The day began with email from a former student and long time friend. It was short and to the point, but he knew it would speak volumes to me.
“RIP Ray Bradbury. Shitty day.”
After a quick search I learned that…I find it hard to even write it…Ray Bradbury died last night.
The world is a darker place for me today.
Though I never had the great good fortune or privilege to meet him, at the opening of each new school year when I begin Fahrenheit 451 with my honors classes or earlier in my teaching career—The Martian Chronicles with my sophomores, I always feel as if I am hosting the annual visit of a dear old friend and mentor.
During my first years of teaching English, The Martian Chronicles was a unit I always looked forward to exploring and re-exploring with my students. I began teaching in the early 90s and I always got a kick out of my students’ reaction to the titles of the compilation’s loosely related Martian tales. They would predictably chuckle at the dates—“January 1999—Rocket Summer” and “February 1999—Ylla” and so on and so forth as Bradbury proceeded to describe a technology that was to him at the time he penned the tale cutting edge and exotic but to my 16-year olds, who considered Star Wars a relic of their elementary school days (and later their parents’ era), archaic, rather quaint and therefore funny.
That was fine however, because it was my entry-point to a discussion of how science fiction had influenced our society and our lives. When they understood that the master writer had penned his opening tale in 1947, two years after the end of WWII and Hitler’s V2 rockets, ten years prior to Sputnik I and more than 20 years before Armstrong and Aldrin walked on the Moon, their amusement always turned to curiosity if not outright respect. Thus, would begin an exploration of Bradbury’s Verne-ian vision, his prosaic turn of phrase, his mastery of description, his social insight that would culminate in our own imaginary exploration and colonization of Mars. I still have some of the work produced by students who, as we imagined setting up our own outpost of humanity on Mars, were forced to deal with the same challenges, moral dilemmas and ethical conundrums as faced by Bradbury’s protagonists. We set up pretend societies and developed faux cultures, exotic alphabets, New Martian laws and institutions. One year a class accused another class’s colony of “war-crimes” against the indigenous Martian population. Another year and a student imagined the political campaign of a New Martian faction that advocated succession from a Terra Ferma that, as she passionately put it, “…burned books, polluted the air and oceans and refused to learn the lessons of its history.” I think Spender would have been pleased.
I look back on those days with great fondness. Bradbury, though in his 70s, was alive and writing, his literary ideas and intellectual challenges resonated with my students (as they will forever). I was younger and full of an idealism that seemed to feed off his writing. It was a glorious time. My copy of the Chronicles was a 1963 edition published by Time Inc. It included stories that later editions would not have: “The Fire Balloons,” “The Wilderness,” and the provoking “The Way in the Middle of the Air,” which would later in the year dovetailed so splendidly with To Kill a Mockingbird. I understand that a The Martian Chronicles: The Complete Edition has since been published with a section entitled “The Other Martian Tales” which includes 22 additional stories, some unpublished. I hope to read them one day.
I mourn his passing as a member of his extended literary family of would-be writers who took inspiration from his example, his extraordinary voice and wonderful visions. His Zen in the Art of Writing was my constant bedside companion for many years. My copy is marked, highlighted and underlined chronicling my own search for a Muse worth writing for. I regret never having heard him speak. Not long ago there was a writers’ conference in southern California wherein he spoke at a dinner event. Though tempted I decided against attending due to the price, time and distance. How deeply I repent that decision now. I’d always hoped to tell him, in some way or another, of his influence on both my teaching and my writing aspirations. I should have at least written. I would have loved to had him sign my copy of The Martian Chronicles; it would have become a family-treasure! As it is, I’ll have to settle with this small tribute, re-reading his works and searching out digital recordings on the Internet. Take a lesson, Andre’ :-T
His passing reminds me that time waits for no one and that the end of an epoch approaches. Only a few of the writers who made serious inroads into my heart and mind during that magical time when the young truly “discover” reading what they want to read as a unique and singularly powerful and empowering privilege, still remain alive: Larry Niven, Jerry Pournelle, Michael Moorcock and Jack Vance—authors who along with Clark, Asimov, Heinlein, Herbert, Tolkien, Zelazny, Norton, Lewis and Leiber (themselves the prodigy of Howard, Lovecraft, Burroughs and the like) will forever stand tall in my dreams, all my “Writing” fore-bearers, grand parents, aunts and uncles.
I will never leave such a literary foot print as Bradbury, to whom I owe so much for my teaching, as well as writing, inspiration, but if I plan to leave any literary mark at all, be the writing-son I want to be, I must release my doubts, put away my apprehensions; I must damn the naysayers who tout “…too late…too old…too overdone…too cliché…too quaint…too passé…” I must, as the master put it, order my doubts to, …stand aside, forget targets, let the characters, your fingers, body, blood, and heart do (Zen 139). I am thankfully reminded of his poem Troy…a gift wherein I have always found comfort and inspiration. I hope I will be forgiven if I quote it in full here.
My Troy was there, of course,
Though people said: Not so.
Blind Homer’s dead. His ancient myth’s
No way to go. Leave off. Don’t dig.
But I then rigged some means whereby
To seam my earthen soul
I knew my Troy.
Folks warned this boy it was mere tale
And nothing more.
I bore their warning, with a smile,
While all the while my spade
Was delving Homer’s gardened sun and shade.
Gods! Never mind! Cried friends: Dumb Homer’s blind!
How can he show you ruins that n’er were?
I’m sure, I said. He speaks. I hear. I’m sure.
Their advice spurned
I dug when all their backs were turned,
For I had learned when I was eight:
Doom was my Fate, they said. The world would end!
That day I panicked, thought it true,
That you and I and they
Would never see the light of the next day—
Yet that day came.
With shame I saw it come, recalled my doubt
And wondered what those Doomsters were about?
From that day on I kept a private joy,
And did not let them sense
My buried Troy;
For if they had, what scorns,
I sealed my City deep
From all those folks;
And, growing, dug each day. What did I find
And given as gift by Homer old and Homer blind?
One Troy? No, ten!
Ten Troys? No, two times ten! Three dozen!
And each a richer, finer, brighter cousin!
And in my flesh and blood,
And each one true.
So what’s this mean?
Go dig the Troy in you(150-1)!
Good-bye, my Writing-sire, and though, as you quoted Byron in “June 2001—And The Moon Be Still As Bright,” …we’ll go no more a-roving,/So late into the night, I will continue to dig for my Troy, my Tanelorn, my Camelot…my own Martian city wherein the denizens celebrate exotic festivals and, “There are beautiful boats as slim as women, beautiful women as slim as boats, women the color of sand, women with fire flowers in their hands…” (Martian 107), long wine-filled canals, towers of bone and crystal, with “…great friezes of beautiful animals, white limbed cat things, and yellow-limbed sun symbols, and statues of bull-like creatures and statues of men and women and huge fine-featured dogs”(85). I will dig and succeed to whatever measure and in whatever form Fate and my Muse and my Desire see fit to afford for me. Thank you, thank you, thank you for your words, your visions and your inspirations, my writing-father. Because of you, the moon will forever be as bright and Mars as real as the moon.
So, we’ll go no more a-roving
So late into the night,
Though the heart be still as loving,
And the moon be still as bright.
For the sword outwears its sheath
And the soul wears out the breast,
And the heart must pause to breathe,
And love itself have rest.
Though the night was made for loving,
And the day returns too soon,
Yet we’ll go no more a-roving
By the light of the moon.
–Lord Byron, 1817
Bradbury, Ray. The Martian Chronicles. New York: Time Inc., 1963.
Bradbury, Ray. Zen In the Art of Writing. New York: Bantam Books, 1990.