Wednesday, January 15, 2020

The Bradbury Centenary

Well, we're finally here. 2020. Cue all those jokes about 2020 vision, and people drawing parallels with (19)20s flappers. For Bradbury fans, 2020 is a nice big round number: one hundred years since the birth of Ray Bradbury.

When I first became aware of Ray Bradbury's fiction, he must have been in his fifties. The first time I saw his photo, probably on a book cover, he would have been about 58 - which was quite old to me at the time; much older than my parents, for example. I saw Ray a lot in magazine interviews and on TV when he was in his sixties. And I finally met him when he was 87, and again when he was 90. Old, quite old. And yet...

His fiction was always so young and lively. What I didn't know when I first read Bradbury was that his amazing stories of dinosaurs, time machines, rockets, youth and death were mostly written when he was young and lively. His peak years, measured in terms of "best stories" were in the 1940s and 1950s, when he was aged between 20 and 40. And yet...

His amazing peak of productivity which produced The Martian Chronicles in 1950 (age 30), The Illustrated Man in 1951 (age 31), and Fahrenheit 451 in 1953 (age 33) was followed by a long tail of work which would never quite gain the same recognition. Bradbury continued writing right up to his final days, which means that there is nearly sixty years' worth of material out there (or hidden away) which most people are unfamiliar with.

A lot of books and essays about Bradbury talk of his career somehow petering out after those classic works of the 1950s. He stopped writing fiction, they say. He turned to poetry and plays, they say. He went to Hollywood, but didn't have much success.

Well, all of that has some grain of truth. His early success in Hollywood - It Came From Outer Space (he created it, but someone else did the final screenplay), Moby Dick (he adapted it, but John Huston nabbed half the screenplay credit), scripts for the TV series Alfred Hitchcock Presents - must have given him a taste of an alternative career, not to mention a significant alternative income stream. It can be argued that the alternative income enabled him to indulge in poetry, and to produce his own plays. Bradbury himself said that his income from Hollywood options is what put his children through college.

Ironically, Bradbury was a far better poet when writing short stories than he ever was when writing poetry. And yet he still managed to get books of poetry put out by major publishers. These things sold. They may not have been bestsellers, but they did the business.

As for his plays, they tended to fall into two camps. There were the original plays, mostly "Irish" stories which had been inspired by his time in Ireland writing Moby Dick, and most of which eventually also came out as short stories. And then there were the adaptations, of numerous short stories and his major novels. Some of these worked, and some didn't. If you ever get the chance to see his stage version of "The Veldt", see it. It's great, and in its reliance on the imagination of the audience, it works far better than any of the screen adaptations of it created so far. Similarly, if you get the chance to see Bradbury's stage version of Fahrenheit 451, grab it - but beware that Bradbury couldn't resist rewriting the story somewhat, so that it has some twists and turns which differ from the original novel.

As Jon Eller's biographies of Ray have pointed out, Bradbury's career was split into two halves. In the first half, he was an extraordinary short story writer and novelist. And in the second half, he might have run dry of original ideas, or he may have been distracted by those other media (poetry, plays, films). And also in that second half he must surely have been distracted by being a figure in the public eye, especially as the space age evolved and he became something of a spokesman for science fiction and an advocate of space exploration. I have always been amazed that he was able to get any real work done at all during this period.

By the 1980s, with Ray now into his sixties, he finally had his own TV series, the excruciatingly low-budget Ray Bradbury Theater. This show was a pioneer of original programming on cable TV, being one of HBO's first original productions, but with none of the investment that HBO today puts into original programming. At times the show was an embarrassment of poor production quality, but at other times it was able to produce some gems. Sixty-odd episodes were made, shot all over the world, with every one scripted by Bradbury himself. In the seven or so years that the show was in production, it is again hard to imagine how he found time for any other work. And yet...

The 1980s and 1990s saw a new burst of activity from Bradbury. Now in his 60s and 70s, he turned out a series of remarkable new novels and short story collections. The best of these were among his best (and the worst were among his worst). And in his final years, in his 80s and 90s, Bradbury put the finishing touches to a number of works-in-progress. A sequel to Dandelion Wine. A new patchwork novel tying a set of short stories together in From The Dust Return. Long-delayed novellas "Leviathan '99" and "Somewhere a Band is Playing".

One hell of a life of writing!

And now, so soon, we reach 2020. The Bradbury Centenary. There will be celebrations, that's for sure. Bradbury's home town of Waukegan, Illinois, has some plans. So does the Center for Ray Bradbury Studies, based in Indianapolis.

And if anyone out there wants me to talk about Bradbury, just ask. I'm available for conferences, lectures, podcasts, possibly even barmitzvahs!

Watch this space for news and further developments...

ADDENDUM:  I thought I should use this post to keep a record of planned centenary events. I will add to the list as more events come to light. Here goes:

Feb 9, Pasadena:

Feb 21-23, 28-9, March 1, Pasadena:

March 5-8, San Diego:

March 11, Gurnee, Illinois:

May 17, Bath, UK:

May 20, New York:

July 24-25, Bicknell, Utah:

For more events, please also keep an eye on this web page:


Piet Nel said...

The first time I came across anything by Ray Bradbury was when my dad and I listened to a radio adaptation of "The Small Assassin", adapted by Michael McCabe. I didn't remember who the author was, but the story stuck in my mind for years until, about twelve years later, I found it in a paperback called The Small Assassin. Someone sent me a rather poor copy of that radio adaptation, about a decade ago. It was dated 1968, but my memory is very firm that we heard it on the radio, c. 1962/3.

My next encounter with Ray (on the printed page) was when I read R Is for Rocket, a school library book. That was in 1969. I finally bought my own copy about three years later. In about 1970, I read "The Fruit at the Bottom of the Bowl" in one of our prescribed school books. The teacher said it was the best story in the book, but I preferred another story by Jack Finney!

I can't remember when I first saw a picture of Ray Bradbury, but I remember reading a story introduction by William F. Nolan, who described him as "a vitally alive man of forty-seven" and "a spaceman in a straw hat with bicycle clips on his legs". I think that was in the anthology Three To the Highest Power. I remember thinking "Wow, forty-seven ... I wonder how much longer he can keep going?"

Quite a long time, as it turned out. What I didn't realise, back then, was when the stories that appeared in his new collections had first been written. But that didn't matter then, and it still doesn't really matter now.

The first time I saw a photo of him may well have been in the UK magazine Science Fiction Monthly, in 1974. That magazine also had a bibliography of his books up to then, and it was the first time I'd heard of Dark Carnival. I became mildly obsessed with the book. Where was it? Why had I never seen it? Almost four decades later, I unwrapped a parcel that contained ... Dark Carnival.

Bradbury gave me many memorable moments in my book-hunting career. I can still describe several occasions when I first spotted (and promptly bought) a Bradbury book.

May he indeed live forever.

(P.S. I had a brief e-mail exchange with Michael McCabe's wife, some years ago. They had retired to his native UK. Unfortunately he had no records of his adaptation, and I'm not optimistic that he would still be alive.)

Phil said...

Thanks, Piet. I find it quite fascinating how, back in the day, we would know very little about authors. Bradbury could remain forever 53, by re-using that same author-photo of him holding a cat.

Nowadays, we just Google, and know everything about any author.

m. d. said...

A beautiful commentary and precious links. Thank You. I can't help but think Ray would be so delighted by the "and yet..." A very key phrase to the whole mystery of his creativity and indefatigable spirit. How wonderful his whole opus. How filled with light and joy and even his ghost stories made me laugh.

Reginac7 said...

Lovely article. I consider Ray Bradbury a beautiful mentor. I adored the 80s television show, though I didn't see it till replays on YouTube much later. Grand man, writer, human being. Joy in knowing his work.

Thank you.