The Father of Science Fiction: An Interview with Ray Bradbury
Dee Perry–Who were some of the writers who led you to science fiction and fantasy?
Ray Bradbury–Edgar Rice Burroughs, I started reading his Martian stories when I was nine years old. I became enamored of the planet Mars because of him and his "John Carter: Warlord of Mars" stories and his "Tarzan" books. Then I moved on to Jules Verne and I became crazy about H.G. Wells. When I finally had some money from selling newspapers when I was 19, I went to a recording studio. I did recordings of readings from "The Man Who Could Work Miracles" and "The Invisible Man." So H.G. Wells was a huge part of my life.
DP–In terms of what you started imagining when you read their writings and started writing your own things, has the future lived up to your expectations or not?
RB–It's come faster than I thought. I thought that we'd land on the moon when I was an old man. Instead I was only 49 years old the summer we landed on the moon. So that was a complete surprise. Other things that have happened, are things that I don't much care for. My analysis of the future in "Fahrenheit 451" has come to pass, some of it. Because of lousy local TV news which is all moronic and stupid and destructive, there's hardly a city or town in the country that has local television news that's intelligent and constructive and does a real job of providing information for the people. We are a stupid and destructive country when it comes to local TV news. It's all murders, rapes, suicides and funerals. We've got to change that, but I don't know how you'd do it. We can try to influence the local stations to pull up their socks, but they're so busy selling destruction to the people that they won't listen. It's a democracy, so we'll have to put up with them for a little longer. The hope is that there'll be more cable stations like CNN and C-SPAN 1 and C-SPAN 2, Fox News is good, and the government sponsored television stations which provide a good news service. But local TV news is what I predicted fifty years ago and it's totally stupid.
DP–In terms of your writing, let's talk about science fiction. What does that term really mean? Is it simply a setting or an attitude?
RB–No, it's an idea. The progress of the world has been ideas and notions and fancies. You write a fiction of them in your mind, and then you run out to conceive a possible answer. The discovery of fire is a science-fictional event in history. The people in the caves were starving and they were shivering with cold. The cave man way back in time, or perhaps a tree dweller, saw lightning strike a tree and he ran out -he had imagination. He brought the fiery branch back of a tree that had caught fire from the lightning. He brought it back to the cave and warmed the people. That action is a science-fictional action. He had dreamt of being warm and suddenly he saw a way of bringing warmth into the cave. Eventually they discovered flint and rock and how to spark flint against the rock and capture the spark. Then later the use of friction of rubbing your hands on a stick violently against a piece of wood until it got warm and caught fire. Then you put leaves on it. The invention of fire was a dream. When you dream and then move to put an underpinning under the dream, that is science fiction.
DP–Much of what I see in that category lately seems to be very heavy on hardware and hard to get into emotionally. What's your take on contemporary science fiction writers?
RB–I have no take, I don't read them. There are too many books published every year. When I started out with my writing in the 1930's, you were lucky if eight or nine books were considered science fiction or fantasy were published each year. Today, there are over 300 books a year almost - one a day. So there's no way to keep up with it. What little I've seen, there's too much dungeons and dragons in fantasy, there's too much galactic empire, take-offs on Star Trek and Star Wars. There a bunch of elephants in a line imitating each other. It's very dangerous because you turn away from what's most original in yourself and you imitate others. We've got a lot of people in the field today, as far as I can guess, who are imitating each other and making one more galactic empire.
DP–A lot of your short fiction, which I've read quite a bit of, reminds me of O. Henry deceptively simple stories where people make surprising choices. Now I know you've won the O. Henry Memorial Award. I'm wondering if he was someone you read also?
RB–Oh, I read some of his things when I was a child. Of course we had a whole library, at least my father did, of O. Henry stories. But he was not an influence. The real influences in my life were Jules Verne and H.G. Wells and Edgar Allen Poe.
DP–Poe was another favorite of mine too. And I've read several quotations of yours that indicate you're not a big fan of computers and the internet. What are your current thoughts on those things?
RB–It's good for certain kinds of research. It's good for ordering used books. But you cannot buy a book on the internet -you've got to go to the bookstore and see it. You've got to read a chapter or a page. You've got to look at the cover. You can't do that on the internet. It cannot provide you with the information you need, which is the book itself.
"The invention of fire was a dream. When you dream and then move to put an underpinning under the dream, that is science fiction."
DP–One of your books, your works of fiction that'll be celebrated at the University of Akron, is one that you mentioned earlier‹"Fahrenheit 451," which will be presented as a play. The novel is set in a future where the written word is forbidden and books are burned by law. But as you've also said, you don't have to burn books to destroy a culture. Are you seeing that to be a factor in our culture, that people aren't reading as much as they used to?
RB–A certain number of them are, but the students in school are stupid. We're letting them get up into the seventh and eighth grade with no knowledge of reading and writing. That's the most important problem we have facing us today. In the midst of our very rich culture, the teachers are not teaching reading and writing in kindergarten and first grade. We must do that, so everyone is prepared completely to read and write by the second grade. Then you don't have to do that in the other grades. You can let the teachers teach what they have to teach. Unless we pay attention to that, we are sunk.
DP–Did you as a student ever have an interest in exploring science as a technician, an inventor, an explorer, as opposed to writing about things?
RB–I took astronomy in high school. It was OK the first year, but then in the second yearwe got into technical things, like how to construct a telescope... how to grind a lens. And whenever you get into arithmetic and algebra, I was completely lost. So I knew I'd never be a scientist, but I would be an interpreter of science. I would be a moralist. I would write fables about the problems.
DP–Are there certain philosophical things that you write about, themes that you've identified that run through your writing?
RB–Well, I think all of my work is philosophical in one way or another in a small way. And look at problems and how to approach them. When you write a planetarium show, which I've done several times, you look at the universe and you wonder what the function of humanity is. And then you say to yourself, what is the use of the universe if there's no one there to see it? So our function is to witness and celebrate. We are put here by creation, by god, by genetics, by Darwin, by Lemarque, by the Bible, however you want to interpret it, as witnesses to the miracle. The universe we inhabit is impossible, we shouldn't be here, but we are. We have no way of knowing, we can only guess how life came on this world. But we are here now and our job is to function as eyes and ears and to speak with tongues on the incredible things we witness. That is our function, so that is philosophical.
DP–What makes you angriest or perhaps saddest, as you look around the world and the people in it?
RB– Ignorance makes me angry. And all over Africa right now we've got a dozen wars where the blacks are killing one another. The biggest mistake that was ever made in Africa 45 years ago was pulling all of the colonials out. The Africans were not ready yet. The situation was not the same as in India. When the English left India, they left a civil structure. They left a political structure. They left an educated structure, so that the Indian people were ready on many levels to take over the function of being civilized. Not completely, no. But much better than in Africa, where you didn't have enough cities built, enough political systems built, enough political people to influence behavior. Not enough schools, not enough education. So now we have a situation where ignorant people are killing one another. I would like to see the return of the colonial powers to stay just long enough to build a civilized political system and educate the people and then withdraw. But the situation has been better in South Africa because there has been a system there, a colonial system, that has existed. Yes - with apartheid - but nevertheless, it's prepared the blacks to take over and be political and be educated. What makes me angry right now is the fact that we've withdrawn support from Africa 45 years ago and now millions of people are dying as a result.
DP–Some people would argue that it's because of the colonial influence that those things are happening. That Africans were governing themselves before they got there.
RB–No, as long as the colonials were there, they weren't killing each other. That's the important thing. Now if you want them to go on killing each other, by all means, but withhold your support. But we've got to go back and we've got to help them.
DP–On the other side, what brings you joy when you look at your life and what goes on around you?
RB–All of it. I love being alive. I love writing about it. I love the miracle of the things that we see. I love travel. I love great cities like Paris, great countries like France. I love Washington, D.C. I'm working in ten or twelve different fields. I write poetry, I write plays, I write screenplays, I write novels. So I've had a lot of fun working in a dozen different fields. I'm still attempting other things. I've written musicals on "Dandelion Wine," on "Fahrenheit 451." I'm working on an opera which I hope will be staged sometime in the near future. We're working with Jerry Goldsmith the composer. So there's a lot to be thankful for.