My first literary heroes were Carl Sagan and Ray Bradbury. I discovered them both at roughly the same time (Sagan through the PBS series "Cosmos" and Bradbury by dint of scouring every bookstore in town for interesting reading material). I devoured everything both had written, and found a satisfying complementarity between them.
Sagan offered a panoramic view of history, science, and literature; his vision was wide and deep, but he also sidestepped any trace of fuzziness in his thinking. Sagan’s lines of reasoning were always precise, rigorous, and concerned with factuality rather than comfort. Sagan was the one who brought fundamental precepts of science to popular culture. If it’s possible, Sagan told us, then it must, by necessity, exist; but, he cautioned, very little (out of everything we might imagine) is possible, given the physical laws under which the universe and everything it contains must function.
Moreover, Sagan observed, while grand and astonishing things really do exist, any time we think we have found something extraordinary we must be prepared to hold off throwing ourselves into new beliefs (or creating new and elaborate systems of belief) until we have sufficient evidence at hand to warrant those beliefs: "Extraordinary claims," he once wrote (and I may be misquoting here) "require extraordinary evidence."
But while the scientific method, when applied correctly and with exacting, uncompromising standards, offers us the possibility of true enlightenment, science can also provide us with powerful tools that we simply don’t know how to use: The atomic bomb, for instance, or genetic engineering, or technically complex and highly advanced means of placing people under surveillance. Science tells us what is possible, and how to achieve those possibilities, but not what to do with those achievements once we’ve made them.
Indeed, it’s part and parcel of the scientific method that "morality" is left out of the process and not addressed as part of the conclusions of any purely scientific investigation. Science is about facts, and about inquiry; science will give us the chemistry and metallurgy required to create a gun, but doesn’t tell us under what conditions it is ethically or legally permissible to fire that gun.
But human beings are characterized by more than big brains. We’re set apart from other animals not only by an ability to make complicated tools, but by an ability to assess situations using an ethical sensibility. (Acting ethically is, of course, another matter entirely.) Science by itself cannot be our guide; we need a strong ethical sense, and fair, rational standards by which to apply those ethics.
Bradbury balanced the equation of my reading life back in the day. It’s not just that Bradbury was a writer of science fiction, though that’s certainly part of it. Science fiction is, as speculative writer George Zebrowski has said, a way of rehearsing for the future. The genre asks questions about science and technology that the scientific method avoids: What will a given innovation mean for us? How can we use technology for our betterment, but avoid allowing it to empower the darker side of our still too-savage human nature? What risks attend the rewards yielded by careful, methodical study and systematic application of basic principles of scientific inquiry?
Bradbury, who died last week at the age of 91, addressed those questions, but he also gave us a body of work that offered us so much more. His writing didn’t simply stop at the question of whether any given scientific advance (or science itself) was, on balance, a good thing or not; he didn’t simply write high-concept stories that could be read as morality plays. His stories meditated on far more profound and universal themes. What makes life meaningful? What in the human experience is liable to joy, as well as to sorrow? Most essentially, Bradbury reminded us continually of the need to maintain our curiosity and our willingness to peer, deeply and with care, into murky corners.
Ray Bradbury wrote science fiction, yes, and he wrote horror and fantasy stories as well. But there was more to his writing than cities of crystalline towers on the arid Martian plains and lost expeditions making their way through Venusian jungles in a constant downpour of warm rain; Bradbury created stories in which infants could possess preternatural (and homicidal) abilities, and prehistoric creatures could rise from the depths, called by the siren song of a foghorn.
Such extreme ideas are the stuff of potent fiction, but there was a thread of genius that linked Bradbury’s stories with a commonality of voice and vision. Most characteristically, Bradbury evoked a universe of indelible, if youthful, wonder: Everything from the turn of seasons to the contrast of day and night can change the feel of the world around us. The rational mind says nothing lurks in the night time that couldn’t be lurking by day as well, but the primitive in us still fears the dark, and that fear sparks a thrill in our hearts, which are, after all, the sum total of our compound nature: We’re only half rational, after all. The rest of us remains wild, superstitious, awestruck at the sight of the moon above or the rumblings of tectonic forces below.
Bradbury brought deeply emotional resonance and an exquisite sensitivity to any genre in which he wrote. A scene in one of his short stories sums up, for me at least, Bradbury’s unique take on the world: A man stands in a library listening to the scratchings of the librarian’s pen. From the sound of the pen nib alone, as though through some form of auditory Braille, he discerns that she is copying out poetry. The lines she’s writing aren’t her own composition, but that doesn’t matter because the man listening to her understands innately what she’s doing: She’s inhabiting the verse the way its original author had, allowing the words and rhythms of the poem to flow through her body as well as her mind and emerge as words on a page. No tale of robot armies or insectoid invaders from other galaxies could carry more impact than the idea of poetry as a force of nature, with us--mere human creatures--in the lucky position of being its beneficiaries.
When I found out my husband had never read any Bradbury, I decided to give him the one Bradbury title that, in my opinion, best encapsulated what made him a great writer. It wasn’t "The Martian Chronicles" or "Fahrenheit 451" I offered my husband; rather than novels of dystopian future societies than burn books or reinvent colonialism on new planets, I gave him "Dandelion Wine," a novel made up of a series of short stories centered around a 12-year-old boy named Douglas living in a small American town in 1928. "That book," my husband told me the other day after reading about Bradbury’s death, "blew my mind."
"Dandelion Wine" contains many, many dazzling passages and powerful moments, but for the purpose of this encomium to Bradbury, this may be the most fitting: Douglas’ grandmother reaches the last day of her life. It’s a morning like any other morning, except that she (and everyone in the boarding house she runs) knows that it’s the day she’s going to die. She’s not sick; she’s not suffering. She tells her grandson that it’s as simple as this: She’s experienced everything she’s going to in her life, and it’s time to go.
Lying in her bed, Douglas’ grandmother lets her mind wander back to a dream she was having before she was born. Picking up the thread of that dream, she returns to wherever and whatever frames human life: Call it eternity, or heaven, or apotheosis, or bliss. Her life reaches completion, and, as simply as that, is over.
Bradbury claimed to remember being born. A couple of months short of his 92nd birthday, one of America’s great authors arrived at the period at the end of his own story. During his time on this mortal coil, Bradbury gave us wisdom, and vision, and loveliness in words. He also gave us tales of wonder unlike those of any other writer. May many generations to come read his work with admiration and gratitude.