From here to Mars, Bradbury's legacy endures
A prolific and versatile writer whose career spanned many genres and seven decades, Waukegan-born Ray Bradbury is remembered as an author who brought science fiction and fantasy stories into the mainstream, sparked imaginations and inspired others.
Fellow science-fiction legend Frederik Pohl of Palatine remembers Bradbury, 91, as a lifelong friend and a missed opportunity.
"I've know him since 1939. We grew up together," said Pohl, 92, who spoke by phone Wednesday shortly after learning of Bradbury's death. "Ray asked me to be his agent in 1940, and I said no because I had very few clients and I was about to become the editor of the magazine Astonishing Stories."
Bradbury's ideas were fresh, but his writing was raw and unpolished back then, said Pohl, who passed on a chance to represent the author who went on to become a best-selling and wealthy writer with more than two dozen novels and more than 600 short stories, plays, screenplays, TV scripts and poems.
"My family has never forgiven me for that," joked Pohl, an acclaimed writer, editor and lecturer who still lives in Palatine and writes a blog on frederikpohl.com.
"I thought he was very promising, mostly because he had a lot of grit," Pohl said, explaining how Bradbury's passion and drive kept him cranking out stories while his writing improved.
If Pohl's service in World War II hadn't forced him to give up his magazine editorship, "I would have published Ray's first story," Pohl said. "He was one of the great founders of science-fiction respectability."
Pohl's wife, Elizabeth Anne Hull, taught at Harper College for three decades and is a past president of the Science Fiction Research Association.
"When I was teaching science-fiction, I'd ask students the first day if any of them read science-fiction and if they read it, which authors did they read, and at least 50 percent would name Ray Bradbury," she said. Bradbury made people notice what had been a science-fiction niche, and "now it's a big niche," she said.
A generation (or two or three) grew up reading Bradbury's books such as "Fahrenheit 451" for assignments in high school or just for fun. Inspired by the nuclear war fears of the Cold War, the futuristic tale of an apocalyptic world got its title from the temperature at which books tossed into mandatory bonfires would burst into flames. He said he wrote that book in nine days on a typewriter he rented at the library.
"The Martian Chronicles," a collection of themed stories published in 1950, helped fuel Americans' interest in space travel, technology and the future. But Bradbury, who shunned computers and much of modern technology, also showed the dangers of technological advancements.
"He saw the future in the past," said Arlington Heights author Charles Dickinson, whose time-travel novel "A Shortcut in Time" is available as an e-book, an invention Bradbury foresaw but only reluctantly embraced.
For Sam Weller, a 1985 graduate of Geneva High School and author of an award-winning, best-selling biography of Bradbury in 2005, the influence of Bradbury kicked in early.
Weller once told the Daily Herald that when the giant snowstorm of 1967 left families snowbound in their homes, he was still in his mother's womb listening to his father read aloud one of Bradbury's books. Now Weller, who won awards for his "The Bradbury Chronicles: The Life of Ray Bradbury," is an associate professor at Columbia College in Chicago.
Bradbury spent the first 14 years of his life in Waukegan and set his classic coming-of-age novels "Dandelion Wine" and "Something Wicked This Way Comes" in a Waukegan-like hamlet he called "Green Town."
"I lived in a house about one block from the ravine," Bradbury told the Daily Herald during a 2006 interview. "It was a wild jungle where all these ghosts waited for me. I played there winter and summer."
The young Bradbury and his imagination ran wild in that ravine. A bookish boy who wasn't into sports, Bradbury started writing his first book at age 12 and was still writing in the months before his death.
"My outlook on life is exciting and wonderful. I'm glad for my life," Bradbury said by phone from his Los Angeles home during that interview. "Every morning I wake up, and I have metaphors rushing around in my head and characters jumping to their destinies. I'm very excitable and I have great fun. By 9 a.m. I start writing. By noon I have a new short story. It goes from my ganglion right through into my fingertips."
Bradbury said he longed to visit the Mars he wrote about in "The Martian Chronicles."
"The only way I'll get there," he concluded, "is if they put my ashes in a tomato soup can and I'll be the first person buried there."