One of the most enduring aspects of science fiction author Ray Bradbury’s legacy is his ability to humanize something as cold and alien as the future and leave readers examining their own relationships to the worlds and societies they live in. He was a prolific writer who had completed three novels and over 600 short stories at the time of his passing in 2012, but five of his works stand as the greatest testaments to his genre-transcendent ability to tell stories.
Bradbury’s 1972 novel The Halloween Tree combines elements of science fiction, fantasy, horror, and historical fiction to tell the story of nine friends’ journey through time. Throughout their jaunts across time and space, the friends learn about the origins of Halloween, from ancient pagan practices and Druid priests to the Mexican Dias de Muertos celebrations. The novel was originally written as a script for an animated film that was supposed to be directed by Chuck Jones. Even though the collaboration with Jones never fully materialized, an Emmy-winning animated adaptation premiered on television in 1993. Disneyland displays a Bradbury-inspired Halloween tree every year with their Halloween decorations.
Although The Illustrated Man was mostly composed to versions of stories Bradbury had already previously published, it is considered one of his most significant collections. The entire work is framed around a transient man who is covered from head to toe in vibrant and constantly shifting tattoos that each tell a story. Most of the stories have strikingly philosophical focuses that utilize the future and its imagined technologies to ask questions about human nature. For example, the story The Other Foot touches on the deep wounds created by racism while Kaleidoscope has deeply introspective and existentialist themes.
Throughout this collection course of nearly thirty short stories, readers are given an image of a devastated Earth and a Mars colonization mission are painted, leading to genocide of the native Martians that parallels the devastation of Native Americans following European colonization. Bradbury poignantly reflects on humanities capacity for destruction and environmental concerns through a character in the story “And the Moon Be Still As Bright” when he states “We’ll rip it up, rip the skin off, and change it to fit ourselves…We Earth Men have a talent for ruining big, beautiful things.” Bradbury always insisted the wasn’t as interested in “predicting” the future as much as preventing it, and he clearly anticipated modern concerns about the environment, and thankfully people are generally looking to reduce their carbon footprint (more details here). Another story that feels eerily relevant is “August 2026: There Will Come Soft Rains” which details a fully-automated house which self destructs in the aftermath of a nuclear holocaust — and the story is all the more chilling nowadays, in the age of home automation systems.
In Something Wicked, Bradbury departs somewhat dramatically from his normal futuristic setting and instead writes about a supernatural carnival that has settled down in an anonymous Midwestern American town. Rather than using humanity’s relationship to technology to ask the important questions, Bradbury utilizes more mystical plot devices such as a carousel that increases or reverses a rider’s age depending on which direction it is spinning and a blind fortune teller with telepathic powers. Ultimately, the novel is about good and evil and a few deeper themes like eternal youth and hubris and its relevance has not faded in the fifty years it has been in print.
To put it simply, Fahrenheit 451 is considered Bradbury’s masterpiece and a starkly unsettling view of the near future. The novel is told through the perspective of a “fireman”, who is tasked with finding and burning hidden caches of books which are now illegal in a world saturated by the media and a mindless public. The book was formulated during the harrowing McCarthy trials in which Senator Joe McCarthy was leading so-called “witch hunts” against suspected Communists in the United States, which lead to the destruction of many persons’ lives. Fahrenheit 451 encapsulates the ultimate fear of every thinking human being: a world where free thought and discussion have given way to mass media and groupthink. Bradbury also put his uncanny knack for accurately predicting the future when he described tiny electronic radios that fit into people’s ears a la Bluetooth headsets, giant flatscreen TV’s that would dominate people’s free time, social media and its resulting isolation, shortening attention spans and even ATMs.
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