Wednesday, June 06, 2012

Ray Bradbury Is Dead, Alas

cross-posted from Dagblog

Ray Bradbury has died, the newspapers all say. I am grateful that he lived so long, and sorry that he's gone.

Ray Bradbury was most famous as a science fiction writer. He deserves to be famous as one of America's great short-story writers, period. I didn't say that he wasn't a science fiction writer, and he wouldn't have said that either. He was a gifted stylist. He could write like Poe in a better mood. What he chose to write about on a given day is beside the point. And when the mood was on him, he wrote 20th-century America's dreams about itself straight onto the page.

Bradbury educated himself in America's public libraries. He made a living as a short-story writer, selling a story every week in the early Forties to keep his "hot-dog and street-car lifestyle" as he put it, going. That profession is impossible today. Even if you could write three or five thousand words of publishable fiction every single week, as Bradbury used to, you could not make even a hot-dog living at it. There simply aren't enough places to mail the stories. Bradbury was one of the last writers, maybe the last, who could live by the short story alone.

At his best, Bradbury writes like someone who has to write a story every week to pay the rent. But he also writes like he can't afford that story to be anything except wonderful: not like he can't risk not making a sale, but like he needs the stories to be magic so he can keep going. A Bradbury story never wastes words, but it never wastes opportunities, either. The prose is clean and concise, but never sparse or bare. There's too much to see. Bradbury moves the story along fast, but never hurries you past a chance to look at our world and marvel.

His writing manages at once to be swift and evocative, energetic and reflective, tight and springy. His stories were driven by images rather than plots, moods rather than characters, but were unerringly and unsparingly shaped, because Bradbury could create a mood in half a sentence better than most writers could with three paragraphs. Bradbury's stories indulged nothing but the reader's imagination. He was a big-hearted storyteller with the unbending discipline of a poet.

He was at his best in short forms. The Martian Chronicles is not a novel, but a group of short stories strung together with bridging material to create something that could be plausibly called a book. (A fixup, in the genre parlance.) It's worth reading that book once through looking at just the interstitial pieces between the stories, often only a page or three long, creating marvelous effects in even less time than Bradbury gave himself for a magazine story. And his most successful novel, Fahrenheit 451, was written in a fierce, sustained burst. Bradbury had no gift for massive structure, and no weakness for sprawl. He was a sprinter. He wrote faster than he could breathe, every foot in the right place, until the end.

We won't see another writer quite like him. They don't make them any more.

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