Wednesday, June 6, 2012

Death and Hope

So, my favorite author died.

I don't know when Ray Bradbury became my favorite. Fittingly, it was the public library that introduced me to his writing. There was Bradbury and Asimov, shelved next to each other, and their writing was so different and yet so wonderful.

Isaac Asimov defined science fiction for me. I devoured the robot stories and novels, the Foundation series, and almost died with delight when he tied it all together into one cohesive timeline of awesome. Asimov wrote so clearly. He took mind-blowing concepts like psychohistory and gathered them into tidy conclusions. He made telepathy and seeing the future plausible. I reveled in the depth and breadth of his stories.

Ray Bradbury was almost the opposite. He excelled at short stories. Even some of his novels are merely collections of short stories connected by setting and characters, or sometimes just setting. What he wrote wasn't really science fiction. (I think it still defies categorization. There should be a separate section of bookstores called simply "Bradbury.") He could take a setting and paint it across my mind in a single paragraph, sometimes a single sentence. His focus tended to detail, though, zooming in and drilling down into characters, moments, the quality of the air on a particular day. He slowed time, stretching out seconds into hours; sometimes he wrapped entire scenes into a few choice words.

I loved them both, and still do. But what stands out in my mind is the first time I finished Fahrenheit 451. It wasn't my first taste of Bradbury. I have no idea when I read it, either. It feels like I could have been every age at once and none at all, a moment out of time.

I got to the end. "This," I thought. "THIS! This is what I've been looking for my whole life."

Now that I think about it, maybe Fahrenheit 451 was forced reading in my AP English class, right after 1984. I don't know if Mrs. Allred was trying to highlight the contrast between the two, but it certainly hit me. And in my mind, F451 is nowhere near the other forced reads. I made it mine. I took it in and loved it.

I was in the early skirmishes of a long war with depression during that year. I liked the dark books, actually. I enjoyed 1984 and Lord of the Flies, and Heart of Darkness. But having gone through them, I had no desire to repeat the experience. I still don't. They dragged me through the depths of human experience and did a brilliant job of it. And then they left me there, in the depths. They closed with a sense of dark finality that felt unfinished. To me, that wasn't literary brilliance.

Brilliance came only at the end of Bradbury's opus, when something else appeared. Fahrenheit 451 is a dark tale, just like my life felt at the time, just as the world looked from my eyes. It was dark, and difficult, and nearly hopeless. But when it came down to the end and everything fell apart, burned, and died, there was something else to take its place, something a little brighter. Right at the end it became clear that this story wasn't really over, that it would go on past the last page of the novel. In that unwritten trajectory, Bradbury imparted a feeling that to me stood out like a beacon among the books I'd read. He gave me hope.

In the years of my personal war that followed and through my own miraculous victory, I've learned that the story Bradbury told is the true one. There is always hope. There is always a weapon against the darkness, allies in the fight, and a path forward, even if they don't appear when we think they should. This thread winds its way through all of Bradbury's novels and stories.

To me, that's the truth of the world, and it's far too often absent from the literary canon and popular philosophy. Bradbury showed me writing with depth, beauty, and ingrained optimism. That's what I aspire to in my own writing.

"We're going to meet a lot of lonely people in the next week and the next month and the next year. And when they ask us what we're doing, you can say, We're remembering. That's where we'll win out in the long run."