Ray Bradbury essentials to reread, or read for the first time
There's simply not enough time to read Ray Bradbury's entire body of work (even if you don't have a fireman with a flamethrower banging on your door), so why not zero in on some of the books that stunned audiences and laid the foundation of his fame? Here are a few suggestions:
"The Martian Chronicles" (1950): Bradbury was a young, hungry writer with stories appearing in various magazines when he published this novelistically arranged collection of stories. The red planet fascinated Bradbury, but this book isn't a fantasy in the same fashion as Edgar Rice Burroughs' adventures of John Carter. The notion of colonizing Mars was less inspired by wild speculation than by the bleak cloud of nuclear war hanging over the world in the years when the stories were written and the book was published. Building a new human civilization on Mars is certainly an appealing notion when the old one on Earth seems on the brink of destruction. There are plenty of fascinating stories here to lose yourself in, but one of the most shuddering is "There Will Come Soft Rains," in which Bradbury takes readers into an automated house on Earth that continues with its numerous, daily routines even though the family isn't there to enjoy them. What happened to them? They were vaporized in an atomic blast.
"Fahrenheit 451" (1953): Bradbury moved from colonizing Mars to contemplating a bleak future society in which book-burning is almost as American as Mom and apple pie. Readers follow one of these burners, the "fireman" Guy Montag, as Bradbury peels back the layers of a society in which movies and TV (and a tendency toward reality TV-like hype) are welcomed by the public and books are greeted with contempt and suspicion by all but a few. The book's tone is somber and desperate, strange and surreal, and its focus upon the issue of censorship is impossible to avoid. Still, there are many other less-considered aspects to relish and that celebrate Bradbury's incredible imagination. Take, for instance, an unusual group of book burners whom we encounter later in the story: Yes, they do burn books to avoid punishment, but before they do, they memorize the books' entire content! And to think -- it was all tapped out in a basement at UCLA. Thank goodness for that typewriter.
"Something Wicked This Way Comes" (1962): It all begins with a stirring of leaves and an approaching storm. The device of a sinister carnival has been used by many writers -- as recently as Erin Morgenstern for her bestseller "The Night Circus" -- but Bradbury deserves the patent for this tale of a supernatural showdown set under the big top. Here readers meet the carnival's terrifying leader, Mr. Dark, who offers reclaimed youth to visitors (not always a good thing) and who wants more from Will and Jim, two Midwestern boys, than just the cost of a carnival admission ticket. It's Will's father who finally battles to stop Mr. Dark's shadowy plans, and his supreme weapon is one of the oldest ones on Earth: Nothing can withstand love's power. If you've read this fantastic story and still find yourself attracted to odd traveling carnivals, just remember: If something evil happens, you have only yourself to blame. Ray Bradbury tried to warn you.
There are so many others -- among them "Dandelion Wine" and "The Illustrated Man" -- but this is just a start. Bradbury will be sorely missed.
-- Nick Owchar
Photo: Jacket art for Bradbury's novels. Credit: HarperCollins Publishers.