The man who helped put the fiction into science fiction and (among other things) envisioned flat-screen wall-to-wall television way back in 1951 turned 90 this week. Obsessed from an early age with death, old age and a longing to retain the eternal child in all of us, his works manage to encapsulate themes of the unknown that playfully bounce back and forth between fantasy and science with the greatest of ease. Ray has been a friend and mentor to me for many years and I can say with that in mind that there are few writers who have humanized the world of science more than him. He's a national treasure and in this blog I will share a few of the magical moments and thoughts he has shared with me.
Ray has the rare distinction of being the first author I ever read in high school whose works I read because I wanted to read it rather than having to read it for a grade point. Back then when I was forced to read “Catcher in the Rye” by other teachers, through a creative writing teacher I will forever be thankful for, I discovered Ray's “Dandelion Wine” and the rest is history. Once to be titled “The Child's Garden of Terrors,” I not only became a fan of his visual style of writing, but his sentiments ran in the same current as mine when it came to magic and the paranormal. He was just right for that time in my life.
Ray shared with me his first magic trick: The Ball and Vase. When he was eight years old, he went to the circus and saw his first side-show. During that pivotal moment, he watched a performer called “Mr. Electrico.” This was the old “Electric Chair” illusion where a pretty girl sits in a chair and has electricity passed through her (she is grounded so she doesn't get zapped; see photo) and she is able to hold different kinds of light bulbs which light up in her hands without harm. At one point Mr. Electrico took his own “light sword” and tapped Ray on the nose, telling him he would live forever. Ray was transfixed. He wasn't afraid since he now thought he would live forever and with this notion in mind he waited until the show was over to ask Mr. Electrico how he did his magic. Mr. Electrico gave him a red wooden Ball and Vase, which Ray still has today. He ran home and tried to figure out how to do the trick and went back the next day to get a private session with Mr. Electrico, where he learned the real secrets behind this minor miracle. This adventure started out as a short story he wrote in “Dark Carnival” which later became the title of Ray's first published book and on to “Something Wicked This Way Comes.” Such are the many real life experiences that were magically transformed in Ray's mind that have become classics of fantasy and science fiction. He's done everything imaginable including lampooning himself in a futuristic commercial for pitted prunes: “Brave New Prune.” Stan Freberg anyone? http://laughingsquid.com/ray-bradbury-sunsweet-prunes-commercial/ Ray has a devilish sense of humor and he has never been afraid to speak his mind.
Ray's house is a museum. It is cluttered from floor to ceiling with history. One can only hope that when the time comes, it will be put together in a safe place just as it is: with every shelf and corner just the way he has it now; like some wandering wizard's toyshop of fantastic curios. You could spend hours walking through hallways and hidden nooks housing collections of bizarre paintings and ephemera that include everything from models of the Nautilus submarine from “20000 Leagues Under the Sea” to a saved brick from Poe's original birth place. Years and years of magical thinking surround every wall. This is not woo, this is the modern outcome of investigating centuries of mind, myth and magic.
We spoke with Ray for a few choice minutes. He's incredibly fragile and not in good health, with both vision and hearing problems that make conversing with him a challenge. But he's still as sharp as a tack. When he speaks, it is always something profound. He doesn't mince words and when you are in his presence, you better pay attention. We ran the video that we had downloaded on a laptop. Considering the title and content of this video, it was a tense few minutes. Still, we both soon saw that wise old knowing gleam in his eyes and heard a few soft chuckles. This is a man who has been around the block a few times and we could see that he was charmed by the whole thing. And who wouldn't be? How many authors of his stature get to see young women frolicking in a girl's school singing that tune? Not appropriate for the workplace, you can watch what we watched at:http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=e1IxOS4VzKM
As a finale for Ray's afternoon, as if anything could possibly top the Youtube video performance, I managed to coerce Susan to treat Ray to one of her own inimitable performances of The Ball and Vase. I gave her one as a holiday gift and she has been keeping people in stitches ever since. If you haven't watched Susan doing her version of this classic of magic and want to have a few laughs (and watch Randi double up in laughter too) you can find that gem at: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Or90XDpmztM
All in all it was a short but memorable visit. Like Ray's own dandelion wine, it's best to drink in such heady experiences in small sips. When we got up to leave I asked Ray if there was anything we could do for him, he replied, “… Just keep visiting me.” What a sweetheart. Ray is at this moment getting set to observe an entire week devoted to his birthday here in Los Angeles. Tagged as the “Live Forever” week, although I remain skeptical, I have no doubt he will live forever, one way or another. Thanks Ray for teaching me how to read – for real. FYI:Ray Bradbury is about to publish a new book of 22 new short stories!
AND THIS JUST IN: Lots of reaction to this video (and Susan's picture!) at P.Z. Meyer's blog: