Ray Bradbury (born 1920) was among the first authors to combine the concepts of science fiction with a sophisticated prose style. Often described as economical yet poetic, Bradbury's fiction conveys a vivid sense of place in which everyday events are transformed into unusual, sometimes sinister situations.
Bradbury began his career during the 1940s as a writer for such pulp magazines as Black Mask, Amazing Stories, and Weird Tales. The latter magazine served to showcase the works of such fantasy writers as H. P. Lovecraft, Clark Ashton Smith, and August Derleth. Derleth, who founded Arkham House, a publishing company specializing in fantasy literature, accepted one of Bradbury's stories for Who Knocks?, an anthology published by his firm. Derleth subsequently suggested that Bradbury compile a volume of his own stories; the resulting book, Dark Carnival (1947), collects Bradbury's early fantasy tales. Although Bradbury rarely published pure fantasy later in his career, such themes of his future work as the need to retain humanistic values and the importance of the imagination are displayed in the stories of this collection. Many of these pieces were republished with new material in The October Country (1955).
The publication of The Martian Chronicles (1950) established Bradbury's reputation as an author of sophisticated science fiction. This collection of stories is connected by the framing device of the settling of Mars by human beings and is dominated by tales of space travel and environmental adaptation. Bradbury's themes, however, reflect many of the important issues of the post-World War II era— racism, censorship, technology, and nuclear war—and the stories delineate the implications of these themes through authorial commentary. Clifton Fadiman described The Martian Chronicles as being "as grave and troubling as one of Hawthorne's allegories." Another significant collection of short stories, The Illustrated Man (1951), also uses a framing device, basing the stories on the tattoos of the title character.
Bradbury's later short story collections are generally considered to be less significant than The Martian Chronicles and The Illustrated Man. Bradbury shifted his focus in these volumes from outer space to more familiar earthbound settings. Dandelion Wine (1957), for example, has as its main subject the midwestern youth of Bradbury's semiautobiographical protagonist, Douglas Spaulding. Although Bradbury used many of the same techniques in these stories as in his science fiction and fantasy publications, Dandelion Wine was not as well received as his earlier work. Other later collections, including A Medicine for Melancholy (1959), The Machineries of Joy (1964), I Sing the Body Electric! (1969), and Long after Midnight (1976), contain stories set in Bradbury's familiar outer space or midwestern settings and explore his typical themes. Many of Bradbury's stories have been anthologized or filmed for such television programs as The Twilight Zone, Alfred Hitchcock Presents, and Ray Bradbury Theater.
In addition to his short fiction, Bradbury has several adult novels. The first of these, Fahrenheit 451 (1953), originally published as a short story and later expanded into novel form, concerns a future society in which books are burned because they are perceived as threats to societal conformity. In Something Wicked This Way Comes (1962) a father attempts to save his son and a friend from the sinister forces of a mysterious traveling carnival. Both of these novels have been adapted for film. Death Is a Lonely Business (1985) is a detective story featuring Douglas Spaulding, the protagonist of Dandelion Wine, as a struggling writer for pulp magazines Dandelion Wine and The Martian Chronicles are often included in the category of novel. Bradbury has also written poetry and drama; critics have faulted his efforts in these genres as lacking the impact of his fiction.
While Bradbury's popularity is acknowledged even by his detractors, many critics find the reasons for his success difficult to pinpoint. Some believe that the tension Bradbury creates between fantasy and reality is central to his ability to convey his visions and interests to his readers. Peter Stoler asserted that Bradbury's reputation rests on his "chillingly understated stories about a familiar world where it is always a few minutes before midnight on Halloween, and where the unspeakable and unthinkable become commonplace." Mary Ross proposed that "Perhaps the special quality of [Bradbury's] fantasy lies in the fact that people to whom amazing things happen are often so simply, often touchingly, like ourselves." In a genre in which futurism and the fantastic are usually synonymous, Bradbury stands out for his celebration of the future in realistic terms and his exploration of conventional values and ideas. As one of the first science fiction writers to convey his themes through a refined prose style replete with subtlety and humanistic analogies, Bradbury has helped make science fiction a more respected literary genre and is widely admired by the literary establishment.
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