Too Soon From the Cave, Too Far From the Stars

By Ray Bradbury

Morrow. 243 pp. $25.95

This volume is a collection of Ray Bradbury's essays, published -- or not published -- over a period of about 40 years. It is the work of someone who has always been an anomalous figure in contemporary American literature. His backlist, the promotional information informs us, sells more than 200,000 copies a year. He was, and remains, one of our most popular writers. On the other hand, many intellectuals have spurned or, worse, ignored him. There is a wide, if ebbing, prejudice in this country against "science fiction," which is, even now, perceived by many to be a second-class genre.

To counter this viewpoint, or maybe because he really feels this way, Bradbury has long held that science fiction was the real cause of human space flight. As Adm. Byrd said as he took off for the North Pole, "Jules Verne leads me!" That saying is quoted three times in "Bradbury Speaks," in three separate pieces. Bradbury's view is that no one would explore anything unless he (or she) had read about it first, which is arguable but unprovable. To suggest that Sputnik's arrival on the scene might have jolted the United States into the space race is equally arguable but unprovable. The author's purpose here, if I read him correctly, is to put the finishing touches on his permanent niche in the roster of American Lit as a prophet of space (and other utopias), creating a lasting legend of what he himself "means" in our literary landscape.

So here are these collected essays, some no more than two or three pages long, supposedly "About Writing" or "About Science Fiction," or "People," "Life," "Paris," or "Los Angeles," but really about Ray Bradbury -- his opinions and beliefs.

Bradbury is a contrarian. He's an ardent sponsor of space travel who couldn't bring himself to get on a plane until 1982 (he was born in 1920). He respects Jules Verne's love of machinery but has never learned to drive a car. He disdains e-mail, videos and all other technological paraphernalia.

He seems to hold the belief that if we can get to outer space, we can live forever. He's an incorrigible name-dropper, but only if that name thinks -- or says -- he's a genius. Thus, Sergei Bondarchuk, who directed the Russian film version of "War and Peace," here lectures a group of somewhat dazed American film directors, including Billy Wilder, Sam Peckinpah, Frank Capra and King Vidor: "Bradbury! . . . Do you know who this is? Do you realize what is this talent? Your greatest genius, your greatest writer. My God. Get out of the way! Come! Where's the vodka!"

The first section here, seven essays under the rubric "About Writing," recalls how Bradbury became who he is today -- his trials, tribulations and triumphs. In "Lincoln's Doctor's Dog's Butterfly," he recounts how some movie-director-yahoo wanted to take the butterfly out of a screenplay of his story "A Sound of Thunder," originally published in Collier's magazine 50 years ago, in which a butterfly is featured prominently. His reaction is echt Bradbury: "God, I thought, here we go again! The story has been published in eighty anthologies, read by millions of students in ten thousand schools. If you shot a film minus the butterfly, there would be pandemonium." Millions of readers! He's right, of course, but shouldn't it be someone else who's praising him to the skies? It seems a little embarrassing.

Equally unsettling are his accounts -- several in this book -- of how he, Bradbury, turned Herman Melville's "Moby-Dick" into a screenplay: "On other mornings I had ordered breakfast. This morning I got out of bed, stared at my typewriter across the room, and marched toward it. . . . I made a declaration to myself in the mirror: 'I,' I cried, 'am Herman Melville!' "

Then follows a discussion of metaphors and how he put them together for the script. Only a Scrooge-ish critic would remember that film as less than marvelous, with poor Gregory Peck chasing after a tawdry special-effects whale that looked like a Naugahyde couch. (But that wasn't necessarily Bradbury's fault.)

There's very little about his fiction -- other than how he got the inspiration for particular works, or sold them, or strung short stories together to make a novel. And indeed, the fiction seems to have been written by a completely different voice -- cool, introspective, sober, somber. Again, the author here chooses to be a prophet, employing a hortatory tone: "My own belief is that the universe exists as a miracle and that we have been born here to witness and celebrate. We wonder at our purpose for living. Our purpose is to perceive the fantastic. Why have a universe if there is no audience?"

Or, on space travel: "We move into the universe. We name ourselves, along with our rockets, after old deities. We make ourselves central to existence, knowing not how far we must travel before we meet other mirrors of God staring back into His vast gaze."

What else? Bradbury is a city planner in his spare time; he offered valuable advice to Walt Disney on the building of his theme parks and the people who did the U.S. Pavilion at the World's Fair in New York in 1964. He brought the (then failing) Century City shopping mall in Los Angeles to life with some well-chosen ideas; he has even more ideas for revitalizing downtown Los Angeles and Hollywood Boulevard. (It should be noted, though, that he never lets the facts interfere with his opinions: "Chinatown is abandoned, gangs roam free, so the best cafes have turned off their ovens," he writes, when the Chinatown scene has never been more hip, chic and respectable, and Chinese chefs don't use ovens very much at all.)

Bradbury is an extremely respected figure here in Los Angeles -- from where I write. He was an indefatigable lecturer in the old days, immensely popular with students. After his stroke, when it was tiring for him to sign his name, he made arrangements for Polaroid photos to be taken with buyers of his books. He is legendarily devoted to his readers. I must have seen him 30 times over the years at conferences, signings, events (and spoken to him only once). Since this book is plainly for the record, let me say, also for the record, Bradbury always looked sad. His wonderful fiction speaks from the somber, thoughtful side of him. These essays don't.