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June 8, 2012

Farewell, Ray

In March 1954, Ray Bradbury's short story “All Summer in a Day” was printed in the pages of The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction. Those collected words told the story of a young girl who moved from Earth to Venus with her family. Venus was bombarded by perpetual rains except for one day every seven years when the storms would fade and the sun would shine down for no more than two hours. The little girl, Margot, was hated by the children of Venus because she could remember the sun from her days on Earth. After bullying her, they locked her in a closet and she did not get to see the sun. This says more in four pages than most authors can convey in an entire novel. It’s an illustration of the darker side of humanity, its cruelty and heartbreak.

This week, we witnessed a Venus Transit; a rare astronomical event where Venus could be seen passing in front of the surface of the sun. It was an event that will not occur again until December 2117. It is with a sense of irony, perhaps even a bit of whimsical logic, that Ray Douglas Bradbury, a true visionary and a writer of indescribable wonder and magic, would finally leave us this week. It’s the darker but inescapable side of humanity, occasionally cruel and heartbreaking.

It’s no easy thing to express the value of the man and his work. Words put down to describe his value, to explain how vital and life-changing his works could be, will, in all instances, fail to drive home the truth with enough force. But we try. We fumble for the right words in an effort to relay just how amazing Bradbury and his catalog of stories were to the world.

Bradbury burned with a passion for story from the time he was a boy living in Waukegan, Illinois. He fed on the stories of Edgar Rice Burroughs, L. Frank Baum and Edgar Allan Poe. He marveled at films like Phantom of the Opera and comic strips like Buck Rogers. He took them all in, combining them with his own dreams and creativity, and he would go on to be one of the few authors of the science fiction/fantasy genre to be respected by the general literary establishment. His list of awards is too numerous to detail. A crater on the moon is named after his book DANDELION WINE. An asteroid bearing his name hurtles through space. He was a celebrity but never wanted to be. He liked to be admired, hoping to think that he inspired people, and he wanted to write. Every day.

The body of work that Bradbury produced is amazing in both scope and quality. He is credited with 27 novels and collections and over 600 short stories over a 70-year period, most notably THE MARTIAN CHRONICLES, SOMETHING WICKED THIS WAY COMES, FAHRENHEIT 451 and THE ILLUSTRATED MAN. He has written plays, the screenplay for John Huston's version of MOBY-DICK, and for television. The one constant through all of his work is the ability, no matter how far away from Earth his stories were set, to distill everything down to its basest human component --- to ground the fantastic in the most common and recognizable levels of understanding so that anyone who read them would be moved. His space stories amazed and left you with wonder. His dark pieces would chill you and leave you watching the shadows around your room. He could make you laugh. He could make you cry. He made you think.

The genius to his doing all of this was his humanity, his compassion, and the very fact that even in his last days at the age of 91, he never relinquished the hold he had on the boy who dreamed. In his introduction to his book, R IS FOR ROCKET, he wrote: “When I was a boy in the Midwest I used to go out and look at the stars at night and wonder about them. I guess every boy has done that.” When Bradbury sat down and punched out a story, he did it from the fount of wonder reserved for the dreamworlds of little boys who gaze at the stars, and in doing so he imbued his writing with a truth and an honesty that spoke to every dreamer who would one day read his words. It is the honesty of magic that strikes the chord inside of us and stirs up the memories we've long buried of those carefree days.

His lines were lyrical and danced on the page with grace. Whether you were watching the living tattoos on "The Illustrated Man," crying for the death of the house in "There Will Come Soft Rains," or shaking your head in wonder at the time-altering effects of the mere death of a butterfly in "A Sound of Thunder," Bradbury's mastery of the craft of writing, honed by his meticulous drive to put pen to paper every day, captured you. Sometimes they changed you forever.

“Live forever!” Mr. Electrico commanded a 12-year-old Ray Bradbury while at a lakefront carnival. Such magic doesn't exist for flesh and bone, and now we say goodbye. But how do you say goodbye to Ray Bradbury? The thought is too painful and heartbreaking. Even at 91, it seems he is gone too soon, that we've lost a young boy so full of unfulfilled wonder that we wish we could step into one of his time machines and go back --- back to when he was alive, to when he shared his dreams with us.

But we can't.

What we can do is return again to our bookshelves, sit back, and open ourselves up once again to all he left us. Martians and dinosaurs. Ghosts and phantasms. A lifetime of spooky Halloweens and summer memories. We can take one of those great books and give a copy to someone who has yet to discover those remarkable gifts, sharing with them what Bradbury shared with us. We can stand outside on a warm summer night and look up at the stars and wonder about them. In that way, he will hold to Mr. Electrico's command. In that way, he will live forever.