Saturday, February 19, 2011

Ray Bradbury: The fiction of ideas and giving the gift of books

A continuation of my series of posts on science fiction author interviews in the Paris Review. Previously: Aldous Huxley, William S. Burroughs, Kurt Vonnegut.

Ray Bradbury shouldn't need any introduction. His earliest stories were published in science fiction fanzines in the late 1930s. Since then, he has published hundreds of short stories and novellas;  a dozen novels, including The Martian Chronicles, Fahrenheit 451, and Something Wicked This Way Comes, plus plays and poetry.

The Paris Review's interview with Ray Bradbury is a composite of unpublished interviews from the late 1970s, supplemented with additional discussions not long before publication in early 2010.  In it, he talks about reading, writing and what science fiction means to him:
Science fiction is the fiction of ideas. Ideas excite me, and as soon as I get excited, the adrenaline gets going and the next thing I know I’m borrowing energy from the ideas themselves. Science fiction is any idea that occurs in the head and doesn’t exist yet, but soon will, and will change everything for everybody, and nothing will ever be the same again. As soon as you have an idea that changes some small part of the world you are writing science fiction. It is always the art of the possible, never the impossible.
That sounds like a solid definition. Of course what some people consider "impossible", others just consider "improbable", so, as ever, the boundary between fantasy and science fiction is a fuzzy one.

But whether fantasy or science fiction, Bradbury argues that books can inspire kids to become scientists or engineers or simply do something interesting with their lives.
That’s what we have to do for everyone, give the gift of life with our books. Say to a girl or boy at age ten, Hey, life is fun! Grow tall! I’ve talked to more biochemists and more astronomers and technologists in various fields, who, when they were ten years old, fell in love with John Carter and Tarzan and decided to become something romantic. [. . .] I find this in most fields. The need for romance is constant, and again, it’s pooh-poohed by intellectuals. As a result they’re going to stunt their kids. You can’t kill a dream. Social obligation has to come from living with some sense of style, high adventure, and romance.
Although kids today are more likely to read Harry Potter or The Hunger Games series than Tarzan, I think his basic premise is right. Fantastic fiction can help kids (and adults) set their imaginations free, and inspire dreams of progress and adventure. 

Bradbury also talks about writing pensées - evocative poetic prose - like the description of the dinosaur in his short story "A Sound of Thunder":

It came on great oiled, resilient, striding legs. It towered thirty feet above half of the trees, a great evil god, folding its delicate watchmaker’s claws close to its oily reptilian chest. Each lower leg was a piston, a thousand pounds of white bone, sunk in thick ropes of muscle, sheathed over in a gleam of pebbled skin like the mail of a terrible warrior. Each thigh was a ton of meat, ivory, and steel mesh. And from the great breathing cage of the upper body those two delicate arms dangled out front, arms with hands which might pick up and examine men like toys, while the snake neck coiled. And the head itself, a ton of sculptured stone, lifted easily upon the sky. [...]
He really can paint a picture with words, which is what I enjoy about Bradbury's writing.

Read the whole interview to find out about Bradbury's views on other writers, how he writes, and the stroke he suffered in 1999. Most of it is great, although I totally disagree with his opinion on the value of learning mathematics.

Tomorrow: Hortense Callisher


  1. Sound of thunder is a classic work by the author -a must read item for any one genuinely interested in sf.

  2. I agree!

    It's inspired so much subsequent SF, that "kids today" might think it's not original.


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