The Middlebrow

Ray Bradbury, Pulp God

The fabulist of the Space Age was half doomsday prophet, half man-child.

Illustration by Charlie Powell.

Illustration by Charlie Powell.

Science-fiction great Ray Bradbury died Tuesday night in California at the age of 91. He was renowned for his short stories as well as for the dystopian novel Fahrenheit 451, which cast readers into a Cold War-inspired future of paranoid book burning. Back in 2005, Bryan Curtis argued that, despite his high-literary laurels, Bradbury truly belonged to the world of pulp fiction. The original piece is printed below.

Ray Bradbury has been dusted with so much glory lately that it’s high time his reputation got a good sullying. A generous biography published in April prompted a round of tributes to Bradbury as a “literary icon” (the Los Angeles Times) and the sci-fi author of his generation “who could really write” (the New York Times). Last November, he received the National Medal of Arts at the White House. His novel Fahrenheit 451 remains a staple of middle-school English classes. So now that Bradbury has officially been accepted into the halls of Literature, can we lesser life forms please have him back? To these eyes, many of Bradbury’s most garishly “literary” achievements are his least impressive. When the McCarthyite gloom of Fahrenheit 451 fades, it’s the pulpy, childlike terrors that stick. Bradbury nudging characters into his ingenious hells; Bradbury the fabulist of the Space Age (morals in 10 pages or less!); Bradbury the dinosaur nut who confessed an urge to “run and live” among giant reptiles. Cut the lights and cue the theremin. Ray Bradbury belongs to pulp.

Luckily, here comes a movie adaptation (by director Peter Hyams) of one of Bradbury’s most ingenious parables, “A Sound of Thunder.” The plot, much copied and parodied: Man hurtles back in a time machine, smooshes a butterfly, and sets off an evolutionary thunderstorm that turns the present into a police-state dystopia. Hyams’ adaptation is mostly sodden, but anyone who re-reads “A Sound of Thunder” will find Bradbury at his hammy best, a pulp god at full power.

Writing nonstop since his Waukegan, Ill., boyhood, Bradbury plied his trade in the 1940s mostly at pulps like Weird Tales and Dime Detective. (He managed to place a story in the New Yorker in 1947—his only appearance in the magazine.) It wasn’t until 1950, with his novel The Martian Chronicles, that Bradbury experienced the career-altering moment that genre writers yearn for—the moment when a literary eminence from one of the slicks declares, “This man is one of Us.” For Harlan Ellison, the benediction came from Dorothy Parker. For Bradbury it came from Christopher Isherwood, the British gadfly whose years spent in Weimar Germany gave him a soft spot for extraterrestrial life. Bradbury bumped into Isherwood at a Santa Monica, Calif., bookshop and pressed a copy of The Martian Chronicles into his hands. Isherwood later praised the book for its “sheer lift and power of a truly original imagination.” Of Bradbury’s technical prowess, he noted, “His interest in machines seems to be limited to their symbolic and aesthetic aspects. I doubt if he could pilot a rocket ship, much less design one.”

Thus goes the familiar rap on Bradbury: Writes great stuff. Doesn’t know a lick about science. Indeed, “A Sound of Thunder” finds Bradbury at his most scientifically indifferent. A big-game hunter named Eckels arrives at an outfit called Time Safari, Inc. and discovers the safari involves a time machine that transports hunters back to the days of dinosaurs. With such a glorious premise, a writer like Arthur C. Clarke would have rifled through the technical journals and unleashed a blitz of pseudoscience—dazzling the reader into believing in the impossible. For Bradbury, the time machine is just a nifty plot device: “a snaking and humming of wires and steel boxes … an aurora that flickered now orange, now silver, now blue.”

Eckels is hurtled back to a primeval jungle to bag the biggest of game, the Tyrannosaurus rex, with the added charge that he must not disturb any other part of the natural world, lest he upset the delicate time-space continuum. It’s here, with dinosaurs on the prowl, that Bradbury’s pulp juices begin to flow. You can sense the extinct creature touching Bradbury in a way that humans or machines never will. Not only does his mood improve, but so does his writing:

It came on great oiled, resilient, striding legs. It towered thirty feet above half of the trees, a great evil god, folding its delicate watchmaker’s claws close to its oily reptilian chest. Each lower leg was a piston, a thousand pounds of white bone, sunk in thick ropes of muscle, sheathed over in a gleam of pebbled skin like the mail of a terrible warrior. Each thigh was a ton of meat, ivory, and steel mesh. And from the great breathing cage of the upper body, those two delicate arms dangled out front, arms with hands which might pick up and examine men like toys, while the snake neck coiled.

Those hips, those thighs! None of Bradbury’s humans were ever the recipients of a metaphor as delightful as “watchmaker’s claws.” All the business about time travel fades away and the slender purpose of Bradbury’s story become clear: “Get me a dinosaur!” Given a similar imperative, Michael Crichton turned to prolix theories of bugs-in-amber and XX chromosomes; Bradbury got the same effect in a lean 10 pages. You can see why the literary establishment is tempted to claim Bradbury as one of its own. And yet that precise, almost tender evocation of a dinosaur could only have been written by a man-child—one raised on Edgar Rice Burroughs and Buck Rogers, one for whom creating a terrifying beast is a literary end in and of itself.

“A Sound of Thunder” derives its deeper effects from Bradbury’s distinctive combination of boyish wonder and preoccupation with the violence of the adult world. Spooked by the Tyrannosaurus, Eckels panics and steps on a butterfly, setting off ripples in time. Returning to the present, he discovers that the presidential election has been won by a Teutonic militarist named Deutscher; Time Safari’s signage has been rendered into phonetic Germano-English (“Wee taek yu thair”). Bradbury’s fear of an American Reich is the product of a particularly paranoid historical moment, one Philip Roth returned to in The Plot Against America. So are Bradbury’s gloomy warnings about technology, but they’re worth pausing over for what they illuminate about Bradbury’s unusual career.

It would be a profound understatement to call Bradbury a technophobe. He is a technocrank—eager to share his unhappiness about inventions new and old. For sci-fi adherents, this has made Bradbury into something of a strange apostle. In years past, Bradbury has fulminated against automobiles, telephones, and TV sets; more recent targets include ATMs, the Internet, and personal computers. (“A computer is a typewriter,” he told Salon in 2001. “I have two typewriters, I don’t need another one.”) And yet, at the same instant, Bradbury is an exuberant fan of NASA and has proclaimed more than once that mankind should start colonizing Mars. There is a strange disconnect within a man who would live on the Red Planet but insist on in-person banking.

The critic Gary K. Wolfe suggests that Bradbury is a classic late-adapter: someone who fears technology but gives in when he sees it as a force for good. I think Bradbury’s technophobia is slightly more complicated. It emerges from what you might call stunted futurism. Bradbury’s worldview is unduly shaped by his Illinois boyhood—when he read Burroughs and Jules Verne and dreamed the dreams specific to 1930s sci-fi: missions to Mars, time machines, etc. When technology follows Burroughs and Buck Rogers, as with the space program, Bradbury rushes to embrace it. When technology veers off in an unforeseen direction, as with the Internet, he reverts to a defensive crouch—a Cold War worldview in which inventions can become, as he once put it, “paranoiacally dangerous devices.” He is at once a boyish enthusiast and prophet of doom. “I don’t try to predict the future,” he has remarked, “I try to prevent it.”

Bradbury has a similar ambivalence for his pulp roots, which he is happy to defend until they cost him literary prestige. In 1953, he published a ringing endorsement of science fiction in The Nation: “[T]here are few more exciting genres; there are none fresher or so full of continually renewed and renewable concepts.” At the same moment, according to Sam Weller’s The Bradbury Chronicles, he was pleading with his New York publisher to remove the words “science fiction” from the cover of his books, fearing it would cost him reviews in tony magazines.