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Remembering Ray Bradbury and His ‘Cautionary Tales’

June 6, 2012 at 12:00 AM EDT
Ray Bradbury, author of classic books such as "Fahrenheit 451" and "The Martian Chronicles," died Tuesday night at the age of 91. Jeffrey Brown and bestselling novelist Lev Grossman, who is also a book critic for Time magazine, discuss Bradbury's life, work and literary legacy.
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JUDY WOODRUFF: Next, remembering one of the most celebrated authors of science fiction.

Jeffrey Brown has our look.

JEFFREY BROWN: Ray Bradbury was a modern master who helped bring the genre of science fiction writing into the cultural mainstream. And it began as a young boy, with fairy tales.

RAY BRADBURY, author: And I got a book of fairy tales when I was 5 years old. And I fell in love with reading all those wonderful stories like “Beauty and the Beast” and “Jack and the Beanstalk.” So I began with fantasy.

JEFFREY BROWN: Beginning in the early ’50s, Bradbury’s books would sell more than eight million copies. They include the short story collections “The Martian Chronicles” and “The Illustrated Man” and his novels, “Fahrenheit 451″ and “Something Wicked This Way Comes.”

He also wrote poetry, plays. . .

MAN: He rises!

JEFFREY BROWN: . . . the screenplay for the 1956 movie “Moby Dick.”

RAY BRADBURY: I’m Ray Bradbury.

JEFFREY BROWN: And hosted “The Ray Bradbury Theater” on television.

Bradbury referred to himself as an idea writer, but one with a close eye on changes and the culture around him, this from a 1970s interview.

RAY BRADBURY: If I’m anything at all, I’m not really a science fiction writer. I’m a writer of fairy tales and modern myths about technology.

JEFFREY BROWN: Bradbury won numerous literary awards and the National Medal of Arts in 2004. He died yesterday in Los Angeles at age 91.

And we explore the life and legacy of Ray Bradbury with Lev Grossman, book critic for Time magazine and himself a bestselling writer. His novels include “The Magicians” and “The Magician King.”

Lev, perhaps first for those who haven’t read Ray Bradbury, or not in a long time, what do you think made him such an important writer in American literary life?

LEV GROSSMAN, author: Well, you know, you come to him as a science fiction writer, but as soon as you start reading him, you start to realize that he’s doing things that you didn’t realize that science fiction could do.

I mean, after — I came to him after writers like Heinlein, who are thrilling and exciting. But, with Bradbury, you started weeping. You were terrified. You were happy. You were laughing. He took you places psychologically that science fiction writers didn’t usually go or didn’t go before then.

He was exploring outer space, but in essence he was really exploring inner space. He was sort of taking you on a journey, the inner space in your unconscious.

JEFFREY BROWN: There’s a wonderful interview in print he did with The Paris Review that I was reading today.

And he said: “When I was a young writer if you went to a party and told somebody you were a science fiction writer, you would be insulted. They would call you Flash Gordon all evening or Buck Rogers.”

So, he really had to sort of fight his way in, past the sort of sense of the genre as a lesser type of writing.

LEV GROSSMAN: Well, it’s funny. He did.

And he did it because he was as smart as the guys who were writing literary fiction, and he wrote better than they did. He was interested in words and language in a way that very few science fiction writers or even any writers are.

He was so good that they had to acknowledge him. They had to acknowledge that science fiction was a kind — was just another kind of literature, as good as any other. And the funny thing is, he didn’t really seem to care that much. He thought of himself as a writer. He loved what he did, and people could like it or not. It was all the same to him.

JEFFREY BROWN: Well, how did he see his writing and science fiction? Also, in that interview, he referred to science fiction as the fiction of ideas.

And I said in our intro he referred to himself as an idea writer. So what do we know about how he saw himself as doing?

LEV GROSSMAN: Well, he was certainly one of the early cautionary voices about technology, about where it was taking us, about how technology was changing us. Even as it was developing, the tools we were using affect who we are and how we live and what our culture is.

He was one of the first people to kind of pay attention to that feedback loop and think about where it was taking us. And that was — you know, that was a revelation. And many writers do it now, but he was among the first and best.

JEFFREY BROWN: And that — we should set the context there. That starts in the 1950s, right, postwar, Cold War, worry — well, the beginnings of going to space and the fears of nuclear war.

LEV GROSSMAN: Yes.

Well, he sort of — he presided over this period in the 20th century that saw so much incredible change, the rise of digital computers, space travel, nuclear war. And he was one of these wise skeptical voices who kind of kept us centered and on track and gave us a sense of perspective that, you know, these things were amazing, but they were also terrifying and they could take us to dark places that maybe we didn’t realize.

JEFFREY BROWN: And I saw a list today. People are putting out lists of things from his writing that eventually came true that seemed crazy at the time, but they did come true.

LEV GROSSMAN: He said often, I’m not writing to describe the future or predict it. I’m writing to prevent it.

And I think what he meant by that was, he wrote cautionary tales that allowed us to kind of head things off at the pass before they happened.

JEFFREY BROWN: Where do you see his legacy today, what writers, what kind of writing?

LEV GROSSMAN: Well, he was, you know, one of the early writers who really transcended any sort of sense of boundary between science fiction and literature.

And there have been so many writers who do that since then, Kurt Vonnegut, an obvious example, Philip K. Dick, but also later writers like Michael Chabon, Jonathan Lethem, Kazuo Ishiguro, Neil Gaiman, writers who write in a way that defines themselves both as literary writers and as genre writers, and shows that there isn’t really any great difference between the two.

JEFFREY BROWN: Do you have a favorite one, before we go? Do you have a favorite book or story that you want to recommend to people?

LEV GROSSMAN: Well, “Martian Chronicles” for me is always the masterpiece, this idea that we could go to Earth — to another place, to another planet, and go there, only to sort of re-encounter these sort of dark spirits from our own unconsciousness.

It was such a beautiful and powerful idea. That’s the one that stays with me.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right, the life, work and legacy of Ray Bradbury.

Lev Grossman, thanks so much.

LEV GROSSMAN: Thank you.