Ray Bradbury, a master of science fiction whose lyrical evocations of the future reflected both the optimism and the anxieties of his own postwar America, died on Tuesday in Los Angeles. He was 91.
His death was confirmed by his agent, Michael Congdon.
By many estimations Bradbury was the writer most responsible for bringing modern science fiction into the literary mainstream. His name would appear near the top of any list of major science-fiction writers of the 20th century, beside those of Isaac Asimov, Arthur C. Clarke, Robert A. Heinlein and the Polish author Stanislaw Lem.
In Bradbury’s lifetime more than eight million copies of his books were sold in 36 languages. They included the short-story collections The Martian Chronicles, The Illustrated Man and The Golden Apples of the Sun, and the novels Fahrenheit 451 and Something Wicked This Way Comes.
Influential writer: A 2007 photo of Bradbury at his home in Los Angeles. Marissa Roth/The New York Times
Though none won a Pulitzer Prize, Bradbury received a Pulitzer citation in 2007 “for his distinguished, prolific and deeply influential career as an unmatched author of science fiction and fantasy”.
Bradbury sold his first story to a magazine called Super Science Stories before his 21st birthday, and by the time he was 30 he had made his reputation with The Martian Chronicles, a collection of thematically linked stories published in 1950.
The book celebrated the romance of space travel, while condemning the social abuses that modern technology had made possible, and its impact was immediate and lasting. Critics who had dismissed science fiction as adolescent prattle praised Chronicles as stylishly written morality tales set in a future that seemed just around the corner.
Bradbury was hardly the first writer to represent science and technology as a mixed bag of blessings and abominations. The advent of the atomic bomb in 1945 left many Americans deeply ambivalent toward science. The same “super science” that had ended World War II now appeared to threaten the very existence of civilization. Science-fiction writers, who were accustomed to thinking about the role of science in society, had trenchant things to say about this threat.
But the audience for science fiction, published mostly in pulp magazines, was small and insignificant. Bradbury looked to a larger audience: the readers of mass-circulation magazines such as the Mademoiselle and The Saturday Evening Post. These readers had no patience for the technical jargon of the science fiction pulps. So he eliminated the jargon; he packaged his troubling speculations about the future in an appealing blend of cozy colloquialisms and poetic metaphors.
The Martian Chronicles remains perhaps Bradbury’s best-known work. It became a staple of high school and college English courses. Bradbury himself disdained formal education. He went so far as to attribute his success as a writer to his never having gone to college.
Instead, he read everything2 he could get his hands on, by authors including Edgar Allan Poe, Jules Verne, H.G. Wells, Edgar Rice Burroughs, Thomas Wolfe and Ernest Hemingway. He paid homage to them in 1971 in the autobiographical essay How Instead of Being Educated in College, I Was Graduated From Libraries. (Late in life he took an active role in fund-raising efforts for public libraries in Southern California.)
Bradbury referred to himself as an “idea writer”, by which he meant something quite different from erudite or scholarly. “I have fun with ideas; I play with them,” he said. “ I’m not a serious person, and I don’t like serious people. I don’t see myself as a philosopher. That’s awfully boring.”
He added, “My goal is to entertain myself and others.”
He described his method of composition as “word association”, often triggered by a favourite line of poetry.
Bradbury’s passion for books found expression in his dystopian novel Fahrenheit 451, published in 1953. But he drew his primary inspiration from his childhood in Illinois. He boasted that he had total recall of his earliest years, including the moment of his birth. Readers had no reason to doubt him. In his best stories and in his autobiographical novel, Dandelion Wine (1957), he gave voice to both the joys and fears of childhood.
As for the protagonists of his stories, no matter how far they journeyed from home, they learned that they could never escape the past.
Raymond Douglas Bradbury was born 22 August 1920, in Waukegan, Illinois, a small city whose Norman Rockwellesque charms he later reprised in his depiction of the fictional Green Town in Dandelion Wine and Something Wicked This Way Comes, and in the fatally alluring fantasies of the astronauts in The Martian Chronicles. His father, a lineman with the electric company, numbered among his ancestors one of the women tried as a witch in Salem, Massachusetts.
Bradbury is survived by his daughters, Susan Nixon, Ramona Ostergen, Bettina Karapetian, and Alexandra Bradbury, and eight grandchildren.
©2012/The New York Times