Skip to main content

Bradbury was a writer of perils, possibilities and wonder

By Gene Seymour, Special to CNN
updated 12:19 PM EDT, Sat June 9, 2012
Ray Bradbury, the science fiction writer credited with bringing the genre into the literary mainstream. pictured in 1980.
Ray Bradbury, the science fiction writer credited with bringing the genre into the literary mainstream. pictured in 1980.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Gene Seymour: Ray Bradbury could mix menace with magical possibilities
  • He says Bradbury drew on his Illinois hometown to juxtapose familiar things with the future
  • But his approach, deceptively simple on the surface, held social message along with dread
  • Bradbury died Wednesday at age 91

Editor's note: Gene Seymour has written about movies, music and culture for The New York Times, Newsday, Entertainment Weekly and the Washington Post.

(CNN) -- You could likely count on one hand the number of writers who could scare the daylights out of you as effectively as they could cheer you up. And there aren't too many fingers on that hand representing those writers who could do both in the same story or even on the same page and convince you that they know what they're doing.

Overheard on CNN.com: Ray Bradbury was 'very down to Earth,' or maybe Mars

Ray Bradbury, who died early Wednesday at age 91, knew what he was doing when he threw you into a dark place leaking menace and dread at every corner and when he lifted you into an enchanted realm bursting with magical properties.

Favorite quotes from Bradbury's 'Fahrenheit 451'

At times, these places -- light or dark, weedy or glistening -- were part of a distant past closely resembling Bradbury's Waukegan, Illinois, childhood of blessed summer evenings and portentous autumn twilights -- evoked most memorably in his 1957 autobiographical novel, "Dandelion Wine." At others, they were places conceived in a hypothetical future that often looked like a hyped-up version of the present day -- or at least whatever "present day" Bradbury happened to be writing.

Top five Bradbury films

Gene Seymour
Gene Seymour

Think, for instance, of "The Martian Chronicles," a collection of short stories regarded as Bradbury's breakthrough when it was published in 1950, even though he'd been writing and publishing fantasy, horror and science fiction for at least a decade before. Bradbury imagined a red planet whose colonization by Earthlings brings upon its dry terrain both the sweetly nostalgic graces of early to mid-20th-century Americana and some of the harsher aspects of human nature -- disease, war, bigotry and so on -- over time wreaking irrevocable havoc upon the native Martians and their civilization.

News: Sci-fi legend Ray Bradbury dies

1997: Bradbury's humble love of books
Author Ray Bradbury looks back

Bradbury was hardly the first to use the medium of science fiction -- or as its more serious followers prefer, "speculative fiction" -- to engage social issues. But his success in bringing his futuristic Gothic tales to such publications as Esquire, the Saturday Evening Post and Mademoiselle broadened the audience for science fiction and elevated the genre's standing in the literary mainstream.

My last conversation with Ray Bradbury

Wherever he was published, whatever he wrote about, Bradbury spoke to his readers in a style described by critic Gilbert Highet in his introduction to the 1965 collection, "The Vintage Bradbury" as "a curious mixture of poetry and colloquialism ... so brisk and economical that it never becomes cloying, so full of unexpected quirks that it is never boring."

Interview: Sci-fi legend Ray Bradbury on God, 'monsters and angels'

Some disagreed. Even Highet conceded in the same paragraph that he "occasionally" found Bradbury's writing "a little too intense and breathless." Still others griped that they found Bradbury's blend of robust affirmation and astringent gloom too glib and calculated to please as wide an audience of soreheads and romantics as possible. But Bradbury's more intelligent and incisive readers found greater resonance in his writing than his deceptively simple approach evoked on the surface.

Rainn Wilson, others tweet tributes to Bradbury

One such fan was the Argentine fabulist and poet Jorge Luis-Borges, who in his introduction to his Spanish-language translation of "The Martian Chronicles, asked: "What has this man from Illinois done, I ask myself when I close the pages of his book, that episodes from the conquest of another planet fill me with horror and loneliness?"

And there was nothing calculated or contrived about Bradbury's blend of optimism and pessimism. The man who once wrote a guide entitled "Zen in the Art of Writing" (1994) embraced all his contradictions -- light and dark, elegist and gadfly, dreamer and skeptic -- as one with a universe whose perils and possibilities he greeted with the same open-hearted wonder.

"I prefer to see myself," he told an interviewer for the Paris Review in 2010, "as the Janus, the two-faced god who is half Pollyanna and half Cassandra, warning of the future and perhaps living too much in the past -- a combination of both.

"But," he added, "I don't think I'm too overoptimistic."

What did Bradbury mean to you? Share with us on CNN iReport!

Follow @CNNOpinion on Twitter.

Join us at Facebook/Opinion.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Gene Seymour.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
updated 12:26 PM EDT, Wed August 27, 2014
The death of Douglas McAuthur McCain, the first American killed fighting for ISIS, highlights the pull of Syria's war for Western jihadists, writes Peter Bergen.
updated 6:42 PM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
Former ambassador to Syria Robert Ford says the West should be helping moderates in the Syrian armed opposition end the al-Assad regime and form a government to focus on driving ISIS out
updated 9:21 AM EDT, Wed August 27, 2014
Ruben Navarrette says a great country does not deport thousands of vulnerable, unaccompanied minors who fled in fear for their lives
updated 9:19 AM EDT, Wed August 27, 2014
Robert McIntyre says Congress is the culprit for letting Burger King pay lower taxes after merging with Tim Hortons.
updated 7:35 PM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
Wesley Clark says the U.S. can offer support to its Islamic friends in the region most threatened by ISIS, but it can't fight their war
updated 7:26 AM EDT, Wed August 27, 2014
Jeff Yang says the tech sector's diversity numbers are embarrassing and the big players need to do more.
updated 4:53 PM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
America's painful struggle with racism has often brought great satisfaction to the country's rivals, critics, and foes. The killing of Michael Brown and its tumultuous aftermath has been a bonanza.
updated 4:19 PM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
Ed Bark says in this Emmy year, broadcasters CBS, ABC and PBS can all say they matched or exceeded HBO. These days that's no small feat
updated 3:19 PM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
Rick Martin says the death of Robin Williams brought back memories of his own battle facing down depression as a young man
updated 11:58 AM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
David Perry asks: What's the best way for police officers to handle people with psychiatric disabilities?
updated 3:50 PM EDT, Mon August 25, 2014
Julian Zelizer says it's not crazy to think Mitt Romney would be able to end up at the top of the GOP ticket in 2016
updated 4:52 PM EDT, Mon August 25, 2014
Roxanne Jones and her girlfriends would cheer from the sidelines for the boys playing Little League. But they really wanted to play. Now Mo'ne Davis shows the world that girls really can throw.
updated 12:29 PM EDT, Mon August 25, 2014
Peter Bergen and Emily Schneider say a YouTube video apparently posted by ISIS seems to show that the group has a surveillance drone, highlighting a new reality: Terrorist groups have technology once only used by states
updated 5:04 PM EDT, Mon August 25, 2014
Kimberly Norwood is a black mom who lives in an affluent neighborhood not far from Ferguson, but she has the same fears for her children as people in that troubled town do
updated 5:45 PM EDT, Fri August 22, 2014
It apparently has worked for France, say Peter Bergen and Emily Schneider, but carries uncomfortable risks. When it comes to kidnappings, nations face grim options.
updated 1:27 PM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
John Bare says the Ice Bucket Challenge signals a new kind of activism and peer-to-peer fund-raising.
updated 8:31 AM EDT, Fri August 22, 2014
James Dawes says calling ISIS evil over and over again could very well make it harder to stop them.
updated 9:05 PM EDT, Sat August 23, 2014
As the inquiry into the shooting of Michael Brown continues, critics question the prosecutor's impartiality.
updated 6:47 PM EDT, Fri August 22, 2014
Newt Gingrich says it's troubling that a vicious group like ISIS can recruit so many young men from Britain.
updated 10:50 AM EDT, Thu August 21, 2014
David Weinberger says Twitter and other social networks have been vested with a responsibility, and a trust, they did not ask for.
updated 7:03 AM EDT, Fri August 22, 2014
John Inazu says the slogan "We are Ferguson" is meant to express empathy and solidarity. It's not true: Not all of us live in those circumstances. But we all made them.
updated 8:23 AM EDT, Fri August 22, 2014
Retired Lt. Gen. Mark Hertling says he learned that the territory ISIS wants to control is amazingly complex.
updated 3:51 PM EDT, Wed August 20, 2014
Cerue Garlo says Liberia is desperate for help amid a Ebola outbreak that has touched every aspect of life.
updated 1:42 PM EDT, Thu August 21, 2014
Eric Liu says Republicans who want to restrict voting may win now, but the party will suffer in the long term.
updated 11:38 AM EDT, Thu August 21, 2014
Jay Parini: Jesus, Pope and now researchers agree: Wealth decreases our ability to sympathize with the poor.
updated 8:00 AM EDT, Thu August 21, 2014
Judy Melinek offers a medical examiner's perspective on what happens when police kill people like Michael Brown.
updated 6:03 PM EDT, Tue August 19, 2014
It used to be billy clubs, fire hoses and snarling German shepherds. Now it's armored personnel carriers and flash-bang grenades, writes Kara Dansky.
updated 1:27 PM EDT, Wed August 20, 2014
Maria Haberfeld: People who are unfamiliar with police work can reasonably ask, why was an unarmed man shot so many times, and why was deadly force used at all?
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT