By Heidi Simmons
It was the seventh-grade when my English class was assigned The Martian Chronicles by Ray Bradbury. How cool! We discovered that the Martians used telepathy — sharing information by just thinking about it. My friends and I wanted to try it. What a great way to communicate during class without the teacher knowing.
I had never read anything like The Martian Chronicles: A dying earth, space travel to another planet and a conflict with the indigenous Martian inhabitants. Such a difference from all the previously assigned reading that only took place on earth — or so I thought.
I related to the Martians. I was mad at the Earthlings. I was curious about the “shape shifter.” It was all crazy stuff and it was my first experience reading science fiction. It was also the first time I realized reading could be more than just an assignment or mere entertainment on a page. For me and my seventh-grade mind, it was profound, meaningful and insightful.
My English teacher carefully drew us into the social, political and moral correlations between us Earthlings and Bradbury’s Martians. This was in the seventies. What was happening on Mars, I realized had or was happening here on planet Earth. I learned about allegory and was able to see my little world in a new light. For this seventh-grader, it was a memorable eye-opener.
Originally, The Martian Chronicles was a collection of short vignettes Bradbury wrote for various science fiction magazines and later put together in 1950 with new material to form the novel. The Martian stories came to him the very night his wife shared a poem she liked called, “There Will Come A soft Rain” by Sara Teasdale.
Bradbury was quoted as saying: “I don’t write science fiction. I’ve only done one science fiction book and that’s Fahrenheit 451, based on reality. It was named so to represent the temperature at which paper ignites. Science fiction is a depiction of the real. Fantasy is a depiction of the unreal. So Martian Chronicles is not science fiction, it’s fantasy. It couldn’t happen, you see? That’s the reason it’s going to be around a long time — because it’s a Greek myth, and myths have staying power.”
Whether science fiction, fantasy or myth, Bradbury made his stories relevant to our human experience. No matter how bizarre the characters or setting, the trials and challenges were recognizable and relatable to our condition.
During my eighth-grade year, we read Fahrenheit 451. Again, beyond the great writing and provocative characters, I got the message and the title. What a shock it was to me that a civil servant — a firemen from our American future — starts fires rather than puts them out. How could the people of the future not value books and a free press? How could books frighten them so? That’s when I understood how important books were to our free society.
That same year, Ray Bradbury himself came to our Los Angeles suburban school. He spoke to us about reading, writing and pursuing our dreams. He told us it was important to do what we loved. He didn’t talked down to us and was personable and friendly. He was genuinely interested and I believe he truly wanted to inspire us to create a better future.
Bradbury had a home in Palm Springs and I saw him here years later at a book-signing. There were no long lines. He was casually sitting and chatting with the bookstore’s owner. I thanked him for coming to my school, for being a part of my education and especially for the joy of reading he helped inspire. He said he remembered the school and liked the talks with kids. He didn’t say much more. He seemed happy to hear what I had to say — interested, I think, to hear what my story might be. For such a prolific and disciplined writer (a thousand words a day since he was a middle-schooler), for him to make time to speak to school kids was incredibly generous and sincere. Obviously, it was something he felt passionate about. He was our local hero.
Recently, I read an interview with Bradbury in the magazine Written By. He was a Zen Buddhist and said, “I don’t believe in thinking about things, I believe in doing. Everything is love. You do things for love, not money.” He loved writing. He loved story. He loved life and he lived fully.
There are many wonderful collections of short stories and anthologies by Bradbury. You can’t go wrong having something by Ray Bradbury in your personal library or on your nightstand. This summer, I plan to revisit The Martian Chronicles (Doubleday, 222 pages) and Fahrenheit 451 (Random House, 208 pages) just for the love of it and maybe for the nostalgia. Perhaps I’ll gain some new insight on how to successfully use telepathy. Thank you Ray!