Though I saw it all around
Never thought I could be affected
Thought that we'd be the last to go
It is so strange the way things turn

Thursday, June 7, 2012

Death Is a Lonely Business

Lots of people are continuing their remembrances of Ray Bradbury and sharing how they first came to know him. I have to admit I was late to Bradbury. I probably had read something of his when I was younger, and I saw the movies of Fahrenheit 451 and Something Wicked This Way Comes (to this day, I remember the library confrontation scene, I can close my eyes and see Jonathan Pryce ripping the pages out of the book) and enjoyed them immensely. There's so much I read in high school and college that I've forgotten. There was a series of books with covers by the Brothers Hildebrandt. I don't even remember the title of those, but I remember the covers most vividly. That's not unusual. For me, one of my blind spots is being able to connect authors names, titles, and story lines together (I remember them, but for some reason they're not attached in my head).

But it wasn't until my junior year in college that I bought a copy of the Vintage Bradbury from the college book store (no doubt denying a student enrolled in the class it was assigned reading for their copy). I had just finished reading everything (and I mean everything) Arthur C. Clarke had written up to that point for a paper in independent studies in fiction (a 400 level course). The paper explored how the godhead was portrayed throughout his works (God shows up a lot in Clarke's works, BTW).

I was going on a trip to Europe to see my uncle and wanted a little light reading material. I remembered Bradbury's name, and I already had a profound interest in SF/F. I knew Bradbury was a BNA, even back then (before I started paying attention to these things), I think I vaguely knew he wrote F541. The Vintage Bradbury was one of 3 books I took.

It was near the end of the flight over when I grabbed it out of my carryon. Being the contrary cuss I was (am?), I opened it to the last story, There Will Come Soft Rains, and read that first. It was, no shit, the first short story that I remember knowing the author, title, and story line all together without having to study and repeat the mantra of those keywords over and over. Then I turned to the middle and read The Small Assassin and The Fruit at the Bottom of the Bowl, And I was hooked.

By the end of that vacation I had read all the stories at least once (and it was a very active vacation, not a "sit on the beach and read" vacation). Some of them I read three times. I had never done that before. At most if I was having a test on the reading I might have read a short story twice, and only begrudgingly (the only novels I had read more than once up to these was the The Lord of the Rings, which I think I had read 3 times by then). That summer I devoured everything I could find by Bradbury (R is for Rocket, S is for Space, The Golden Apples of the Sun). And by the end of summer I was complaining about why I hadn't done my paper on Bradbury instead.

There was a chance in college I could have met him, but at that point I was still stupid and didn't think you could actually met the authors and stars you loved. They lived someplace else. A Shangri La that was always in dappled sunlight and you could pick ripe oranges from the trees whenever you wanted one. Later in life I did have the opportunity to see him and I took it. I went with friends. He was in a wheel chair by then, and the event staff kept him well walled off to those who hadn't paid the extra premium price. He was available for a short time to sign books (the tables set up had a few I hadn't found before, including The Zen of Writing, so I had some he could sign, again I was stupid and didn't realize I could bring my own books for him to sign). But the crowd was too large, and many people went home disappointed (even some who were in line, Ray wasn't in the best of health at the time).

I think I've read most of the fiction he wrote. It's rare I find anything new. And while not everything has stuck in my head (like the parents worried about the distant roars of the lions in that first story or the jealousy of the first Martian to met humans), I remember the words, the prose poetry tapestry he wove. How he didn't need to show everything (you don't see the parents being killed, or the Martian shooting the astronauts in their silver ships with a gun that buzzed with quiescent killer bees). It is the verbal equivalent of Hitchcock's "the horror in your head is much worse than what I can show you" concept. It is the shadows dancing on the cave wall that drives the thirst for the sunlight. It is the ambrosia of fresh mown lawns and a summer in Greentown that will last forever, the feel of new sneakers on your feet. So fleet until the Autumn People come again and steal the warmth of life so thoroughly, it takes half a year to remember it again.

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