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Remembering Ray Bradbury

Posted by Mat Kaplan

06-06-2012 17:16 CDT

Topics: obituary, Planetary Radio, Mars, Planetary Society

I'm very sad today. A lot of writers have noted that Ray Bradbury will always be with us through his work, and thank the gods of Barsoom for that. But I miss, so terribly miss, his glorious human presence. Here's a sampling of treasured memories.

I've been able to count on seeing Ray at least once every couple of years for nearly four decades. The first time was in a men's room. Not just any men's room. I was a nineteen-year-old college kid on a Hollywood date at Grauman's Chinese Theater. Ray was very kind to the bearded punk who accosted him at the sink. I mentioned this to him many years later. He laughed, and then asked if I knew why the mirrors in the Chinese Theater's bathrooms were so low. I didn't have to wait long for the answer. "It's because Sid Grauman was barely five feet tall!"

Everyone knows how much Ray loved libraries. Fewer know that the author of Fahrenheit 451 personally saved my California hometown's library system from censorship. Exactly 50 years ago, the head librarian took a courageous stance against a Long Beach city council majority that wanted to ban many books. She would, no doubt, have been ignored or crushed had not an already famous writer come to her aid. One of my many interviews with Ray came on the 20th anniversary of this victory. 

Ray was less successful in another, more recent effort. He made regular visits to a Long Beach landmark called Acres of Books. I believe he said the cavernous, musty space was his favorite bookstore. He was happy to join the fight to save it when the store was threatened with demolition. I was there when he made an impassioned plea on its behalf. Sadly, Acres of Books closed soon after in 2008. Check out his essay, "I Sing the Bookstore Eclectic," if you can find it. (And please tell me where you found it!)

When my former employer, a university, needed a star for a writers' conference, I knew who to call. Ray dressed up for the occasion. He wore a shirt and tie over Bermuda shorts and sandals with socks. He told us, "Writers write! If you're not writing, you're not a writer. Find some other almost as respectable profession."

I remember, with special fondness, a birthday party we threw for Ray here at the Planetary Society. It was August of 2003. Mars was closer to Earth than it had been for many years. After conducting yet another interview, I asked Ray for a favor. My daughter was in her high school's theater adaptation of The Martian Chronicles. Would he record a message for the production? No hesitation. He launched into a lovely, entirely improvised welcoming speech that brought tears to my eyes, as it would later bring tears to the eyes of the cast and audiences. (Listen to the August 25, 2003 Planetary Radio for special coverage of the birthday party.)

Those tears were back this morning. I can't help feeling that we've lost much more than one of our age's greatest writers. I'll miss Ray's passion, his vision, his stern yet elegant warnings, his laugh, his gentle eccentricities, his childlike wonder, his storytelling. I very much hope he is with John Carter, bounding across the Barsoom he reached out to as a boy. 

Society members, please add your thoughts and stories about Ray in the new Share Your Story section of the website. Members and not-yet-members alike can read what's posted there. 

Here are some of the Planetary Radio shows I recorded with Ray. I hope you enjoy listening to them as much as I enjoyed recording them:

A Martian Birthday Party for Ray Bradbury (2003)

Ray Bradbury Returns! (2004)

Ray Bradbury Returns Again! (2005)

Ray Bradbury Looks Back at Apollo 11 (2009)

Ray Bradbury Turns 90 and the Best Mars Map Ever (2010)

See other posts from June 2012


Or read more blog entries about: obituary, Planetary Radio, Mars, Planetary Society


Roger: 06/08/2012 01:42 CDT

Mat - You can read the essay "I Sing The Bookstore Eclectic" via the version of the website!

MatKaplan: 06/08/2012 10:51 CDT

Thanks, Roger! It's great to see that article again.

BillGoodwin: 06/29/2012 03:19 CDT

I can't wait to hear these Planetary Radio shows! I hope you don't mind, Mr. Kaplan, if I share the following open letter (sans paragraph breaks) with you and your readers. Any thoughts or feedback would be greatly appreciated: Ray Bradbury was my friend. I've spent the last several months reading his classic works aloud to him, which, naturally, was a joy and an intimacy that words can't adequately describe. I spoke at his funeral, and excerpts from my memoir about him form the cover story of the current issue of Rosebud magazine. My question is: Is there any kind of Bradbury tribute being organized in connection with the anticipated landing of Curiosity in August? A panel discussion would be a treat for the public, and might add a further romantic dimension to the program at PLANETFEST. I know first-hand how genuine Ray's interest in planetary exploration was, and it's a passion I share. Yet when I speak with young people about Mars, what they often fail to comprehend is the "why." Why get excited? Why should they care about rocks and a little frost? I don't have to tell you how frustrating it is to see such waning interest. Itemizing the economic incentives and technological spinoffs just seems to make matters worse. We need to remember the words of poets like Bradbury, and to cultivate their human perspective amongst new generations of writers, artists and engineers. The last time Ray experienced his novel, The Martian Chronicles, was from my own lips. I am compelled by my debt. I'm no engineer, and only a novice writer, but I've got connections in event management and know a thing or two about putting together an audio-visual presentation. Any assistance I could provide at this late hour, in the mounting of a Bradbury remembrance, would be gladly given. I'd even be happy to produce such a presentation on my own time (pending approval of format and content). One room and one hour is all we'd need! Many recognized authors and illustrators come to mind; I've been talking with some of them this week. The real challenge would be in keeping the list short. We've just seen the 40th anniversary of the public discussion (in connection with Mariner 9, between Bradbury, Sagan, Clarke, Murray and Sullivan) which ultimately became the book "Mars and the Mind of Man." A good name for a sequel might be: "Mars and the HEART of Man." Two conversations bracketing four decades of astonishing discovery. And keeping the focus, of course, on the red planet itself, which promises to surprise us all again this year. Naturally, if a tribute to Ray has already been arranged, or if the many good people working on the Pasadena event already have such matters well-in-hand, I remain the Planetary Society's enthusiastic supporter, Bill Goodwin

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