Nerd Curious is an occasional series in which Todd VanDerWerff tries the nerdy things he missed as a kid, either due to lack of access, time, or ability. He has a rough schedule planned out, but feel free to use the comments to suggest more nerd experiences he needs to have.
In 1932, at the age of 12, Ray Bradbury was told to become an impossibility.
The carnival had come to his little Midwestern town of Waukegan, Illinois, and he’d been there one night to see a performer named Mr. Electrico. In his blog account of the incident, written nearly 70 years after it occurred, Bradbury situates what happened in the midst of the clamor surrounding the funeral of a “favorite uncle,” which makes the fervor with which the event gripped Bradbury’s mind all the more understandable. The night before his uncle’s funeral, the boy went to see Mr. Electrico in his carnival tent.
Mr. Electrico aimed to perform wonders, mostly by manipulating electricity. For one central part of his show, he sat in an electric chair and electrocuted himself, then passed that power out to the audience via a metal sword. On the night Bradbury attended, Mr. Electrico chose him, pressing the sword to the young Bradbury’s skin. His hair standing on end, the boy gazed up at Mr. Electrico, who passed along a two-word directive for a life that would become one of the largest in American letters: “Live forever.”
What a blessing to hear those words at age 12, when it seems just possible enough that death might never come, when an uncle’s funeral might seem to be a minor inconvenience rather than a reminder of what is coming. To be 12 in a small town is to seriously examine the possibility of living forever and to greet each day as a forgiving learning curve, because of how well you know the contours of your own life and setting.
But what a curse those words might have been to a Bradbury who never found his way toward esteem and success. What a disappointment to live a life under the banner of something impossible and find time slowly eating you away. How many boys and girls did Mr. Electrico tell to live forever? And how disappointing is it that the one who gave it his best possible shot ultimately failed?
You already know Ray Bradbury. Even if you’ve never read a single one of his works, you know him because he’s dissipated into the American cultural ether as surely as Superman, Peanuts, or the early Charlie Chaplin shorts. I’d read a little Bradbury in my junior high school years, when I gobbled up any science fiction or fantasy I could find in my small town’s musty little library, but I remember being disappointed by Fahrenheit 451, perhaps the man’s most famous work. I thought, “That was it?” I’d expected a far-flung flight of imagination, not an occasionally didactic story about the dangers of censorship.
To be fair to 13-year-old me, he was seeking something to fill a Star Wars-shaped hole he didn’t know existed in his life; he’d never seen those films, and Bradbury’s more earthbound sci-fi appealed less than wilder space operas that had unusual alien races and feats of derring-do. Though I more or less like Fahrenheit 451 upon revisiting it as an adult, it’s still not my favorite book in Bradbury’s lineup. It is a little didactic, more interested in being a concept than a living, breathing work of literature. But, then, I’ve never liked a Bradbury novel as much as I’ve liked any of his short stories.
Those short stories popped up at key points in my life as well: “The Fog Horn” a dot on the point of a treacherous seventh-grade landscape, “The Sound Of Thunder” a speck on the horizon of the long fall when a college-aged version of myself lost a grandfather and watched as his country fell into a war it only started climbing out of a decade later. Yet I’d never sat down and read through Bradbury’s stories in bulk until this project, when I picked up the essential collection Bradbury Stories, assembled by the author himself for publication in 2003, the most effective memoir he could ever have written. In 100 tales, Bradbury effortlessly moves between the three modes most common in his work: science fiction, tales of small-town life, and fairy stories, often with sparklingly dark hearts.
Embedded throughout are snippets of a life that seems to tread close to Bradbury’s own, as with the young married couple of “Remember Sascha?,” who make up a voice for their unborn child that becomes an almost ghostly presence in their home. He writes, and she supports his writing. They are happy with that life, even as her growing midsection hints at a new, different topography to come. Yet the end is almost sad, as the voice of Sascha gives way to a real, bawling baby girl. (Bradbury and his wife—who were married for 56 years until her death in 2003—had four daughters.) Sascha is a specter that can be anything the young couple wants him to be, but the baby girl in her mother’s arms is something else entirely, a concrete person who will escape the bounds of her parents’ gravity soon enough.
That, at its heart, is the great theme of Bradbury’s work, particularly his stories: Things are always slipping behind you, irrevocably, into the past, and the more you try to hold onto them, the less definition they maintain between your fingertips. Even in his science fiction, Bradbury keeps his feet planted firmly on Earth, staring up into the stars with wonder.
Bradbury chooses to open Stories with two pieces that seem as direct an encapsulation of his work and themes as any he’d ever write. In a very real sense, they are his career in a nutshell. When discussing this project, a colleague mentioned to me that she eventually stopped reading Bradbury’s works because she felt as if she’d eventually experienced all he had to offer, and the rest of his body of work would offer up diminishing returns. To a degree, that’s true. The further one gets into Stories—or any collection of his writing—the more little pieces of Bradbury surface over and over again: the constant use of writer protagonists, the name Douglas, the happy-go-lucky do-gooderism that curdles into condescension every so often. To read those first two stories in Stories is to read all Bradbury stories, in some ways, but it’s also a perfect introduction to a young writer who was only just honing his craft.
The first, “The Whole Town’s Sleeping,” dates to 1950 and finds Bradbury in a favorite mode: the early-20th-century quaint town that hides deep, dark secrets. Bradbury spent much of his career trying to use his words to re-create Waukegan and a world that was already beginning to disappear when he met Mr. Electrico, as if trying to get back to some more innocent state that existed before he moved to Los Angeles at the age of 13. Yet his small-town stories often contain hints of darkness and menace, of a place that’s slipping just out of its orbit and plunging toward a black hole. In “The Whole Town’s Sleeping,” the black hole takes the form of a serial killer.
Our heroine is Lavinia Nebbs, the kind of resourceful girl Bradbury would turn to again and again. Her age is amorphous, seeming to dance between 14 and 24, depending on the scene, but the important thing is that she and her friends Francine and Helen are just cocksure enough to go out on a warm summer’s evening to see a Charlie Chaplin picture at the local movie theater. To collect her friends, Lavinia has to walk through a ravine, in which she stumbles upon the killer’s latest victim, naturally setting her and her friends to fright. Yet they also surmise that the killer takes breaks between his murders, that they’ll be fine if his appetites have been sated. They go to the movie, and they dawdle, because it’s a beautiful night, and they live in a beautiful town, and they are too scared to go home straight off. But soon enough, they must turn their steps homeward.
The thing I think sets Bradbury’s short stories apart is his absolutely devastating skill at picking exactly the right closing line. There are some stories where he pushes too hard and goes for the didactic or mawkish. But in most cases, he suggests the shape of the thing without suggesting what happens. (For a superb example of this, read how he uses insects to let readers know exactly what happens to the two protagonists of his post-apocalyptic tale “And The Rock Cried Out.”) “The Whole Town’s Sleeping” is particularly stellar in this regard, because Bradbury sets up the expectation that Lavinia will meet the killer on her way home. She will succumb to his fury, but the reader, at least, will know his identity. Our need for horror will be sated, but so will our need for justice. Someone knows who killed Lavinia.
Instead, Bradbury chooses to have Lavinia make the stupidest imaginable journey home—she peels off her friends one by one, then rejects one friend’s offer to stay at her house, then walks through that dark ravine alone—but Bradbury doesn’t do anything to her. She comes across an affable police officer, whose friendliness seems almost menacing in this particular light. She hears someone walking behind her in the ravine and screams. She races home, climbs up on her porch, unlocks her door, and she gets home. She’s safe. The sanctity of the beautiful town has preserved itself, and she will live, indeed, forever, a heroine frozen in that moment where she stands against the safe, wooden cool of her front door.
And then the last line: “Behind her in the living room, someone cleared his throat.”
To write a last line that good! It’s a twist ending, sure, but it’s also the thematic point of the piece in one sentence. That is, the place that seems good and safe often isn’t, and the darkness almost always lurks in the place where you’d least want it. My impression is that Bradbury goes on a bit with the description in some of these tales. It’s all good description, and he comes up with some absolutely powerful images, but it can also seem as if he needs to capture every detail and moment before that final moment. “The Whole Town’s Sleeping” also explains this frequent problem quite succinctly: Bradbury’s not just luxuriating in this ghostly small town that no longer exists; he’s prolonging Lavinia’s life by making the reader notice—if not Lavinia herself—everything she is about to lose. She stands perched, at the end, between the beauty and the dream of life and the desolation of the black hole. And that is where she is left, forever about to die, but also forever on the cusp of some greater understanding.
The second story, “The Rocket,” also dating to the apparently watershed year of 1950, shades these general themes in with the promise and peril of science fiction, but it never once leaves Earth. The only thing that marks it as science fiction, really, is that it takes place in a world where space travel to other planets in the solar system happens regularly. (This is a story I know I’ve read previously somewhere, though I can’t pin it down on my mental Bradbury map. While I suspect I’ve read it, it’s possible it just passed so thoroughly into the ether that I know it simply from having grown up in the United States. Without having read it, it’s possible that I learned it from a frequency we can all tune into that we don’t know we already hear.) Here, our hero is Fiorello Bodoni, and Bradbury quickly sketches in what his life looks like via perfectly chosen, concrete details. He’s a working-class man, employed in a scrapyard. He has a huge family. Even his name suggests an otherness—Italian, sure, but chosen in a way that suggests he’s just off the boat (even if the story never comes out and says this).
Fiorello has one dream: to travel to another planet aboard a rocket ship. Travel to the stars is a pleasure afforded only to the rich and, though Fiorello seems content to exist within this status quo, he also chafes a bit at the idea that he will never go to Mars or see Jupiter’s Great Red Spot up close. As the story begins, Fiorello has saved up enough to send one member of the family to Mars. His children quickly realize, however, that the family member who gets to go will forever hold that position over everyone else’s heads, even if he or she never mentions it. His wife, who thinks the plan is rather crazy, ends up winning the impromptu drawing of straws to travel to another world, but she ultimately turns the opportunity down. It’s more important for the family to stay whole than anything else.
In a funk, Fiorello makes a bad decision. He purchases an aluminum model rocket, a “mock-up” of one of the space-faring craft that haunt his dreams. It will never travel to another planet, but he also refuses to tear it down. Now Fiorello’s wife thinks he’s really lost it. Even if he sold the thing for scrap, he wouldn’t make a profit. But he’s intent; he must have his rocket and his dream of space travel. And he promises his children that he will take them all on a voyage to Mars after he finishes retrofitting the mock-up into an actual craft that could venture into space. He spends days working. His wife and children watch him curiously.
Here, a lesser storyteller might have gone in for some sort of “magic of belief” conclusion, where Fiorello’s eagerness to travel to Mars would manifest itself in a model rocket that became real. (Bradbury himself offered variations on this basic ending a few times, but they usually skewed toward horror, as in the superb ghost tale “Banshee.”) Instead, Bradbury has the kids pile into the rocket. Then Fiorello’s plan emerges: He’s turned the rocket into a simulation of space travel, something like one of those space-shuttle simulators that clogged up shopping malls in the ’80s. The kids are too young to know better—or if they do, they say nothing—and the imagery of the moon and Mars floating by is enough to convince them. Fiorello’s wife, seeing what he’s done for his kids, gives him a bit of a break. The whole thing ends in the sort of sweetness that “The Whole Town’s Sleeping” avoided, but it never pushes too far into the saccharine.
Truthfully, “The Rocket” is far from my favorite Bradbury story. The ending is a little too easy and pat, and it glides over some of the interesting issues Bradbury suggests without really exploiting. Never a deeply political writer—unless we’re counting statements like, “Censorship is bad!”—Bradbury succumbed to a parochial patriarchy in his stories, where middle-to-upper-class white people usually possessed the solution to whatever problem was ailing the world, if only everyone would listen. Actually, that’s not specifically accurate; there are plenty of stories where it seems like the world would be a better place if only everybody listened to the Bradbury-stand-in character, including the well-to-do white people who made up the bulk of his audience.
Bradbury frequently made the mistake of relying on old writer’s trick, “Well, if you just stood in someone else’s shoes for a bit…” That doesn’t work for everyone, especially non-writers, but he couldn’t imagine another way of looking at the world. That avuncular parochialism exists in the background of “The Rocket,” where the working-class stiffs eventually have their fun and never really question the social order. (The one woman who does is shunted off to the side and eschews the fake rocket trip.)
Yet I love how “The Rocket” speaks to what made Bradbury’s science fiction so mesmerizing. The people in it feel like people, not automatons. In the introduction to a Time edition of The Martian Chronicles, Bradbury says to an interviewer, “Space travel will be just as silly, sad, exciting, and wonderful as any other great human adventure.” That quality shines through in “The Rocket.” Earth is merely the starting point for so many science fiction voyages, the cradle of humanity’s past. In Bradbury’s writing, it is everything. It is the place where we live, love, and laugh; it’s the place where all of our adventures must begin and end. In Martian, Bradbury speaks of people who go mad as they see Earth recede into a dot through a rocket ship’s window, and there’s no mistaking why. Earth isn’t the start of some great voyage; life upon it is the great voyage.
The greatest night of your life is always when you are 13 years old.
I don’t want to make too much of this, because being 13 is also an endless exercise in feeling awful and having the world keep smacking you in the face (and Lord knows there are plenty of great nights you’ll have in your adulthood). But all people—of any background you can imagine—will inevitably remember some night when they were 13, when they and their friends got up to something. When people think back to that night, it’s inevitably possible to recall every little detail, and for just an instant, they’ll be gone, mind trapped back in a world that no longer exists. To be 13 is to be just old enough for adults to give you some real responsibility, but also young enough to have a place to run to when the shadows grow too thick and the moon begins to rise. To be 13 is to be pure, somehow, and there’s always some moment or night that comes free of the baggage that we attach to the rest of life, when escape seems possible, but so does a return to safety and sanctity.
For me, that night was like something out of, well, a Bradbury story. I grew up in a sleepy little town called Armour, South Dakota, named after the meatpacking magnate. Our school’s sports teams were called the Packers, but our mascot was a giant dancing hot dog, emblazoned on whatever flat surfaces the school could find. (One of our fight songs? A riff on the Armour hot dog jingle.) Only about 850 people lived there when I was growing up, with a handful of farmers supporting the community by having to come in and buy parts or supplies. It was possible to know the whole town, at almost exactly one square mile, like the back of your hand, yet still have secrets open up before you, like a strange tunnel that appeared one summer near the local baseball field. (When we went through it, it led to a cornfield, not Narnia.)
The night I often think of was warm and welcoming. I rode my bike into town from the little farm where I grew up, about a mile and a half outside the city limits. I met up with friends. We rode around, hopping into the cars of kids just a year or two older than us, who were out making lazy loops of the local Main Street. We gobbled candy and soda, to the point where one of my friends threw up on the rest of us while we clogged the school playground slide. We hectored girls we didn’t yet know how to reconcile our feelings for. We rode down to the pool to see if one girl in particular, who was only in town for the summer to visit her grandma, had deigned to grace us with her presence. The shadows lengthened, and our moms picked us up. It was probably 10 p.m., but it felt later than that, like we’d had our first true taste of staying up as late as we wanted.
To put it all on paper like that makes it seem a little silly. It doesn’t convey the independence we felt, the sound of cicadas rushing around us, the way that the night felt like a dream slipping away from us even as it was happening. It doesn’t capture the lurch in our hearts when one of those girls came over to talk to us, or the disappointment at the other not being at the pool. It doesn’t get at how we were all mapping out who we would be as adults, searching every inch of our town for something new, because we would soon be elsewhere. It feels to me like a night that stood on the precipice of everything that was to come, the path that led me to Southern California, writing these words; to others, it probably just sounds like a bunch of kids riding around on bikes.
But I missed it even as it was happening. (I suspect young Bradbury and I would have had a lot in common.) A preternaturally nostalgic kid who was obsessed with the culture of earlier eras and loved to watch old movies with his mom, I was forever trying to hold onto things too hard, so I could remember them later when I wanted to write them down. I had known my whole life that I would be a writer of some sort; I just wasn’t sure what. What I wanted more than anything was to capture the feeling of a night like that night. But you can’t. It pulls away from you even as you grasp for it. It crumbles into ash.
Maybe this is why Bradbury’s stories haunt me. In them, he evokes that world, that feeling of the best night of your life. But he also understands the pain and loss involved in that. The past can become a trap. It can clear its throat in another room.
Bradbury also loved to write about the end of the world.
It was, perhaps, a natural outgrowth of the era during which he wrote, when human eradication had become very much possible. The end of the world crops up repeatedly, in both his fairy tale-like stories and his science-fiction pieces, where it arrives courtesy of a nuclear bomb. Perhaps his most famous short story, “There Will Come Soft Rains”—which is, to me, his crowning achievement—directly confronts the end of the world by removing people from it entirely. Readers are placed in the middle of an automated house that no longer has any people to live in it, even as it continues on with its endless tasks for those who can no longer appreciate them. “Soft Rains” shows why Bradbury’s apocalypse stories are so affecting, as well as a likely reason why he kept writing them: He’s almost never as interested in the circumstances of the end of the world—a bunch of bombs detonating will suffice in most cases. He’s interested in the voids left after all of that death, the people who will never be again. There is an unfillable gap at the center of every one of these stories. Where the little voice of Sascha is replaced by that baby girl, those who lie amid the rubble are replaced by nothing. They cease.
But Bradbury doesn’t stop there. He understands that an endless series of daily apocalypses stalks us all. A marriage ends. A mother loses her child. Someone wrecks a car and doesn’t have a way to get to work. You stub your toe. A country erupts in war. Someone gets turned down for a date. The things you have worked for fall apart. A random act of violence splits a life in two. The store doesn’t have the cheese you wanted.
Life is a constant twain between the things remembered for a lifetime, and miniature apocalypses. The true end of the world doesn’t come because the bombs drop, Christ returns to be with his followers, or the icecaps melt—though any of those would end the world just fine, thank you. The true end of the world comes inside, when we finally come up against something that shakes us to our cores, the before-and-after alters us in a way huge or small. The word “apocalypse” itself means “uncovering,” and our personal ages of apocalypse throw us into moments when we uncover our true selves. The only thing that doesn’t feel like the end of the world is the actual end of the world, because we’ll all be dead. To think otherwise is to flatter ourselves as somehow being better than everybody else. (And that, come to think of it, is the vein of the vast majority of apocalyptic literature.)
Bradbury’s characters are constantly bumping up against personal apocalypses, and this makes the actual apocalypses that much more satisfying. Take, for instance, Ylla, the Martian heroine of the first full story in The Martian Chronicles. Trapped in an unsatisfying marriage, she begins to dream, with her telepathic brain, of men who will glide in from the clouds on silver ships, who will profess love to her and take her away. Like many of her telepathic species, she begins to sing songs in a language she cannot possibly understand, songs she has heard coursing through the void from a planet far off, bringing death—for the arrival of humanity will kill the Martian race—and the potential for escape and love.
Her husband, threatened by his wife’s strange dreams, contrives a reason for her to stay at home on the day her visions predict the ship would arrive. Dutiful to the end, she agrees to sit tight and wait, not to run off to the man who might pull her away to another world and a better life. Her husband goes out hunting and kills the astronauts who arrive. Given what happens to his fellow Martians, this might prove the smart course of action. Ylla cries out. She weeps. But when her husband asks her why she’s acting so depressed at dinner that evening, she begins to tamp it all down again. He asks if she’ll be all right tomorrow, and she replies, “Yes. I’ll be all right tomorrow.”
A race is about to be wiped out. Over on Earth, nuclear bombs are about to fall. But Bradbury situates the apocalypse in the heart of a woman who has seen her last hope at happiness fall out of the sky and who must, once again, begin to shut herself off.
The Martian Chronicles is Bradbury’s masterpiece. People have been trying to press the book on me my whole life, but I only just now read it for this project. It is trapped somewhere between a short-story collection and a proper novel. Bradbury went into it wanting to write a riff on Sherwood Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio (the fantastic collection of character vignettes about a small Midwestern town), but about the future. What he arrived at is something altogether more surreal, eerie, and devastating. Beautiful and sad, The Martian Chronicles has almost all of Bradbury’s faults present and accounted for—there’s a story called “Way In The Middle Of The Air” that’s about African-Americans reacting to the colonization of Mars, and it will be cringeworthy to modern eyes (it’s been expurgated from most modern editions)—but the book becomes stronger for having those faults. It is a force of nature, an endless row against a species that would destroy so many beautiful things.
Inspired by the colonization of his own continent, Bradbury took his American colonists across the gulf of space to a Mars that looked just enough like Earth for the emotions to resonate, but just different enough to suggest a beauty hard-won through time and struggle. (There are references throughout to long-dead Martian cities, but there’s very little mention of what happened to those long-dead cities.) Earth is about to burn itself out through nuclear war—an event that arrives to kick off the book’s mournful final third (which includes “Soft Rains”)—and those who know this seek their safety on Mars.
The Martians themselves attempt to use their telepathy and ability to project their own hallucinations out for others to see to isolate themselves from their solar system neighbors, but it’s to no avail. Their civilization is wiped out by something as inconsequential as the chicken pox, an echo of the Native Americans being decimated by smallpox. A thing that was beautiful and good has been picked apart by human callousness and greed, and those who wish to at least preserve some of what once was are brutally shoved aside. (A late story depicts children playing in the ruins of a Martian city that will be razed by men whose job it is to clear these cities from the planet’s face, from history itself.)
In The Martian Chronicles, as happens so often in Bradbury’s work, people don’t look at the destruction of their world and run as far as they can from the mushroom clouds or the astronauts bearing chicken pox. Instead, they run toward them, trying in vain to preserve something that’s already gone. The Earthlings who have settled Mars decide to go back to Earth after nuclear war erupts there. That seems a very curious decision—wouldn’t those who had escaped such destruction by virtue of being so very far away count themselves lucky?—until it is situated in the context of Bradbury’s bibliography. The characters are haunted by memories of a past they can’t ever shake. In that context, their actions make perfect sense. They aren’t driven by practical sense; they’re driven by emotional sense, until both worlds are mostly dead and barren, a handful of survivors of two species straggling out a life on the margins.
The Martian Chronicles is filled with hyper-real, hypnotic imagery—a forest grows in a day, the Martians live in crystal houses and have singing books, there is an automated house in “Soft Rains”—but those who race toward death leave the lasting impression when the story is over. They race toward death, as if accepting its inevitability, because the things they truly want need to be saved from its maw. And throughout, Bradbury races right behind them, calling out that, no, they’re not supposed to want this. They’re supposed to want to live forever.
This relationship with memory is present in almost all of Bradbury’s work. As a writer myself (though not one of Bradbury’s literary bent), I think I understand this conflict. For a writer, memory is the raw source material for the center of these stories. Bradbury may be writing about Martians who pull in telepathic radio broadcasts, but what he’s really writing about are failing marriages and people fighting to preserve their way of life in the face of an unstoppable invading force. He’s writing about stuff that’s easily understandable on emotional terms, things he must have had some experience with, even in the abstract. But memory can also become the enemy of moving forward with something new and original. You can get too easily caught in the past, in what worked at one time, and that’s as true of writing short stories as it is of a relationship that should have been dead long ago or a job you probably should have left before you even started it. The beautiful is worth preserving against callousness and greed, but it can also become your whole life. It can become the whole reason you’re alive, to preserve a thing so that it never evolves or grows—to freeze something, so you still recognize it.
And what is writing but freezing an image you hold so clearly that others will be able to see it?
Bradbury seems aware of this possibility in himself, even in his most nostalgic works. (Even his justly acclaimed semi-autobiographical look back at his childhood, Dandelion Wine, had its hints of melancholy and darkness.) There is always that man clearing his throat in the other room, the hint of the bad things that can come from holding on too tightly, from moving into the past until it’s all you can see. To live forever is to be constantly moving forward, but to live at all is to be constantly hung up on that which still calls to us from the foggy banks of who we were, be they late-night bike rides or those personal apocalypses.
In his short story “Season Of Disbelief,” Bradbury deals with this head-on. An older woman named Mrs. Bentley has fallen under attack from neighborhood children, who doubt that she was ever young, despite all evidence to the contrary. (When she presents them with a photograph of her younger self, they say it can’t possibly be her.) Mrs. Bentley has good reason to hang onto the past. It’s where her long-dead husband resides, and she’s reluctant to let him slip too far away from where she is right now. But on the night after she quarrels with the children (and this, once again, takes place in an idyllic town perched on the dawn of the American century), she’s visited—in memory, though possibly also in actuality—by the voice of her dead husband, who lectures her on how what she’s trying to hold onto is ultimately only a shadow.
“It won’t work,” Mr. Bentley continued, sipping his tea. “No matter how hard you try to be what you once were, you can only be what you are here and now. Time hypnotizes. When you’re nine, you think you’ve always been nine years old and will always be. When you’re thirty, it seems you’ve always been balanced there on that bright rim of middle life. And then when you turn seventy, you are always and forever seventy. You’re in the present, you’re trapped in a young now or an old now, but there is no other now to be seen.”
It had been one of the few, but gentle, disputes of their quiet marriage. He had never approved of her bric-a-brackery. “Be what you are, bury what you are not,” he had said. “Ticket stubs are trickery. Saving things is a magic trick, with mirrors.”
Yet it’s helpful to remember this all-too practical advice comes from a ghost. That which you hold onto is sometimes impossible to let go of.
Bradbury did not, in fact, live forever. He died in 2012, after 91 years on this planet, and his death was marked by an outpouring of grief he might have been a little embarrassed by, honestly. The task set for him by Mr. Electrico went incomplete. He made it far enough, but with time, he succumbed, as we all do.
Yet, I suppose, he will live forever. The only other American writers of the 20th century with as significant a mark on the country’s literary scene are likely Faulkner and Hemingway, and if bits of Bradbury’s body of work stand out like a sore thumb, particularly to modern eyes, well, it’s a massive body of work, stretching through novels, screenplays, and short story collections. It’s easy to get lost in it, to find yourself thinking of the world in his distinctive voice while you’re rolling around in one of his books. He was a massively gifted writer, but what he might have been best at was pulling the contents of his very specific memories out of his head, plopping you in the middle of them, then lecturing himself for even holding onto those memories in the first place.
In “The Third Expedition,” early in The Martian Chronicles, Bradbury revisits a place that will be familiar to readers of his work. Here, it’s called Green Bluff, Illinois, but in many of his books, it’s called “Green Town.” It’s a veiled version of the Waukegan of his boyhood, the place where he met Mr. Electrico and took in circuses and other traveling entertainments of the period. It is a place that no longer exists, because that kind of small town died out long, long ago. But it’s also a place that no longer exists because Bradbury last saw it at 13, at the cusp of that age when all things seem bright and possible. It is frozen in amber. He can never go back to it, but he keeps trying.
The original title of “The Third Expedition” was “Mars Is Heaven!,” and that’s a succinct explanation of the story’s Twilight Zone-esque narrative. The third batch of humans heads to Mars after the first arrivals were shot by Ylla’s husband and the second were confined to a mental institution for being a mentally unstable man and his particularly convincing hallucinations. (They, too, were shot later.) They arrive to find that Mars looks like Illinois in the 1920s, that the whole place is frozen as it might have been in Bradbury’s childhood. What’s more, they discover that their long-dead relatives are there. (The relatives even acknowledge that they’re dead.) They run through the explanations—they landed on Earth and time-traveled; they’re in the afterlife—but the mirage is too good to give up. Bradbury beautifully captures the emotion that would wash over someone in the wake of seeing a long-dead loved one, but he’s also building this for readers, who surely know what this is from the prior stories. The Martians, in a last-ditch effort to save their society, have constructed a telepathic projection of a town built from the memories of the mission’s captain, then populated it with dead loved ones from the mission’s other members. They are luring the astronauts in to kill them, which they do after night falls.
What’s fascinating, though, is that the hallucination doesn’t immediately dissipate once the mission members are all dead. It continues. The townspeople bury the astronauts. The brass band plays. Bradbury writes about the whole thing as if it were being covered in a small-town newspaper. (In an earlier story, he follows up the death of the second expedition with the closing lines, “That night it rained all night. The next day was warm and fair,” as if suggesting the eternities of time these people exist within.) I suspect it was the same for Bradbury. He doesn’t get to live forever, but the millions of versions of himself he put down on the page for enthralled readers get to, and his body of work continues.
And always, always, there is Green Town. It may be a hallucination, dreamed up by someone who aims to lull the unsuspecting to sleep. It may be a place hiding a deep secret. But it endures. It exists, even without those for whom it was dreamed. So the Waukegan, Illinois, of the 1920s will live forever, even if its most famous native won’t.
To write is to preserve. It is to take that thing you hope most to convey and solidify it so you and others can look at it. It may be as simple as saying, “I love you.” It may be as complex as pulling a long-dead town out of the past and reassembling it before the eyes of those who might appreciate it. Memory may, indeed, be a prison, holding us back from embracing who we truly are, as Mr. Bentley might have it, but it’s also necessary. It’s the only way to take what we know to be true and hang onto it as long as possible. So many of Bradbury’s best stories take place at Halloween, and there’s a reason for that: The man couldn’t let go of his ghosts.
When I go back to Armour now, it is no longer the place it was. It is shrinking, slowly but surely. The town’s older residents are dying off, and their houses are filled by people who maybe grew up there, and maybe hope their children will have the same life they once did. To me now, it’s a dot just like it is for you. I conjure the place up through imagination, but never as it really is. And that is as much because I have changed as because the town itself has changed. It’s a magic trick with mirrors.
But what Bradbury understood, what I am beginning to understand, is that there is a way back. Sometimes living forever is as simple as passing on the seed of who you were to others, that they might carry it forward into the dark. If you write well enough and accurately enough—if you conjure perfectly, if you build carefully, if you tug at it until it all comes swimming back into your field of vision—it will be there, as surely as it was. Holding onto a dearly loved place, person, or time is sometimes as easy as speaking its name to as many people as possible. Memory doesn’t have to be a prison, as long as you hold on until it’s time to pass it on and let it live forever, no longer as a part of yourself, but as a part of something larger, something collective.
We have the rocket model. We have the plans. We have the simulation carefully built. If you hold on tight, I will take you back, just for a little bit, into the past. It won’t look exactly as it was, but it never does. Yet if you squint just right, it might start to be as it was. The summer nights will still be warm, the sounds of our laughter will fill the air, and that electricity will arc across the darkening sky, a dim light pointing the way to who we were and who we might still be.