Ray Bradbury was a paradoxical kind of visionary, both enthused and terrified at what lay ahead for humanity. He spoke with great optimism about man’s capacity to create his own destiny, through scientific progress and space exploration. Yet his science fiction depicted a future marked by ambivalence, pessimism or outright horror.
Bradbury’s three best-known works encapsulate these various strands of gloom. His masterpiece, Fahrenheit 451 (1953), ranks alongside Brave New World and Nineteen-Eighty Four as a giant of 20th-century dystopiana, imagining a world in which firemen burn books and the dangerous ideas contained within them. Before it, The Illustrated Man (1951) anthology mixes anxiety-laden tales with horror stories of technology unleashed – Frankenstein for the atomic age.
Then there was The Martian Chronicles (1950). In this short-story collection, human settlers on the Red Planet end up diseased, homesick, neurotic, mad or dead. The explorers, driven from Earth not by an optimistic desire to seek new worlds, but by nuclear war and tyranny, are destined to ruin the new planet as they did the old. ‘We Earth Men have a talent for ruining big, beautiful things’, says one trooper in the story ‘And the Moon be Still as Bright’: ‘The only reason we didn’t set up hot-dog stands in the midst of the Egyptian temple of Karnak is because it was out of the way and served no large commercial purpose.’ Man can leave his own planet, but he can never escape himself.
Alongside Arthur C Clarke and Isaac Asimov, Bradbury has been hailed by NASA historians as a visionary without whom the space programme would not have been possible
In real life, however, Ray Bradbury was a well-known and vocal advocate of the liberating potential of space exploration. Alongside Arthur C Clarke and Isaac Asimov, he has been hailed by NASA historians as a visionary without whom the space programme would not have been possible. Here was a figure who affirmed in 1980 that ‘machines, if properly built, can carry our most fragile dreams through a million light-years of travel without breakage. Such machines, and the shuttle with them, are the armour of our life force.’ Bradbury had a vision of future in which space exploration would play a central, redemptive, role. Of humanity’s destructive tendencies, he replied rhapsodically, ‘so much more reason then to cultivate our gardens in space, invite ourselves back in through the gates of time and travel, and establish ourselves not just beyond the Moon but beyond Mars and beyond Pluto and, finally, beyond death’.
The discrepancy between Bradbury the ethereal prophet of the future, and the Bradbury who depicted calamity and doom, may be explained twofold. First of all, he was as much a horror writer as an author of science fiction; like Mary Shelley, he brought the Gothic into the near-now. The stories contained in The Illustrated Man can’t but help to arouse comparisons to MR James or Philip K Dick at his most paranoid.
In stories such as ‘The Fox and The Forest’, ‘The Visitor’ and ‘Marionettes, Inc’, the boundary between human and android, or real and hallucinatory, is breached to disturbing effect; in ‘The Playground’ a man is condemned forever to be a tormented child version of himself. ‘This is Hell, this is Hell!’ he cries at the end. ‘And no one in the hot, milling heap contradicted him.’ We remember Bradbury at his most terrifying because he was a master at it.
But just as George Orwell wrote Nineteen Eighty-Four as a warning rather than a prediction, Bradbury also had a concerned eye on the present. In Fahrenheit 451, he envisaged an age when ‘firemen’ would burn books because he was alarmed at contemporary censorship in America, that is, by the very notion that written words could be adjudged dangerous and damaging. We may see his tales as cautionary, not clairvoyant. Bradbury was optimistic by instinct but not by conviction.