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Ray Bradbury, Prolific Science Fiction Writer, Dies at 91

Ray Bradbury, Prolific Science Fiction Writer
Ray Bradbury attends an event honoring the author with a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame in Hollywood on April 1, 2002. Photographer: Vince Bucci/Getty Images

Ray Bradbury, the prolific science fiction and fantasy writer who mixed social commentary with warnings about modern technology’s dark side in short stories and novels such as “Fahrenheit 451,” has died. He was 91.

He died yesterday, the Associated Press reported, citing his daughter, Alexandra Bradbury, who didn’t have additional details. He lived in the Cheviot Hills neighborhood of Los Angeles.

Bradbury’s love for writing transcended form and genre, resulting in more than 500 published works ranging from novels such as “Something Wicked This Way Comes” (1962) to poems, screenplays and short stories that were compiled into collections, including “The Martian Chronicles” (1950) and “The Illustrated Man” (1951).

Bradbury was perhaps best known for “Fahrenheit 451,” a stark depiction of a dystopian future in which a totalitarian society censors its citizens and firefighters torch books. The title refers to the temperature at which paper burns.

Published in 1953, the book is now taught in schools as a companion to another modern classic that depicts the dangers of totalitarianism, George Orwell’s “1984.” Bradbury himself insisted that while his novel had political implications, his primary concern was propagating critical thought.

“I wasn’t trying to predict the future,” he told the Wall Street Journal in 2003. “I was trying to prevent it.”

First Book

Bradbury’s writing sometimes frustrated his science-fiction contemporaries, who said his visions of the future were based on fantasy, not grounded in fact. His first book, “The Martian Chronicles,” took the liberty of adding an atmosphere to Mars where scientists had already discovered that none exists.

Bradbury was awarded the National Medal of Arts from President George W. Bush in 2004. He also received the National Book Foundation Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters, the O. Henry Prize for short stories of exceptional merit and a special distinguished-career citation from the Pulitzer Prize board in 2007.

He also had an asteroid named after him, and received a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.

Ray Douglas Bradbury was born in Waukegan, Illinois, on Aug. 22, 1920, to Leonard Spaulding Bradbury and Esther Marie Moberg Bradbury.

His older brother and younger sister both died of the flu when the family was living in Illinois, sparing only Bradbury and another brother.

Performing Magic

The family was hit hard by the Depression. Leonard, a telephone technician, moved the family between Waukegan and Tucson, Arizona, looking for work while Bradbury escaped reality by practicing magic.

“I had decided to be a magician well before I decided to be a writer,” he said in a 1996 interview with Playboy magazine. “I was the little boy who would get up onstage and do magic wearing a fake mustache, which would fall off during the performance. I’m still trying to perform those tricks. Now I do it with writing.”

A carnival magician named Mr. Electrico singled out an 11-year-old Bradbury at a show, knighting him with the pronouncement, “Live Forever!”

“I decided that was the greatest idea I had ever heard,” Bradbury later told his biographer, Garyn Roberts, a professor at Northwestern Michigan College in Traverse City.

After that, he made a lifelong habit of writing every day. The carnival theme would later resurface in sinister form in “Something Wicked This Way Comes.”

Move West

Bradbury’s young life changed dramatically when, with only $40 in his pocket, his father moved the family to Los Angeles to seek work. The small-town boy from Illinois was star-struck.

“I skated all over town, hell-bent on getting autographs from glamorous stars,” he told Playboy. “It was glorious.”

With voracious appetites for cinema, he and his mother saw 10 to 12 films a week.

Unable to afford college, Bradbury spent the next few years peddling newspapers on Los Angeles street corners, writing and hanging out in libraries. The ambitious teenager sought out science fiction writer Robert Heinlein and introduced himself.

Heinlein “became my teacher and accepted me into his group, although I was lousy,” Bradbury said.

By age 20, he had several stories accepted by Script magazine and by 25 was a regular contributor to Weird Tales.

Bradbury said he found his voice at 22 with his short story “The Lake,” and gained the confidence to write full time. He would later brag that unlike most writers he never had a dry spell in his entire career.

First Date

“I wake early and hear my morning voices leaping around in my head like jumping beans,” he once said. “I get out of bed to trap them before they escape.”

One hot afternoon in a Los Angeles bookshop, Bradbury met Marguerite “Maggie” Susan McClure, a clerk there.

“I’m going to the moon someday,” he told her. “Wanna come?” The two went out for coffee, which turned into cocktails, which turned into dinner. The witty, literary couple quickly fell in love and married in 1947. Maggie became the only girl Bradbury ever dated, the mother of their four daughters and his wife for 56 years. She died in 2003.

Though “The Martian Chronicles” received a rave review in the New York Times, it was “Fahrenheit 451” that earned Bradbury widespread recognition.

‘Conformist Hells’

Readers responded to the world of protagonist Guy Montag, a fireman who sets books ablaze. In the novel Montag begins to question his vocation and discovers censorship was used to avoid conflicts arising from critical thought. He becomes an accidental fugitive, whose only crime is the attempt to reclaim the intellectual freedom still found in our contemporary world.

“Bradbury’s is the most skillfully drawn of all science fiction’s conformist hells,” acclaimed British author Kingsley Amis said of the book.

The novel was made into a 1966 film by the acclaimed French director Francois Truffaut. It was also adapted as an opera by Georgia Holof and David Mettere, which was first produced at the Indiana Civic Theater in Fort Wayne, Indiana, in 1988.

Bradbury’s prose stood out for its ability to bring a human warmth and nostalgia to the fantasy genre. While many of his colleagues pursued the possibilities of science, Bradbury used his imagination to depart from the ordinary only to return to the values that remain irrevocably human.

Low-Tech Writer

Unlike many science fiction writers, Bradbury’s fascination with fantasy reflected an aversion to technology, not a love of it. The Los Angeles resident didn’t drive and did his daily writing on a typewriter.

“Fahrenheit 451” received a new wave of attention when the politically independent Bradbury lashed out at filmmaker Michael Moore for co-opting his title for the 2004 documentary “Fahrenheit 9/11.”

Moore’s award-winning box-office hit presented an unflattering critique of the Bush administration. Bradbury, who said he didn’t believe in political parties, hadn’t seen the film and was unconcerned with its politics or financial gain.

“The point is that he stole something,” Bradbury said in a 2004 interview with Chris Matthews of MSNBC. “All I want is to have it returned.”

While Moore eventually called to apologize, Bradbury said the filmmaker never called back, as promised, to discuss changing the title.

Rejection Slips

Even with all of this acclaim, Bradbury was nevertheless no stranger to disappointment. In a 2001 video interview for a fan website, Bradbury joked that he held the record for rejections from the New Yorker magazine.

“When you reject the 301st short story, we should have a party,” Bradbury said of the magazine, in which he was published only one time, in 1947.

Bradbury continued to write late into his life, although he had suffered a stroke in 1999 and had deteriorating eyesight. He wrote with the help of his daughters in the basement of his Los Angeles home, according to Roberts, his biographer.

In 2006, he published “Farewell Summer,” the third installment of a trilogy inspired by his childhood in Illinois, after “Dandelion Wine” (1957) and “Something Wicked.”

Bradbury adapted some of his earlier works to the stage, including tales from his novels about Illinois. The trio of nostalgic short plays was titled “Ray Bradbury’s Green Town,” and was performed in California in 2007.

Bradbury is survived by his four daughters, Susan Marguerite, Ramona, Bettina and Alexandra, eight grandchildren and several cats.

When asked by the Sacramento Bee in 2006 what he would like to see on his epitaph, Bradbury replied, “It should read, ‘Here lies a man who loved life from beginning to end, and he’s sorry that the goddamn thing is over.’”

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