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Vale, Ray Bradbury
Novelist. Poet. Visionary. America's best-loved science fiction writer was also a kindly mentor.
I am saddened this week because I won’t be receiving any more letters from Ray Bradbury.
The legendary American science fiction writer died in Los Angeles on Tuesday at the age of 91. He had led a productive life, writing 27 novels and more than 600 short stories. Bradbury was versatile, too. He wrote the screenplay for John Huston’s film Moby Dick. He was a poet and receiving his annual Christmas poem in the mail was exhilarating. It was always signed by Bradbury in his distinctive large hand and written in a broad-nibbed felt-tip pen.
Bill Perkins, a film buff and education lecturer at the University of Tasmania, introduced me to the works of Bradbury and to the films based on his novels and stories.
I was so enthralled that when I began my own teaching career I introduced my students to Bradbury’s short stories and novels as well as to films of his books. Fahrenheit 451 was an example of some of his best writing, and the movie version, starring Julie Christie and Oskar Werner, was thought-provoking and starkly but beautifully filmed.
It was only in later years that Bradbury’s readers realised what a visionary he was. He predicted automatic teller machines and video surveillance techniques, to name just two ideas which are part of everyday life nowadays. The way technology and robots are progressing, it won’t be long before the house in Bradbury’s short story “There Will Come Soft Rains” is a reality. The futuristic nursery in his short story “The Veldt” may also come about.
Strangely enough, for a man who often wrote science fiction tales about rockets, Bradbury was terrified of flying. He wrote novels like R is for Rocket (1962) and S is for Space (1966) and one of his best-known short stories is “The Flying Machine” –but he travelled to and from Europe by sea. Strange also for someone who was obsessed with the colonisation of Mars, the subject of his 1950 novel The Martian Chronicles. In a letter to me he revealed that he had no role at all in the making of the television mini-series based on this book. He apparently found it boring.
His novel Something Wicked This Way Comes (1962) encapsulated some of Bradbury’s characteristic themes. It is about the struggle between good and evil, the excitement and promise of children growing up, and the sadness of adults ageing. It deals with regret about the things one should have and could have done but didn’t.
But hope, truth, beauty and the triumph of love also shine through. The movie of this book, by Walt Disney Productions, never failed to captivate my students. The photography is unforgettable and the script enchanting. In two decades of showing it to classes, not one student disliked it.
Bradbury mailed me one of those large film posters that used to be prominently displayed outside movie theatres. It was for Something Wicked This Way Comes. On it he had scrawled in silver felt pen a personal message. Displaying it to the class before a screening of the movie added to the occasion.
As part of my treatment of Bradbury’s novels and short stories with my classes, I would often have my students write critiques. Some of them would draw pictures of an aspect of a story. I would gather the essays and drawings and bundle them together in an envelope and mail them to Bradbury at his home in Los Angeles.
He was always delighted and would read each one. He would select a few and write responses to the students. You can imagine the excitement in class when a student would proudly announce receipt of a letter from the great man himself. This exercise and Bradbury’s generous participation made literature more real for the students.
I have a letter from Bradbury written on the day he returned, by sea, to America from Paris. It was in response to a batch of my students’ work which I had sent him. He wrote:
Thanks for your kind letter and all the enclosed material from your warm bright students. I deeply appreciate having all these to read and sat down on my return from France this day Sunday, July 28th, to read and enjoy every one. Bless you all. What a fine gift to receive on my Homecoming! I send you my love and the best hope for all of your futures.
Yours with gratitude.
Also appreciated the art work.
What a generous man he was! He always had time for his readers and particularly for young people. Fame had not spoiled him. He was always the young man who had used a coin-operated typewriter in a basement library at the University of Los Angeles to type out Fahrenheit 451. (It cost him $9.80 to type this 25,000-word novel. The typewriter rental was 10 cents for half an hour.)
I ran into one of my former students on the bus a few years ago. He was teaching at the same high school where I had taught him. He still remembered my classes and was now teaching Bradbury’s works to his students.
There can surely be no better legacy for a writer than that succeeding generations continue to read and enjoy his work and promote it to others.
Recommended reading: My four favourite Ray Bradbury novels are: Fahrenheit 451, Something Wicked This way Comes, The Illustrated Man, and The Martian Chronicles.
Walter Pless writes from Hobart, Tasmania.
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