On the Death of Ray Bradbury

When NPR first announced their “This I Believe” series, I jumped at the chance to show the world why an early introduction to science fiction was essential to my creative development. My essay wasn’t picked for broadcast, but it is archived on their site, along with all the others that didn’t make the cut.

With the passing today of Ray Bradbury, I’ve decided to reprint that essay on my website, because Bradbury and Heinlein were my primary introductions to science fiction.  Bradbury was especially important to me because my favorite form of writing is the short story, and he was a master of that form.

 

I don’t remember which one I saw first. It was either Bradbury’s R is for Rocket or Heinlein’s Red Planet, but the sequence doesn’t really matter. What matters is that I took them both home from the public library and read them, sitting on my brown beanbag throne, flanked by tidy bookshelves like Centurion guards. In that space I discovered the alternate worlds of “A Sound of Thunder”, “The Foghorn” and Willis, the Martian roundhead, and I was hooked on science fiction.

Later, I stalked the arid dunes of Arrakis with blue-eyed Paul Atreides and cried when I learned that Ellison’s Jeffty was still five, and had never lost his Captain Midnight Decoder Ring. Science fiction crossed over into fantasy and I found myself lost in Mordor with Frodo and Sam, then combing the treasure room of Atuan with Ged, seeking to restore the ring of Erreth-Akbe, and with it, worldly balance. And Thomas Covenant, unwilling tutor that he was, reminded me that the real world was of prime importance, and that I was lucky to be in it.

When Dungeons and Dragons came along in the late 1970s, my friends and I were naturally hooked, and spent every Sunday afternoon in the library’s basement conference room, crawling through each other’s imaginations, solving puzzles and laughing at our own absurdity, bundles of creativity wrapped in cloaks of innocence.

Now, I’m nearing middle age. The marathon D&D sessions have morphed into occasional afternoon strategy games with the same lifelong friends. Books (when they aren’t in boxes) don’t come off the shelves nearly enough, and I seem to need more sleep than I ever did when I was younger. But the sparks of creativity and imagination that burst into life with Bradbury’s Rocket still smolder. Occasionally one will ignite and float skyward with the completion of a poem or short story. A flurry might crackle and spit into being while I play guitar with my band. More sparks glow when I read a sonnet to the woman I love, asking her to marry me beside a high country lake.

I believe that creativity is vital to the soul. It connects us to others in ways we don’t expect or understand. It builds self-confidence and teaches us to find solutions to problems no one can predict. It helps us to explore other worlds, mindsets, and cultural ideas. And in the visual and musical arts, creativity helps us express that which has no words.

If not for the sparks of wonder that I found in the Bradburys and Heinleins of the world, I might never have known what it’s like to feel the joys of creativity and imagination. I might have never learned to play guitar, or to appreciate the poetry of Gerard Manley Hopkins. I might have never gazed at the Milky Way above timberline and wondered who else was Out There.

And, worst of all, I might never have known the importance of Captain Midnight Decoder Rings.

Originally appeared on NPR’s “This I Believe” website, dated June 14, 2005

Godspeed, Ray Bradbury. Enjoy your train ride to the afterlife, because I know you won’t take a plane.

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Garage Sales & Source Enlightenment

Today I picked up a bunch of great books at a garage sale, including another copy of Ellison’s Angry Candy, Datlow’s Alien Sex anthology, several issues of Glimmer Train, a Leslie Marmon Silko book, the screenplay and director’s journal for Darren Aronofsky’s p(Pi), and Philip Toshio Sudo’s Zen Sex, the companion volume to Zen Guitar, which I reviewed on this website. My friend Dave also went to that garage sale, and purchased The Collected Stories of Philip K. Dick, Volume I. I saw him walking down the sidewalk, and asked if they had anything good at the sale.

“They did. But it’s yours, now. Happy early birthday present.” He handed me the book.

Thanks, Dave. 🙂

In the afternoon, I watched the Broncos-Rams game, glad to see that Brian Griese pulled through for the team. I get sick of the media hounding him, and it was nice to see him prove — again — that he’s a world class quarterback. During the game, I told my wife that I was going to either write or critique stories tonight, and that’s exactly what I did, after losing a close game of Literati to her. I beat her sister, though. (It’s strange to play a game over the Internet with someone who’s in the next room, but by doing so, we were also able to play with her sister in Phoenix. Pretty cool!)

I worked on “Chesterfield Gray,” getting into the swing of it by revising the three pages I had written before. I then continued for another page and a half, fact-checking WWII on the Internet as I went. I still didn’t know where the story was going, or why a WWII story was coming out, but I made a passing reference to Kamikaze attacks, and started exploring the main male character to see what made him tick. I decided that he had seen real death, and it had affected him deeply, and got to wondering which battles would be the most likely for him to have been in. I wanted it to be a battle where ships were known to have been directly hit by Kamikaze pilots, and the only ship that I knew off the top of my head had been hit was the U.S.S. Saratoga. She was badly damaged near Iwo Jima in 1945, with seven direct hits by Japanese aircraft. Three of those direct hits were Kamikaze strikes.

I know this because I dug out the obituary for my Uncle Wayne Johnson, who passed away in July. He was on the Saratoga on February 21, 1945, and was one deck below a direct Kamikaze hit. He spent the next ten days in a Hawaiian hospital, getting a glass eye and reconstructive surgery.

As I was reading the obituary, it hit me why I am writing this story. It’s my way of grieving for and paying tribute to my Uncle Wayne. Of course, the events in the story will only be tangential to his life, but I understand now why the story is coming out of me. I have a direction, now, and I can work on shaping the story into something worthy of his memory.

Wayne (sitting) and Lyle Johnson, brothers.  Cutter, New Mexico, March 2002
Photo © Stace Johnson, all rights reserved.

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Angry Candy

Angry Candy

By: Harlan Ellison

Type: Short story collection

Setting: Various

Description:

Angry Candy is a typically thorny collection of roses from the garden at Ellison Wonderland. Ellison discovered, while putting this book together in the mid-eighties, that all of the stories dealt in some way with death. He traced this back to the fact that many of his friends and acquaintances died over a short period of time, and his bitterness and anger was manifesting itself in the form of these writings. 

Comments:

Many of the stories in Angry Candy are typically shocking: “Broken Glass,” “Soft Monkey” and “Quicktime” use sex, violence, bigotry and selfishness to wake us up. “Chained to the Fast Lane in the Red Queen’s Race” and “The Region Between” feature non-standard storylines and, in the case of the latter, a non-standard interface to the story. Other stories, like “Paladin of the Lost Hour” or “Laugh Track” touch us in the center of our humanity. Ellison has never been afraid to stretch the boundaries of the acceptable, and the thematic subject matter of this book makes for excellent stretching.

Something in “Paladin” set off a round of soul searching in me, and by the time I finished reading the story, I was in tears. I remained on the edge of crying for several days. When a short story can do that, I consider it pretty damn good. I rank “Paladin” up there with classic Ellison stories like “Jeffty Is Five” and “One Life, Furnished In Early Poverty.”

For this reason, it is a good idea NOT to read Ellison books straight through in one sitting. First of all, it can cause a mental overload because his writing style is unbelievably succinct. He draws from a wide range of metaphors and knowledge to create unique combinations and images. Simply absorbing those combinations and marvelling at how well they enhance his storyline is enough to keep your brain busy. Then there’s the emotional overload. I cried during and after “Paladin” because the writing struck a chord in my heart that triggered an emotional release. Much of Ellison’s material is emotionally charged. Combine this emotional content with the nearly constant stream of mental images and you begin to see why it is best to take Ellison in doses of only a couple of short stories a day. 

Recommendations:

Read this book. Period. If you can’t handle some of the squeamish stuff, skip it and read on. You will find something to like about this book unless you are so straight-laced that you can’t see past your own blinders. (If this is the case, that’s an even greater reason to read Ellison!)

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