Last week, after Ray Bradbury had passed away, I heard a lovely tribute to him on NPR by science writer Andrew Chaikin. In his eulogy, Chaikin quoted Bradbury as saying, “Jump off a cliff, and build your wings on the way down.” It’s a great sentiment, one that captures an element of Bradbury’s writings that had fueled my imagination when I first read his stories at the age of eleven or twelve, and that drew me back to his stories, from time-to-time, throughout adulthood. It could be felt in how he conveyed the thrill and promise of space travel, the wonder of the sideshow, or the laughter that brought down the insidious Mr. Dark. At their best, his stories often limned the possibilities opened up by taking risks and embarking on adventures. For Bradbury, it appeared, the world was created through dreaming.
Yet there’s another quote that reveals the other, equally important, side to Bradbury’s stories. Regarding the clichéd question often posed to science fiction writers about predicting the future, Bradbury wrote: “People ask me to predict the Future, when all I want to do is prevent it.” These are not the words of a Pollyanna who only gushes about dreaming and wonder. They belong to a writer who, with open eyes, saw humankind’s shortcomings, casting the shadows that gave his optimism depth. Bradbury was, after all, the author of the still popular dystopian novel Fahrenheit 451, and the worst aspects of humanity charge some of his best stories in The Illustrated Man and The Martian Chronicles (to say nothing of those in his chilling short story collection The October Country). He recorded the pain and stupidity that indicts all of us.
But he did so without caving in to cynicism or despair. In fact, in the essay “Beyond 1984: The People Machines,” Bradbury makes that clear, by following up his desire to prevent the future with the afterthought, “Better yet, build it.” It’s that balance of darkness and light, as well as his uniquely poetic prose and wicked sense of humor, that will assure that Bradbury’s writings will be read for years to come. May he rest in peace.