NBC's DECISION TO PUT off until early next year The Martian Chronicles mini-series is what Ray Bradbury fans might call a glitch -- that is, a failure to function properly, a minor mishap, or, to be specific, a short-lived irregularity in the movement of a neutron star.
Like stars, Bradbury's statistics are astronomical. More than 18,000,000 times, Bantam's presses have stamped the legend, "The World's Greatest Living Science-Fiction Writer" (source not given) on the company's 14 Bradbury paperbacks. The Martian Chronicles alone accounts for three million copies, not counting a new illustrated version just out. Some 500 published works of many sorts bear his byline. His stories are in at least 150 anthologies.
Among science fiction's titanic ABC -- Isaac Asimov, Bradbury and Arthur C. Clarke -- Bradbury is the only one not trained as a scientist. "Facts," he confeses, "put me to sleep at noon," and he does not hesitate, if it suits his story line, to bestow a breathable atmosphere on Mars. But Bradbury's bravura, his inventiveness and moral sensitivity, his double-edged sense of horror and humor, have blasted him beyond the science-fiction shelf. In November, Taplinger is to issue a collection of essays on his work. The collection, titled Ray Bradbury , is to include "The Frontier Myth in Ray Bradbury" and "Ray Bradbury and the Gothic Tradition."
Bradbury doesn't limit himself to books any more than he ties his characters to Mother Earth. His multi-media creation, The Star traveler , is due at Madison Square Garden this fall; he writes screenplays, (Moby Dick) , television scripts (The Twilight Zone, Alfred Hitchcock Presents) ; he helped plan the U.S. Pavilion at the 1963 New Yrok World's Fair; he is currently shaping a city of the future for the Disney people, and along the way he has published stories, poems or article in just about every major American magazine, providing a link among such incongruous periodicals as The New Yorker Cosmopolitan and Nation's Business.
A rumpled, ebullient earthling with a resonant tenor voice, Ray Bradbury seems remarkeably unfettered by almost six decades of confinement to this minor planet. Or conversation took place in Los Angeles where he lives, since his vivid imagination does not permit him to enter a flying machine. But his flights of fancy have taken him on quite a trip around the universe -- perched on a constellation of art forms.
Q: What are you working on now?
A: I'm doing an opera, a grand opera, which I hope will open in Paris in about a year. It's based on the Melvillian mythology of the White Whale -- but in outer space. It is a story laid in the future characters to Mother Earth. His multi-media creation, The Star space captain goes out to attack the comet because it put out his eyes when he was a young man. So you have, as you can see, an opera dedicated to Herman Melville, the libretto written in free verse by me, and which I think will be a successor of Puccini if we are very, very fortunate.
Q: Of all that you have written, is there one work that you have most affection for?
A: My novel, Something Wicked This Way Comes , published 17 years ago. It's about a small town and carnivals and a wonderful man named Mr. Electrico, a real man whom I met when I was 12. Two years after the book had been published, I was rereading it late one night when I suddenly burst into tears. I hadn't realized when I wrote it that I was writing about my dad. I'd put my father in the heart of the book as the hero. My father has been dead for 21 years now and I'm so proud that his son inadvertently wrote him into this book -- so my dad has a chance to live all over again. . . .I finished the screenplay recently, and Stephen Spielberg is going to direct it as a film next year.
Q: How can one individual write in so many forms?
A: The reason I shift gears constantly, why I'm doing an opera, why I've done essays, why I've written poetry for years that nobody wanted, why I do short stories and novels and screenplays. . .is so I will have new ways of failing. This means becoming a student again. I believe in creative failing -- to contine to write poems that fail and fail and fail until a day comes when you've got a thousand poems behind you and you're relaxed and you finally write a good poen.
Q: You have said that libraries played a large part in your education. How so?
A: Even as a child, I found libraries enchanting. They were watering places, jungle country. I loved libraries at night, the old-fashioned ones where you were surrounded by shadows. And there were pools of green illumination -- from those wonderful green-shaded lamps that were on every table -- where you could go to drink. You get the books off the shelf and smell the pages: elephant India and the incenses of Madras, the paprikas and cinnamons of ancient Egypt. You take the books, you lie there in the pools of light and you drink life. That is how intensely I have loved libraries.
When I graduated from high school, there was no chance of my going to college, so I put myself into the downtown Los Angeles library and graduated from there when I was 28.
Q: You made out your own course of study?
A: I read everything that I could in every section. I gave myself an education in art history, philosophy, theology, the short story, the mystery story, essays, poetry, you name it. In some places, not very deep. In other places, complete. I just ran amok. When I found an author who enchanted me -- like Somerset Maugham, one of the happiest accidents of my life -- I read everything. I ramble libraries, I don't plan anything. I just climb the stacks like a chimpanzee.
Q: Most people think of libraries as rather quiet places where everybody is saying "Shhhh. . ."
A: I don't make a lot of noise by I'm raping the books right and left.
Q: What do you think of the notion that a science-fiction story, no matter when it takes place, is really about the period in which it was written?
A: We write science fiction because it puts us at one remove from the reality we exist in. If I sat down today and did a story on what automobiles have done to us -- they've killed 2 million so far and they would [kill] another 2 million every year -- that would be a bore because we already know it. If I were going to write about that problem, I'd put it ahead 40 or 60 years and do a story like "The Pedestrian," in which a man is arrested and taken to an insane asylum because he goes for a walk at night.
It's very much like the old legend of Perseus and Medusa. Medusa was very real, Medusa is now . Perseus had a bronze shield, which is the future . He wants to kill Medusa, but if you look at her she will freeze you. That is what now does, it freezes us so we can't move. So what do you do? You look in the bronze shield, which is a mirror. You see where Medusa is, and you reach behind you with your sword and you cut off Medusa's head. That's what science fiction is. It's Perseus and Medusa and the shield.
Q: Can you explain why two great classics of contemporary science fiction, Brave New World and 1984 , do not have space travel in them?
A: That shows you how snobbish the intellectuals were. Orwell and Huxley missed the boat because they were surrounded in London, New York, wherever they were, by people who said space travel could never happen so you don't write about it. If you do, it gives you hope. And in their books they don't want hope.
Q: What chance is there that 30 years from now people will be saying that Bradbury also missed the boat, that he didn't foresee this or that enormous influence?
A: Not much chance because I've covered all my bets. Right now I'm helping create a city of the future with buildings as environments that teach the history of art. And I've tried to look at a variety of alternatives: colonies in space, colonizing Mars, going out to Alpha Centarui, solar sails to encounter Halley's comet. There may be some things that haven't been invented yet -- but rockets were invented in the time of Huxley and Orwell. I was excited when I was 8 about rocket ships. Where in the hell were they?
Q: So if there is still someone in this galaxy who looks down his nose at science fiction, what would you say to him?
A: The snobs don't realize that we are talking about the exciting changes wrought by the birth of ideas. Ideas and philosophies change just as machines do. Religions changed because of the birth control pill. Politics changes because of the hydrogen bomb. All because of science fictional inventions. So people should realize that we are talking about very serious things -- but sometimes we pretend not to be serious in order to educate you.