Ray Bradbury's letters to his English publisher, Rupert Hart-Davis, published here for the first time, show an interesting side of the American author. He and the English editor got on well, and their correspondence eventually reflected an almost fifty-year friendship. Like Bradbury, Hart-Davis was enterprising and sociable. He chose authors according to his taste, leaving the larger designs of both business and literature to work themselves out however they would.
The letters to Hart-Davis show how hard working and focused Bradbury was during his long, active writing life, how he could write some books in months, while happily spending years on others. They also show that like many writers (and artists of all kinds) Bradbury seldom just finished something and let it go. Instead he revised, re-used, improved and, in at least one case, described in these letters, worried what had originally appeared as a piece of pulp fiction into a world classic.
Good science fiction and fantasy, the genres for which Bradbury is best known, tend to deal with large issues. In many ways, they are related to the much older forms of religion, myth and folklore. These kinds of writing concern themselves with gods and monsters, mystical events, beginnings and ends, improbable distances in time and space and other shared motifs, such as the tribulations that come about from humans overreaching themselves. This subject is as old as Adam and Eve, Prometheus and Pandora, and as recent as the latest incarnation of Frankenstein. It is one of the most definitive but seemingly unlikely similarities of science fiction and fantasy to religious or wisdom literature.
Popular science writers sometimes mention science fiction and fantasy authors as the first to have certain ideas or to popularize them. Some fiction writers in fact do predict future scientific interests or technology. Bradbury, for example, was an early prophet of cell phones and the increasing role of television, although hardly as benefits to people's lives. Rather than celebrating such innovations, in fact, science fiction [End Page 5] writers more often question them with their apocalyptic wars, doomed immortals and characters that lose their souls due to otherworldly abilities. Like the oldest books, they remind us that we are not gods, no matter how elaborate our knowledge becomes.
The ur texts of most of the major religions were written during tribal or monarchical periods and influenced by historical realities that we can only speculate about today. The Torah or Pentateuch, the first five books of the Bible, seems to have been composed between 2,500 and 3,000 years ago, during and after the Babylonian exile. There are enough uncertainties and seeming contradictions in these texts to invite endless speculation. However, the writers of the Pentateuch, as well as their Greek approximate contemporaries Hesiod and Homer, repeatedly portray conflict between higher powers and humans, often for the same reason—human pridefulness and competition for power. Pride is Lucifer's sin, the most basic sin in Judaism and Christianity. Similarly, the Muslim Qur'an describes humility as the virtue that is the key to all other virtues. Without it, none of the other virtues are viable. The texts of Buddhism, going back over three thousand years, offer sophisticated instruction in achieving humility and composure.
Since the age of alchemy, the realms of science, engineering, medicine and technology have been the sources of both the greatest achievements and the greatest delusions. It isn't unusual for people to indulge in knee-jerk scientism, assuming that every disease can be conquered, every problem solved and every war won through the latest or the next discovery. But there must be a reason why we have been trying to remind ourselves, for as long as we have been thinking about how to live, to get off our high horses and recognize our limited place in the universe. Perhaps it has to do with the contradiction between our ability to imagine what seems to us like anything, while at the same time being locked in our egos, wondering how we got here, knowing we will die.
Ray Bradbury's best book, Fahrenheit 451, is a conventional dystopia in that it...