t recall how or why it happened — my parents didn’t and hadn’t, and my friends weren’t — but it did. I read Asimov and Clarke first, tried a little Van Vogt after that, a Ben Bova or two, and at least one Philip K. Dick.
But then… I sang the body electric.
I think that was the first, anyway. It could equally have been The Golden Apples of the Sun, or The Silver Locusts. I read the collections in such quick succession that they blurred together, and I was blown away.
I’d no idea you could write that kind of thing, or use language this way, or that the quiet, echoing melancholy which charges so many of these stories existed in real life. It does, of course, as one comes to learn with age. Instead of growing out of the Bradbury stories I loved in my early teens, I find I’m still growing into some of them. His fiction touches the child which lives in every adult, to be sure, but it also awakens the adult in the child.
I have about ten different volumes of Bradbury from that early period, 1970s editions. All are well-read and look and smell like old books should — dusty, a little browned and worn, as if they have been gripped for periods in the hands of a smallish boy.
Not one of them, strangely, is R is for Rocket.
Soon after I met the woman who would become my wife, I remember her being stuck by seeing me deleting the first paragraph of a story I had just finished, on the grounds it would be better that way. It had not occurred to her that fiction went through this process, that stories were fluid and slippery things which you had to capture with a big net and then trick into being trapped in a box.
This is understandable. When you are confronted with a novel, printed up in a standard typeface and on novel-type paper, bound within the kind of covers novels have, and perhaps in its fourth or fifth (or fifty first) printing, it is hard to remember there was a time when it was provisional, an editable series of words on screen, or annotated pages of typescript — or even just an idea rolling around in someone’s head while they made lunch or went for a stroll or waited impatiently for coffee to perk: that a sentence, passage or character could have been excised or added. That, in fact, it might never have been written at all.
I know all this from the inside, yet Bradbury’s stories have become so much part of the bedrock of my imagination that I find it impossible to imagine they too might not have existed. Or have turned out differently. Or even, given the beauty and clarity and correctness of Bradbury’s lyric prose, that a single word might have been different. One might as well try to imagine that a Brandenburg Concerto had originally been written as a bossanova for trumpet and kazoo, or that Mickey Mouse had originally been a baboon. It will be otherwise for Bradbury himself, of course, but for the rest of us his work is the deep strata geology of fantastic fiction. His stories are its basic laws and axioms, and the doors he unlocked are the ones we now always find open in our minds. They are the apple which fell on Newton’s head.
And yet somehow, despite their familiarity, they retain the otherworldliness which first made them so striking on first reading. R is For Rocket was published in 1962, when the author was forty two years old. Or, put in more self-indulgent fashion, only three years older than I am now. In fewer than five years I’ll be older than the author of this collection. That freaks me out — in the same way I believe it must be extremely odd, the year one attains a greater age than one’s father did before he died. Fathers manifest oldness. They are older than you, by definition. That there may come a time when you are seventy four, though your father never got past seventy one, is strange pure and simple. You’re older now than your old man ever was. If you saw him in the street, he’d be younger than you. If you both had sixty years stripped off your age now, you’d be fourteen when he was eleven. You could beat him up, if it came to it. Which hopefully it wouldn’t. It’s paradoxical. And not polite.
Imagine your father as a small boy.
As you get older you come to believe that you have the measure of the world, for better and for worse, that it holds few surprises and nothing to quicken the breath. If we wonder, we do so very specifically. We wonder when we’ll get the corner office. We wonder if our loved one is having an affair. We wonder what that burning smell is. We find it hard to just wonder, generally, or to find the wonder within something: we become practised at wondering as verb, but cease to experience ‘wonder’ as a noun. Unless, perhaps, one is lucky enough to read Bradbury at the right age — where he can act as an inoculation against the commonplace, a lifetime vaccination against cheap cynicism and easy doubt.
When I re-read R Is For Rocket recently I was delighted — though not much surprised — to discover that wonder was still stored there, musking the smell of the pages, flitting up from them like a butterfly trapped and now released once again.
One of the ways Bradbury’s stories make this mockery of time is by speaking so directly to the emotions — like the overheard snatch of song which zaps you straight back to an afternoon when you were sixteen. He encapsulates the many by writing about the one, by writing about you — the version of you that is still young and optimistic, who yet runs swiftly and whose hopes will always be high. There is an thrilling openness in the way his prose goes to the heart of what people feel, an ebullient freshness which does not stale. There is a lyric perfection, too, in the less-is-moreness of the storytelling, the obliqueness which ensures something is always left to be gleaned from a return visit.
This is another way in which they resemble music: somewhere between the atmosphere and his voice and the dialogue and the events is something intangible but momentous, rather like the combination of the elements in a truly great song. If you get a few Bradbury fans together, it’s likely that sooner or later someone will say ‘Oh, and what about that one where…’ And the bones of the story will be told, a few plot points sketched with a line or scene quoted to nail the atmosphere, and the people listening will shiver and say: ‘Oh, yes, I remember that one’.
I can’t think of another author of whom people do this. Whose stories can almost be hummed.
I can’t believe I’m taking up your time like this, when I know what’s just over the page. Luckily, I’m nearly done.
There are famous stories in this collection. Stories which would make anyone’s Greatest Hits compilation. There are less well-known ones, too, the neglected B-sides. All are tales with the power to make boys and girls of us once more, and wonder is cheap at any price. Take my advice and turn the page quickly, because something else Bradbury teaches you is this:
The world will not always be the same. Not everything lasts, and people do die, and things change and the river will not always run. So love this life while it lasts.
Be here while you can. And enjoy.
Michael Marshall Smith