So far, this year is full of significance for me.
First, there’s the significance that one of my all-time favorite books, A Princess of Mars by Edgar Rice Burroughs, was finally released as a live action motion picture, with huge production values and a notable director…and yet somehow flopped at the box office. (<sigh> I happen to think that John Carter is much, much better than the revenue might indicate, but that’s fodder for another essay.)
The second significance is that the author of another well-known Martian missive, and another of my all-time favorite books, The Martian Chronicles, recently left this Earth in death. Ray Bradbury passed away on Tuesday evening, June 5th 2012.
A third significance, an irony really, is that I’d linked those two stories, and those two authors, in my own books. Anyone who has read the DarkTrench trilogy knows that the protagonist, Sandfly, uses pairs of author names (though in fact, he doesn’t know they are author names) as expletives. And one of his most common pairings is “Burroughs and Bradbury”.
I don’t think either author would mind. In fact, I think Bradbury would’ve gotten a kick out of my bit of whimsy. At least, I hope.
That said, it seems only proper and respectful at this time to honor Mr. Bradbury’s passing by spending a few words on what he has taught me as a reader and a writer. The little tidbits I’ve gleaned from his writing, and his style, that have helped me not only be a better writer, but a better person.
It is okay to love America
“Americans are far more remarkable than we give ourselves credit for.” – Ray Bradbury
Today America is often either the cause or recipient of whatever calamity befalls the world in science fiction. Whether it is gladiatorial combat of The Hunger Games, or the subterranean dwellers in the popular Wool series, America is ultimately the victim, and the villain.
Bradbury’s books celebrated America, though. His love for America and the American way of life was evident in nearly everything he wrote. His was a literary version of the America captured in Norman Rockwell’s paintings. It is one where family is cherished, childhood is both golden and fleeting, and honor and hard work pay off in the end. It was the America of achievers and doers. An America of both strength and compassion. A moral America. A good America. A hopeful America.
It is the same America I experienced growing up in rural Ohio. A place of dreams and freedom. It is an incredible place, with many incredible and good people. For reinforcing that image in my young mind, to Bradbury, I’ll always be thankful.
It is okay to write about faith in science fiction
Typically, science fiction and faith are circles that don’t intersect. In the instances when they do meet, however, it is usually one throwing stones at the other. In fact, as a longtime science fiction reader, I’ve come to expect secular humanism being the law of the land. I’m used to taking a few digs at my Christian faith.
Bradbury’s stories weren’t like that, though. He wasn’t afraid to revere the Bible in his seminal work Fahrenheit 451, or to allegorize man’s search for a savior (whether on this planet or the next) in short stories like The Man. Rather than despising faith, he often embraced it, and sometimes—horror of horrors—even glorified it. Take this snippet from The Man, for instance:
“They’ve got something you’ll never have—a little simple faith…Take your filth somewhere else and foul up other nests with your doubt and your—scientific method!”
Faith over the scientific method? An outrage for most sci-fi authors! But not for Bradbury.
Bradbury also had the sense, as do I, that writing is a gift from God. He was said to frequently open his own books late at night and cry out thanks:
“I sit there and cry because I haven’t done any of this,” Bradbury said. “It’s a God-given thing, and I’m so grateful, so, so grateful. The best description of my career as a writer is, ‘At play in the fields of the Lord.’ ”
Write what you care about
“I don’t try to describe the future. I try to prevent it.”
That quote was purportedly Bradbury reason for writing Fahrenheit 451. He used story to describe a future he hoped to prevent. In the case of Fahrenheit, it was a future where books—and by inference ideas—were outlawed. Where firemen no longer stopped fires, but started them. It was a frightening world, but also touched on a very real issue, and one he cared deeply about.
I used similar reasoning when I started the A Star Curiously Singing. I encountered an issue that moved me, that scared me for my children, and I wrote about it. And ironically, in the case of the DarkTrench Saga it is still idea that is being outlawed, but by a different villain, and all under the guise of belief.
These sorts of stories are when science fiction is at its best, I think. The story has to be about something, and it has to be something the writer cares deeply about.
More often than not, others—hopefully readers—will care just as deeply. And if they don’t then story, if done right, can move them to care.
Enjoy the language
This is the most difficult lesson of Bradbury’s to describe.
Typical advice to new writers is to be as stylistically plain as possible. To stick as close to the rulebook so as to take one’s self, and one’s idiosyncrasies out of the equation. To disappear behind the story. And in generally that’s good counsel.
I don’t think Bradbury subscribed to that particular mantra, though. In fact, I would say Bradbury’s stories were great because his personality was all over them.
Don’t get me wrong, I don’t think his style ever got in the way of his story. Instead, I think his style was to enliven the story. I think Bradbury pulled out his rolling toolbox of simile, metaphor, repetition, alliteration, symbolism, irony and imagery, along with the building blocks of idea and heart and constructed whatever house he wanted to build. Whatever creature needed to breathe.
To say Bradbury’s prose is poetic doesn’t do it justice. He relished the English language. He gloried in it. Danced and painted and sang in it. It was a marvelous thing to read and feel. An author both ever-present, but also masked within his story.
It is something I aspire to. Something every author should aspire to.
Doubtless there are many more things I’ve learned from Ray Bradbury and his works. Doubtless there is much they can teach me still. But on hearing of his death this week, I knew I had to say something, I had to write something, lest this moment of significance pass unnoticed.
To Ray Bradbury, a master craftsman, my humble thanks and admiration. Ninety-one years was hardly long enough.
I’m Kerry Nietz, one of the Marcher Lord Press authors, and this concludes my little digital eulogy. Perhaps someday in the future I’ll do the same for Mr. Burroughs and all the other names I’ve pilfered. (It only seems fair.)
But until then, what did Bradbury teach you?