The works of Ray Bradbury have long been held up as examples of speculative fiction: the forms of genres which, generally, encompass a wide range of imaginative features. His work often presents common themes such as those with pertain to the future, space, science fiction and the dystopian qualities of future societies. For example, in Fahrenheit 451, Bradbury discusses a future society where books are banned: presenting the reader with a hint of anti-meta narrative, given that the book is the very thing in the readers’ hands. This also represents Bradbury’s most famous work: it is universally accepted as being one of the best examples of dystopian writing in existence: “The first writer of science fiction to achieve general recognition, he is looked upon with a veneration that is not without ambiguity.” (Slusser 3). By this, it is implied that Bradbury, whilst “extoled” for being one of the greatest writers of his time, is distinctly un-analysed. The purpose of this essay is to explore some of Bradbury’s works, discuss their common themes critically, Bradbury’s style of writing and his growth, as an author. Within the course of this essay, works including Fahrenheit 451, Dandelion Wine, a semi-autobiographical work (and its sequel, Farewell Summer), Something Wicked This Way Comes, and The Martian Chronicles in conjunction with the aforementioned sub-topics, will be analysed. The decision to discuss these particular works was made to demonstrate a range of Bradbury’s work over the development of his career – the earliest being The Martian Chronicles in 1950 and the latest being Farewell Summer in 2006.
Classically, a long-running debate when discussing Ray Bradbury is that which questions whether he is a science fiction or fantasy author. The argument is furthered by the concept of trying to ‘pigeon hole’ Bradbury as one or the other and consequently, forcing him to be perceived in a limited way: “On all the covers of the Bantam Paperback editions, Bradbury is hailed as ‘the world’s greatest living science fiction writer.’ But this is to damn him with much praise, to grant international stature in a minor literary world.” (Slusser 3). The argument is made that to place limitations on the sort of creativity that Bradbury possesses is to cage a free bird, but that equally “to label him a ‘popular writer’, as recent academic studies have done, is just as surely to shelve him away.” (Slusser 3). The evidence for either science fiction or fantasy is vast in quantity and this makes it even harder to classify Bradbury, albeit an unnecessary act in the first place. In Fahrenheit 451, Bradbury discusses the future society with details such as “jet cars” (Bradbury 16) and how “He put his hand into the glove-hole of his front door and let it know his touch.” (Bradbury 17). These two references are symbolic of the science-fiction aspects of the novel, whilst more fantastical elements are its over-arching plot of a future society where books are banished. Bradbury, himself, is quick to agree that he uses more fantasy than science: in a 1996 interview, Bradbury states that “I use a scientific idea as a platform to leap into the air and never come back. This keeps them angry at me. They still begrudge me putting an atmosphere on Mars in The Martian Chronicles more than forty years ago.” (Aggelis & Bradbury xviii). Clearly, Bradbury views himself as more of a fantasy writer, although, as he says, he regularly uses science as a starting place for his work.
This is perhaps most clearly the case in The Martian Chronicles, written in 1950, and focusing on the idea of human beings attempting to colonise the planet Mars. The desire of humans to go forth and conquer new areas is something which is intrinsically characterised throughout history (the British Empire, the Roman Empire, and countless wars, to name but a few examples) and this undoubtedly would be the case should we ever find a way of exploring and inhabiting space in a more economic fashion, and The Martian Chronicles is symbolic of “fiction’s supposedly divided relationship with/to history.” (Hoagland et al. 10). This relationship is significant throughout Bradbury’s works: in Dandelion Wine, Bradbury’s semi-autobiographical work, he explores his own personal history through the eyes of Douglas Spaulding, a 12 year old boy. The book itself, whilst partly focusing on Bradbury’s childhood, also extensively discusses the history of small town America and its various idiosyncrasies. However, the attachment to fact and history becomes significantly less concrete in the novel Something Wicked This Way Comes: the story is a fantasy/horror novel focusing on events that happen to two boys after visiting a travelling carnival.
Bradbury’s novels often feature a number of common themes; the primary one of which involves the idea of the loss of innocence. This is particularly prevalent in Something Wicked This Way Comes and Dandelion Wine: in the former, the reader is introduced to two thirteen-year old boys, on the cusp of adulthood who are dealing with a supernatural situation. The novel raises two ideas concerning the worth of innocence: youth is more desirable than adulthood; the wisdom of old age is more desirable than youth. The prologue states: “And that was the October week when they grew up overnight, and were never so young anymore.” (Bradbury 1). Instantly, the reader is forced to reconcile themselves with the sub-text of the book being less about its supernatural happenings, but rather more about the effect of this on the central protagonists. This balance is key: the boys embark on a path which will ultimately lead them to adulthood and away from the fancy-free days of their childhood, but equally, both of the boys seem quite keen to grow up and lose their innocence – Jim more so than his friend, Will who seems to be quite a bit less emotionally aware than his friend: “Will watched, wondering why this woman was so happy and this man so sad.” His misunderstanding of this scene, early on in the book, signifies the presence of their innocence and helps to emphasise the loss as the book progresses. Whilst the boys are hurtling towards adulthood, other characters are desperately seeking a return to their childhood, by any means possible: “Mr Cooger’s face was melting like pink wax. His hands were becoming doll’s hands. His bones sank away beneath his clothes; his clothes shrank down to fit his dwindling frame…Mr Cooger, as simple as shadows, as simple as light, as simple as time, got younger. And younger. And younger.” (Bradbury 67) This refers to the discussion of Mr Cooger’s youthful regeneration, as witnessed by the boys. The concept of age and its various discrepancies are presented throughout the book: Will’s Dad is described as “always [seeming] stunned” when he saw his son, “as if they had met a lifetime ago and one had grown old while the other stayed young.” (Bradbury 9) Bradbury uses short snippets of ideas such as this to integrate the reader’s thinking with the theme of the novel. This is re-iterated a few pages later when Will’s Father is described as “Watching the boys vanish away, [he] suppressed a sudden urge to run with them” (Bradbury 12), and so the reader is, again, presented with the idea of an adult lamenting their childhood. This exploration of the reversal of age is pure fantasy; at some stage in our lives, everyone will wish they were younger again and in this novel, Bradbury explores that idea without a scientific basis; thus proving his immediate inclination towards fantasy.
Bradbury’s use of science in his novels is what has helped him to earn the title of ‘greatest living science fiction writer.’ His use of science as a ‘spring board’ for the rest of his novel is noticeable in a number of his works; perhaps most obviously in The Martian Chronicles: the novel is about the Earth colonisation of Mars and plays on the wholly American idea of galactic democracy (Hoagland et al. 10). This is Bradbury’s earliest work and demonstrates a succinct commentary on 1950’s society: “Bradbury’s sympathetic portrayal of the other, the doomed Martians in The Martian Chronicles is a solid example of how science fiction is frequently used as a space to challenge longstanding attitudes.” (Hoagland et al. 11). 1950’s American society was jaded and divided by class, race and gender: Bradbury’s presentation of the Martians as ‘the other’ is symbolic of the strife that societal minority groups felt at the time. Whilst on face value, The Martian Chronicles is a science fiction novel, it also ties in neatly with the message of ‘the other’ as presented by a large amount of postcolonial literature: the pursuit and ultimately the destruction of a culture that is different from a western-centric one. The planet, Mars, becomes a metaphor for ‘other cultures’ (Rabkin & Slusser 2) that may as well have been from out of space for all the western population could understand. Given that this is the first of Bradbury’s novels, it is clear that he is taking his stance from the society of the time, whilst also receiving an influence of the popular science fiction blend of the time.
The growth of Bradbury, as an author, is as one would expect: an incline in depth and talent, from his earlier works up to his more recent efforts. Farewell Summer, the sequel to Dandelion Wine, furthers the semi-autobiographical element by discussing the sexual awakening of Daniel Spaulding, who is the protagonist of the prequel too. Farewell Summer was published in 2006, some forty nine years after Dandelion Wine; it is unclear why the gap was this long but presumably it was because Bradbury felt that he was finally able to do such a subject its due. Indeed, his written style has progressed over the decades: “Mogen traces the changes in Bradbury’s fiction over the decades: moving from his science fiction and fantasy of the 1940s and early 1950s, to the “autobiographical fantasy of (fantastical autobiography)” of the later 1950s and 1960s, and on to mystery/detective novels in the 1980s and 1990s.” (Reid 14) Much like anyone with an invested interest in something, an author’s tastes are bound to progress and evolve with time and this is very much the case with Bradbury’s style and writing. Dandelion Wine is based loosely on Bradbury’s earlier childhood whereas Farewell Summer reflects on his adolescence and puberty: his growth as an author is directly echoed in the words of his own novels.
As his most iconic novel, Fahrenheit 451 is arguably his most complete novel and, perhaps, best reflects Bradbury’s individual style of writing. Its central question is one which addresses technology (and therefore, science) and its impact on man’s progression (Bloom & Hobby 73). It was first published in 1954 and was in excellent company at the time: Aldous Huxley, George Orwell and Anthony Burgess were all addressing the anti-utopian agenda at the time, through various novels, and Bradbury’s focus on the outlawing of books fits neatly in with this view of future human society as being controlled, heavily structured and severely lacking in human traits. The novel is characterised by Bradbury’s “evocative, lyrical style” (Bloom & Hobby 73) which helps to charge the novel’s momentum. Its science fiction based genre means that it is quickly linked to The Martian Chronicles but the two novels are distinctly different and reflect Bradbury’s authorial development too: “Less charming, perhaps, than The Martian Chronicles, Fahrenheit 451 is also less brittle.” (Bloom & Hobby 73). This discursive point is key to any analysis of Bradbury’s development. His earlier novel, The Martian Chronicles, appears quaint and “charming” in comparison to Fahrenheit 451, but ultimately the latter makes a stronger argument in relation to Bradbury’s view of society. In the space of just four years, Bradbury appears to have developed a much more aggressive style: it appears to be science fiction on a superficial level, but when the reader delves deeper, it works on a much more political and social-based degree.
Ray Bradbury is, unquestionably, one of the most well-known and iconic authors of the Twentieth Century. His works of fiction relate heavily to his view of the world and allow him to make succinct social comments, such as his discussion of ‘the other’ in The Martian Chronicles and his commentary of technology’s effect on society and the human race, as a whole, in Fahrenheit 451. Bradbury’s style evolves and arguably, it improves with age and this is demonstrated in the progression made during the relatively short space of time, between these two novels. His common themes relate heavily to the relevance of the era for each book: particularly in Something Wicked This Way Comes, a book written in 1962 – an era that echoed the novel’s loss of innocence through various wars, the advent of rock ‘n’ roll music, and the rise of Feminism. Along with Dandelion Wine and Farewell Summer (the other two books which made up the story-arc trilogy of Bradbury coming of age), the author’s own loss of innocence and lamentation for his lost youth is presented eloquently and entertainingly. Bradbury is an author who writes for the masses, about the masses, and with concern given to the state of that era and its society. His style adapts distinctly through his work and can be charted accordingly.
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