Ray Bradbury, perhaps America’s most popular and prolific short-story writer, turns ninety on Sunday. As a twentysomething wannabe writer in the 1940s, Bradbury cared too much about what critics thought of him. As he approaches his tenth decade, Bradbury clearly could not care any less.
“I think our country is in need of a revolution,” Bradbury told the Los Angeles Times earlier this week. “There is too much government today. We’ve got to remember the government should be by the people, of the people and for the people.” Bradbury’s short-story broadsides against modern gadgets, the all-intrusive state, and political correctness foreshadowed his current outlook. Calling Bill Clinton a “sh–head” and Michael Moore an “a–hole” have been less subtle indications.
Cell phones, virtual reality, and the Walkman lived in Bradbury’s science fiction before they became our science fact. But where he has proven a true prophet is in his cautionary tales about parenthood by proxy. In “Zero Hour” (1947), parents, happy to have their kids out of their hair, reap what they sow when their out-of-site-out-of-mind children aid and abet an alien invasion. In “The Veldt” (1950), a couple farms out their parental duties to a nursery that projects the imagination of the children onto three-dimensional walls. When the parents seek to shut off the hi-tech playroom, the children imagine their parents dead — a wish their African Veldt fantasyland enthusiastically grants. The “nothing’s too good for our children” refrain of the parents in “The Veldt” foreshadowed the generational rebellion of the following decade that witnessed spoiled kids turning on befuddled parents.
As with the god technology, Bradbury plays apostate to the omniscient state. The state criminalizes night strolls in “The Pedestrian” (1951), erases the past in “To the Chicago Abyss” (1963), conscripts for perpetual nuclear war in “To the Future” (1950), and burns books in Fahrenheit 451 (1953). Compounding Bradbury’s sins against state and science is his love for small-town America, immortalized in the books Dandelion Wine (1957) and Something Wicked This Way Comes (1962). Nothing could appear more uncouth to the hipsters and urban denizens reviewing his books than a writer wanting to return to, rather than escape from, his hometown.
Before Bradbury’s political epiphany transformed the World War II pacifist and Cold War anti-McCarthyite into a stalwart Republican, Russell Kirk picked up on the storyteller’s abilities to impart moral truths through parables. Arguing in the late 1960s that Bradbury should wear the literati’s scorn as a mark of honor, Kirk explained that critics “perceived that Bradbury is a moralist, which they could not abide; that he has no truck with the obscene, which omission they found unpardonable; that he is no complacent liberal, because he knows the Spirit of the Age to be monstrous — for which let him be anathema; that he is one of the last surviving masters of eloquence and glowing description, which ought to be prohibited; that, with Pascal, he understands how the Heart has reasons which the Reason cannot know — so to the Logicalist lamp-post with him.”
But the literati were not always dismissive of the man Time magazine dubbed “the poet of the pulps.” When Bradbury flattered their ideology, or allowed them to project their politics upon his stories, they lavished praise upon him. Bradbury’s only story accepted among what he claims were hundreds submitted to the New Yorker is a certifiably substandard effort about the deportation of an illegal alien. It is a glaring peculiarity that of his four stories honored by inclusion in the annual Best American Short Stories anthology, one chronicles a black versus white baseball game in which sore loser whites quit, another explores an African-American-populated Mars faced with imposing Jim Crow laws on white settlers, and yet another is the aforementioned tale of the deported Mexican. It was as if the bard of tattooed carnies, Martian ghost towns, and endless summer vacations merited recognition only for the tiny fraction of his oeuvre addressing hot-button issues. Bizarre.
One suspects that Bradbury knew of what he wrote when he reflected in a coda to Fahrenheit 451, “For it is a mad world and it will get madder if we allow the minorities, be they dwarf or giant… pro-computerologist or Neo-Luddite, simpleton or sage, to interfere with aesthetics.” The special interests rewarding “art as a weapon,” and rejecting “art for art’s sake,” pose a greater threat to freedom of thought than any mythical book burner.
Though his writings occasionally carry political overtones, Bradbury has never been a particularly political writer. But the Coors-drinking, Fox News-watching nonagenarian has been a politically outspoken citizen as of late. For critics whose political prejudices pass for aesthetic tastes, his recent outspokenness may have knocked him down a few rungs in their jaundiced eyes — just as his few postwar racially-themed stories may have once elevated him. But for readers in pursuit of a good short story, Bradbury’s politics don’t impede them from finding just that.