Ray Bradbury, who has died aged 91, is best known as a writer as of sci-fi and fantasy, but many of the most vivid worlds he conjured were worlds of the memory. The same man who wrote The Martian Chronicles wrote Dandelion Wine, and that’s very much the point.
Bradbury was all-American in his enthusiasms for candy bars, the public library, the movies, and gizmos and adventure. In his writing, he stood astride the American century, with a lovingly visual nostalgia for the past, and a boundless hunger for the future. In many of his most affecting tales, not just Fareinheit 451, past and future intrude upon the other: The Martian Chronicles is rife with visions of lost hometowns, human and Martian; Something Wicked This Way Comes (and its echo, Death Is a Lonely Business) involve the fantastical and sinister encroaching on vividly rendered backlot settings; many of his most enduring short stories, like “The Veldt” and “Sound of Thunder” and “All Summer in a Day” mix pulp wonderment with that hoariest of convention, the moral fable. (He also wrote a lot, fast, and always knew when to end a story.)
Who cares about the future more than a little boy?
In his last piece published in his lifetime, the snippet “Take Me Home,” in the current “Science Fiction” summer-fiction issue of the New Yorker, Bradbury writes of himself at age 7 or 8, in the summer of 1928, devouring Edgar Rice Burroughs’s John Carter of Mars stories, and mourning for the stories of his dead grandfather:
I memorized all of “John Carter” and “Tarzan,” and sat on my grandparents’ front lawn repeating the stories to anyone who would sit and listen. I would go out to that lawn on summer nights and reach up to the red light of Mars and say, “Take me home!” I yearned to fly away and land there in the strange dusts that blew over dead-sea bottoms toward the ancient cities.
While I remained earthbound, I would time-travel, listening to the grownups, who on warm nights gathered outside on the lawns and porches to talk and reminisce. At the end of the Fourth of July, after the uncles had their cigars and philosophical discussions, and the aunts, nephews, and cousins had their ice-cream cones or lemonade, and we’d exhausted all the fireworks, it was the special time, the sad time, the time of beauty. It was the time of the fire balloons.
Even at that age, I was beginning to perceive the endings of things, like this lovely paper light. I had already lost my grandfather, who went away for good when I was five. I remember him so well: the two of us on the lawn in front of the porch, with twenty relatives for an audience, and the paper balloon held between us for a final moment, filled with warm exhalations, ready to go.
I’d helped my grandpa carry the box in which lay, like a gossamer spirit, the paper-tissue ghost of a fire balloon waiting to be breathed into, filled, and set adrift toward the midnight sky. My grandfather was the high priest and I his altar boy. I helped take the red-white-and-blue tissue out of the box and watched as Grandpa lit a little cup of dry straw that hung beneath it. Once the fire got going, the balloon whispered itself fat with the hot air rising inside.
But I could not let it go. It was so beautiful, with the light and shadows dancing inside. Only when Grandpa gave me a look, and a gentle nod of his head, did I at last let the balloon drift free, up past the porch, illuminating the faces of my family. It floated up above the apple trees, over the beginning-to-sleep town, and across the night among the stars.
We stood watching it for at least ten minutes, until we could no longer see it. By then, tears were streaming down my face, and Grandpa, not looking at me, would at last clear his throat and shuffle his feet. The relatives would begin to go into the house or around the lawn to their houses, leaving me to brush the tears away with fingers sulfured by the firecrackers. Late that night, I dreamed the fire balloon came back and drifted by my window.
Twenty-five years later, I wrote “The Fire Balloons,” a story in which a number of priests fly off to Mars looking for creatures of good will. It is my tribute to those summers when my grandfather was alive. One of the priests was like my grandpa, whom I put on Mars to see the lovely balloons again, but this time they were Martians, all fired and bright, adrift above a dead sea.