Trying to discern Bradbury’s influence on our literary and popular culture is akin to the cliché of asking a fish to describe water. We swim in a world of his making.
Bradbury’s fiction doesn’t defy genre categorization so much as ignore it completely. Fahrenheit 4 51 is only science fiction in as much as George Orwell’s 1984 is; The Martian Chronicles eschews SF trappings for social commentary.
His fiction, characterized by wonder and a childlike sense of play even at its darkest, was story in its purest form, and revelled in the unfettered potential of the imagination while rooted in the reality of human nature. Something Wicked This Way Comes, for example, roots the terror (and wonder) of a travelling carnival in the simultaneous celebration and subversion of a small-town Americana that may never have actually existed.
Reading Bradbury as an adult is a reminder of the power of storytelling, a force often lost in the capital-L Literary world.
Reading Bradbury as a child or a young adult, though, has the power to change lives.
Since its publication in 1953, Fahrenheit 451 has been both one of the most banned books and one of the most taught. The Martian Chronicles and Something Wicked This Way Comes, along with a dozen or so of his best stories, are also fixtures in school curriculums.
Read at an impressionable age, Bradbury’s stories explode in the mind. For those at all creatively inclined, the lessons from his fiction are clear: There is nothing you cannot do, no place your imagination cannot take you, and there are no rules.
Stephen King has acknowledged his debt to Bradbury explicitly, and you can see it in his fiction: his Castle Rock seems almost a deliberate homage to Bradbury’s Green Town, Ill., and that same small-town Americana, celebrated and subverted, is a recurring trope. Similarly, Neil Gaiman, creator of The Sandman comic and novels including Coraline and American Gods, cites Bradbury as an influence.
But these are obvious examples; Bradbury’s influence runs far deeper.
You can see it everywhere genres are flouted or ignored, as in Audrey Niffenegger’s The Time Traveler’s Wife and the novels of Andrew Pyper, or when a childlike wonder combines with an adult sensibility, as in Robert J. Sawyer’s The Quintaglio Ascension (dinosaurs were a delight for Bradbury) and W.P. Kinsella’s Shoeless Joe. Even in the capital-L Literary world, you can see that sense of freedom and limitless potential in the likes of Michael Chabon, Dave Eggers and Alice Hoffman.
An anthology to be published next month acknowledges this influence. Shadow Show: Stories in Celebration of Ray Bradbury, edited by Sam Weller and Mort Castle, includes stories and testimonials from many of those already mentioned, as well as the likes of Harlan Ellison, Joe Hill, Kelly Link and Margaret Atwood (whose Headlife is available at byliner.com).
The true measure of his influence, however, may be best observed not in the creators who follow in his footsteps but in the audience he created.
Having experienced Bradbury in their youth, readers and viewers instinctively hope for wonder in the art they consume, a hope too often disappointed with bland genre staples. When a book or movie or television series escapes from those conventions, though, the audience is there. Bradbury gave us all a taste for wonder, and when we find it – whether it is Lost or Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Doctor Who or Game of Thrones, the films of Charlie Kaufman or Spike Jonze – we recapture that feeling we might have thought lost to us, those moments of limitlessness, that we first encountered in the pages of Bradbury.
Posner: You’ve written about him elsewhere as well.
Yes. In Negotiating with the Dead [Atwood’s non-fiction book about writing], I have a couple of bits about Ray Bradbury. One is about The Martian and one is about Fahrenheit 451. He was particularly pleased with those because he felt earlier that he wasn’t being treated as a serious writer.
Posner: There are fantasy/sci-fi in your later work as well.
Some of it. Orwell’s 1984 came out just in time for me to see the lurid paperback of it. I have a piece in the current New Yorker about encountering a story about spider women who bite men in the neck.
Posner: Would you call him an influence?
You never know about influence. Where does this stuff come from? It’s really impossible to say, because it’s all so pervasive. Is it Ray Bradbury or Grimm’s Fairy Tales? Or was Ray Bradbury influenced by Grimm’s Fairy Tales?
Posner: What is it about his work that spoke to you?
That’s a literary question, but I’ve given you the clues. He’s in the line of American, non-realistic writers.
Posner: His output was prodigious.
He was of that generation that felt you should be able to make your living that way, and he did, because there was a market for it.
You could live off magazine fiction, especially if you changed your name often enough. He was a model for [the character] Alex in The Blind Assassin. He said he’d write a story a week and he did. Then, $25 actually bought you something – more than five lattes.
Posner: Your favourite Bradbury book?
Probably The Martian Chronicles. Read Hawthorne’s story Young Goodman Brown and then read Bradbury’s Martian Chronicles. The Stepford Wives? It’s all the same story. Look at American right now. What do you see?
Posner: I’ll let you answer that.
Everybody distrusts the neighbours, because you don’t know what they’re thinking or if they’re terrorists. That’s been going on since the 17th century and the Salem witch trials. Are they really a witch? It’s a deep undercurrent in American writing. Stephen King picks up on it too. Who are you really married to?
Posner: So he crops up a lot for you. That speaks volumes.
My opinion: I’m inspired reading about Ray Bradbury and Margaret Atwood. I have actually seen Atwood talk when I was in college. We were reading her book Oryx and Crake for English 101 class.