While he is a great advocate for NASA and space travel, his greatest fictional works address the recurrent theme of much of the modern age’s more significant literature: the separation of spirit and imagination from technological achievement and the dangers that attend this divorce. He asks, How much that is homely, lovable, beautiful, and irreplaceably precious will you cast aside for the sake of ease and self-fulfillment? How much wonder will people willfully drain from their lives in the cause of expediency? Such literature can be filled with much gloom in other hands, but Bradbury remains a poet of affirmation.
“The thing that drives me most often is an immense gratitude that I was given this one chance to live, to be alive the one time round in a miraculous experience that never ceases to be glorious and dismaying,” he wrote to his friend Russell Kirk many years ago. He added: “I accept the whole damn thing. It is neither all beautiful nor all terrible, but a wash of multitudinous despairs and exhilarations about which we know nothing. Our history is so small, our experience so limited, our science so inadequate, our theologies so crammed in mere matchboxes, that we know we stand on the outer edge of a beginning and our greatest history lies before us, frightening and lovely, much darkness and much light.”
Where William Faulkner famously wrote that the past is never dead, as it isn’t even past yet, Bradbury would perhaps add that only in the past lies the matrix of mores that make life worthwhile, whether in a spaceship headed to the farthest reaches of the universe, or in quiet Green Town, Ill., modeled after the small Midwestern city where he was born.
To Bradbury, the world of his boyhood in Waukegan must seem sometimes like a pleasant memory of a half-forgotten dream. Despite its flaws (common to any small town or city), it was a world of quiet talks with friends and family members on the front porch in summertime, with dandelion wine for refreshment. And on the Fourth of July, fire balloons: those small baskets of burning light that mount aloft through miles of quietness into the night sky and blend with the stars before disappearing, while grandparents, parents, and cousins stand and watch.
How far we have come since then, as we make our way through the early 21st century with the disquieting sense that something valuable has been lost over the years since the fire balloons disappeared.
It was in Waukegan that young Ray Bradbury took in a circus sideshow featuring “Mr. Electrico,” a mysterious worker of wonders with an electric wand. At one point near the conclusion of his performance, he called for the children in the audience to come forward. Glowing with electricity, the magician then faced the assembled children and gently touched them one at a time with his magic wand, shouting a hair-raising blessing upon each of them in turn. As he touched the young future author with the wand he commanded, “Live forever!” Somehow, the boy knew he might do just that.
The years passed, and now, at age 90, Bradbury has done a lot of living; the details are described in Sam Weller’s superb biography, The Bradbury Chronicles: The Life of Ray Bradbury (2005). Bradbury learned long ago that amidst the joy, there is also evil in the world and in the hearts of men. In a letter, he once wrote that each one of us has “a private keep somewhere in the upper part of the head where, from time to time, of midnights, the beast can be heard raving. To control that, to the end of life, to stay contemplative, sane, good-humored, is our entire work, in the midst of cities that tempt us to inhumanity, and passions that threaten to drive through the skin with invisible spikes.”