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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A Thing of Shining Beauty

I watched the International Space Station fly over again tonight.  As I scanned the western sky, she leaped out from behind Venus and arched over my house, a thing of shining beauty slipping between clouds, stars, and silhouettes of trees.  She passed from the muted blue of dusk through the gradient into night, and I smiled.  In her wake, I felt hope. I felt peace and inspiration, and the wonder that Ray Bradbury had awakened in me when I was a child.

Nature’s beauty is always there, but sometimes it takes a pinpoint of light to make me look.

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S is for Space Station

When I was a child, I used to read Ray Bradbury books like R is for Rocket and S is for Space, and I wondered what it would be like to look up and see spaceships streaking across the night sky.

Tonight, I stood with my family and watched the International Space Station move smoothly, purposefully across the early evening sky at over 17,500 miles per hour.  I pictured the Expedition 20 crew members as they went through their routines, putting another sunset behind them and preparing to welcome another sunrise in ninety minutes.

I love living in the future.

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Revisionist William Gibson

When I made yesterday’s entry, I intended to talk a bit about William Gibson‘s appearance at the Boulder Book Store last week. The reading took place in the large upstairs room of the store, which Gibson referred to as a “ballroom,” and the crowd had standing room only. I was fortunate enough to get there early since I work in Boulder, and I was rewarded with not only a good seat, but a low number for the book signing line.

Gibson read a chapter from his latest book, Pattern Recognition. Well, initially, I thought he was going to cough a chapter of it; something got hold of his throat and the water he drank to soothe it seemed to make the problem worse. Despite this, Gibson croaked on, and eventually he seemed to find his voice again. It was a bit surreal for a moment, more than a hundred of us sitting there silently listening to his amplified coughs reverberating through the store. I expected people to involuntarily clear their throats, but if anyone did, I didn’t hear it. There wasn’t much we could do, but it was an awkward moment in which I wanted to do something to help him, and didn’t.

The chapter was short, a bit shorter than the Q & A session afterward. I did manage to pose a question to him. The exchange went something like this (paraphrased, since I didn’t take notes):

SJ: You seem to have a talent for putting words together in unusual ways.  Are there any exercises you do to cultivate that talent?

WG:  Revision.  It’s all revision.  I write the drafts, then rework it until it’s right.  

That makes sense. Although I’m a big believer in revision, for some reason I continue to have the notion that Great Writers spew complete paragraphs forth, Zeus-like, from their heads. This personal myth is probably fueled by reports of Isaac Asimov and Ray Bradbury writing without revision, and surely, the more one writes, the easier it becomes to pre-form great sentences. But that’s no reason to expect that all successful writers write without revision; I’m glad Gibson reminded me that it’s not the case in his life. That makes me feel a little better about the level of his writing, too. It’s a bit more attainable now.

I haven’t read all of Pattern Recognition yet, but what I did read grabbed me. It’s Gibson’s first novel set in the present day, and it’s interesting how it still feels very much like a Gibson novel, despite the fact that no one has an input jack in his head and there are no major characters that are AIs. The evil international mega corporation backdrop is still there, but this time it takes the form of corporate branding á la Tommy Hilfiger. Heavy fragment use in writing, much like this sentence.

One notable difference is that September 11, 2001 plays a direct role in the development of the main character, Cayce Pollard. At his appearance, Gibson spoke at length about how he had completed 100 manuscript pages of the book before the attacks, and how the real world events utterly destroyed those pages of fiction. To be believable, Cayce Pollard had to be completely re-imagined as a result of the attacks, and the first 100 pages had to be re-written. He did so, and I think the revision contributed to the dark feel of the book. Reading this, I get the feeling it’s not such a big jump from Pattern Recognition to the shatterglass worlds of Neuromancer or Virtual Light.

I don’t know if that’s a good thing or not.

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Earlier, I wrote an e-mail to a friend (I hope I can call him that) about the death of Poul Anderson, the great science fiction writer who passed away late on July 31st, 2001.  It’s been many years since I read a Poul Anderson book, but I still have several on my bookshelves.

I described to my friend how, even though I had never met Poul, his passing seemed to weaken the infrastructure of science fiction.  There was suddenly another name on my bookshelf without a body to back it up.  While describing this, I realized that it wasn’t the infrastructure of science fiction that I was worried about, but my infrastructure.

I grew up reading science fiction and fantasy, starting with Heinlein’s Red Planet and moving on to Bradbury’s R is for Rocket and S is for Space.  I worked through much of the meager science fiction section (at that time, anyway) in the Durango Public Library and started combing the paperback exchange racks for likely books.  I remember one Christmas vacation during which I set a goal to read five of John Norman’s Gor books (yes, I read the schlock, too) and I set up a makeshift tent in my bedroom, complete with beanbag chair, lamp and coaster.  At that time, books were my inspiration.

Now, I have large, double-sided bookshelves in three rooms, filled with all kinds of books, but mostly science fiction.  Though most of them simply sit there, holding each other up, they act as a buttress for my life.  My wife will tell you that I can think of a story or passage, go to a shelf, and pull the book right down.  If I lose track of an important one, I try to keep from panicking until I remember what happened to it or who I loaned it to.  As material items, they are probably not worth much.  As a structure for my life, they are priceless.  As each author passes away, especially from the the Golden Age of science fiction, my world shudders a little.  I still think of the books as my inspiration, but somehow my focus has shifted over the years from the magic in the books to the memory of that magic.  The books themselves are symbols for that memory, and symbols of their authors.

I can’t help but wonder if I’m placing too much importance on these symbols of living people.  My favorite authors will all die someday; a few have come close already, others have already gone.  Should I allow their passing to shake my world so much?

As I think about it, that path leads to despair.  Am I lashing my inspiration to the heartbeats of my favorite authors, using their works as symbols of their lives?  If so, that’s wrong.  An author’s work is a legacy, but it is not the sum total of his or her life, and the work can continue to be inspirational long after the author is gone.  Using their books as  my inspiration for writing is missing the point.

I know that I have more respect for the authors than that, and I know that I can draw inspiration from long dead writers, as I did in my poem “To Keats”, elsewhere on this site.  Yes, the books are important, and I should continue to value them.  But the words are the heart of the matter.  Those books on my shelves are for appreciation, not inspiration.  As I’ve heard “real” writers say, inspiration is everywhere.  I need to get back to focusing on the magic books give me, and look to the world for my ideas.

I guess there’s only one cure for that.  I’d better get to reading again, and I’d better start observing things a little more closely.

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