The Lights Are Going Out

Too late to fix another drink, the lights are going out.  I’ll just listen to the darkness sing, yeah I know what that’s about.
                                     Leonard Cohen

And this morning I learned we lost Ray Bradbury.

In the pantheon of my young years, where science fiction writers were gods (note small g) who lived across the sea in an inaccessible land called America, three reigned supreme: Heinlein, Ray Bradbury, and Clifford Simak.  (Yes, I know I’m weird.)

Around those clustered others: Asimov, Anderson, McCaffrey, Clarke, Turtledove too many to name them all, but all eliciting immediate buy orders from the brain on sight.

But those three were supreme, names to be pronounced and treasured, books to be anticipated for months before release.

Heinlein brought me up to a great extent, but Bradbury… Bradbury spoke directly to my poetic soul.  The first book I read in English was Dandelion Wine.  I still have it, that same copy, all underlined, with notations on the meaning of words on the side.  It took me months to read, but it was worth it.  And the richness of the words leached into my vocabulary and my own writing.

The first thing I translated in Techniques of Translation was a Ray Bradbury short – and it changed the teacher’s mind about “junky science fiction.”

When I applied to become an exchange student, I started the essay with a quote from Fahrenheit 451.  My first married year, I was thrown into raptures of magic the first time I saw an ice-cream truck.  There is a vintage carousel near us that is a place of enchantment for me and my children because of Ray Bradbury.

I was smart enough to realize what Ray did I could not do.  Sure, I can spin words and lots of them, but the magic that animated HIS words and made reality sparkle and flit with potentiality and power – that I did not have.  This realization probably saved me from a lucrative career in “literature.”  But I continued to enjoy his way with words, and his way with magic.

The quote above ran through my head when I heard of his death.  And sure, I know how to hear darkness sing, because Ray made it sing.  But even at the heart of his darkness, at the most scary moments of his stories, there was… humanity: humanity sometimes twisted and turned, but never despicable.  Humanity shining and singing: now dark, now bright, always interesting, always alive.  That is no mean gift, to spin of darkness a tapestry so enticing that others can find light in it.

And if the lights are going out, as the last of my giants passes from this world, what good is it to wail and beat our chests?  What good is it, either, as many of the present pygmies do, to try to stomp down their memory and make ourselves feel good?

Their lights have gone out, but we have these here matches, and maybe they’ll allow us to light something, and set the world of the mind ablaze – as they did.

You go on ahead, Ray.  I’m sure even now, in the eternal con bar, Heinlein is pouring some dandelion wine into your glass.

I’ll come, by and by, past the fortune teller and the dark streets of a small American town, circa 1920, across the amusement park where the merry-go-round beckons, across the ravine where dark and golden eyed forms loom, to take my place at the bar.

But meanwhile here there’s work to do.  I have this here match.  I’m not worthy of any of you.  I’m only a small human where giants trod.  But I’m going to see if I can set imaginations on fire.

Update: Thank you to Instapundit for the link, and as always, welcome instapundit readers.

59 thoughts on “The Lights Are Going Out

  1. I went to see him speak once, when I was in college – the one thing I recall from his talk was the story of how he got arrested for walking in L.A.
    I also remember being creeped out by the short story, “Dark They Were and Golden-Eyed”.

  2. I just learned that he was dead. My still favorite novel of Bradbury’s is “Something Wicked This Way Comes.” I will miss his stories.

    1. Yes and yes. ‘By the pricking of my thumbs, Something wicked this way comes.’ When I hear that, I don’t think of Shakespeare’s second witch I think of Bradbury’s story and the 1983 film for which he did the screenplay.

      Fortunately he left a legacy that can be visited and revisited.

      1. Yes, The best mood piece I have ever read. Mood pieces are a very thin high wire: the slightest false move can make you look (at best) ridiculous.
        Something Wicked had, to my eye, not a single false step. Virtuoso writing.

  3. I was never particularly a fan of Bradbury, but some of his stories have lodged in my mind even so. It is always sad when one of our pioneers passes. Well done, Ray, and may your next adventure amaze and delight as fully as you’ve amazed and delighted so many in this vale.

    1. Mr. Bradbury was for me a “read one of his stories, enjoy it but not read it again” authors.

      Still, it’s a great author who had been writing so long and people still read his stories.

    2. I feel the same way (well, except for Something Wicked This Way Comes, which I love). But there are some powerful stories and beautiful language there that I’ve never been able to forget.

  4. Great tribute.

    Bradbury was very important to expanding me from being a pure engineer, a trekkie who wanted to be Spock.

    For me, the first one was Martian chronicles. I realized, all at once, that SF didn’t have to be gadget stories. Heinlein spoke to my personality, and to my goals and to my understanding of the way the universe operates, but Bradbury made me realize that poetry had a place and a function and a purpose, which was something that the engineer didn’t get prior to reading Bradbury.

    Bradbury made it possible for me to read Kurt Vonnegut without throwing the book across the room. He opened my internal ears. That’s a pretty powerful thing.

  5. Of all the authors mentioned here, Bradbury spoke to me most, someplace down deep. I think maybe – I’ve been asked what writers influenced me the most, and well, that’s a lotta writers. But I think, in terms of how I structure my SF tales, he’s the one. I remember all of those OMG moments at the ends of his tales, where what you think is one thing turns out to be another entirely, and I’m striving to, in some small way, emulate that.

  6. The Halloween Tree, Dandelion Wine, From the Dust Returned. The man had a way of weaving a tapestry of words, of bringing the story to life and painting such a picture. You could tell in his writing that he still experienced the magic of being a kid. He never let that magic go and somehow, he was able to transfer it to his writing and transport the reader there.

    1. And I can understand that. I’ve often said that I’m 6 with [mphhfffmmph] years of experience. I make no claims to being a second Bradbury. But if I could BE a second Bradbury, I would in a heartbeat.

  7. I think it’s interesting that those three you name (Simak, Bradbury, Heinlein) were also my top influences. They were my mother’s favorites, and so became mine. I still remember how amazed I was, reading, “The Illustrated Man” for the first time as a pre-teen.

  8. The Halloween Tree was the first Bradbury I read. I didn’t always enjoy the stories, but Bradbury’s language could sing.

  9. When i was 14,i was given Dandelion Wine by my English teacher. She never got the copy back. What a revelation hiw writing was. It was so profoundly beautiful. The 100 stories collection demonstrates what an iconoclastic and vivid writer he truly was, i would recommend it as well

  10. For me, it was the Martian Chronicles, though I think I’ve found and read everything he ever wrote.

    Yes, we’ve lost another of the giants. But there are other growing giants waiting in the wings. And I think many will be found in your Human Wave.

  11. I bought a used copy of “Dandelion Wine” last year to give to a friend, then decided to re-read it. It never went to my friend, I kept it. The other great one of a similar genre is “Something Wicked This Way Comes”. A bit darker, perhaps, but the same poetic prose.

    1. Lin, oh thank you so very much for the link. That was well worth the reading.

      Reflection: It is a great irony that material had been being stripped out of, of all books, Fahrenheit 451. Fortunately Bradbury had some control over his work to refuse, when he was aware, the stripping, gutting and re-engineering of his writing. He also used the bully pulpit he had to eloquently denounce the efforts of textbook compilers and others to neuter the materials.

      1. Found this this morning and it seems appropriate here:

        People in the future world of Fahrenheit 451 burned books because they viewed all that the written word had given us — history, philosophy, theology, moral struggle — as a dangerous nuisance. As Fire Captain Beatty says almost nonchalantly, “Colored people don’t like Little Black Sambo. Burn it. White people don’t feel good about Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Burn it.” No book, no problem.

        It occurs to me now, only after his death, that I should have written to Bradbury. I would have asked him what he thought of the argument that, in a society with the right legal protections and traditions, book burning might paradoxically promote free speech. At least then people might be moved to see what they’re missing.

        One wonders what he might have thought of that because, in his declining years, Bradbury was far more concerned that ours was becoming a society that was ceasing to care about books than that we might start firing up the incinerators. He worried that the Internet was cheapening the written word by making it something too disposable. Bradbury acquiesced to releasing Fahrenheit as an e-book only grudgingly, when faced with the painful alternative of letting his favorite creation go out of print.


        What I think Bradbury saw clearer than most is that the chief obstacle to books will always be an aggressive ignorance that abhors learning as too much of a bother. Every teacher has to confront this when the student asks, “Why do we have to learn this stuff?”
        [ ]

  12. For me also it also was the Martian Chronicles. I have always returned to his books every so often through the years to just enjoy the eloquence of the writing. Dandelion Wine has aged so very very well…

      1. I have never read Dandelion Wine, but have drank it, and it improves with age.

        The only Bradbury I ever read was Farhenhiet 451 and I liked it so I’m not really sure why I never read any more; except he was always characterized as literacy, which translates in my vocabulary as ‘skip over and find a good author.’ I am well aware this is an unfair stereotype and many authors I like cite him as an influence, so I really should go back and read more of his works.

  13. Well, Ray is up there having the grandest time imaginable now that he can talk to everybody who ever lived. One of the first gifts I gave the woman I love was “Vintage Bradbury.” I pointed her to “There Will Come Soft Rains,” that introduced us both to Sara Teasdale. One of my greatest possessions is an autographed poster from the set of “Something Wicked this Way Comes” on the occasion of my first short story publication. Ah, but that dims next to the cherished times I heard him lecture or we conversed with him.

    To quote Mr. Electrico, “Live forever Ray!”

  14. I agree. I still have the paperback copies of Dandelion Wine and Something Wicked This Way Comes which I bought with newspaper-route money 50 years ago.

  15. Sarah, are the “lights going out” as in Auden’s poem “September 1939”?

    1. Things are certainly scary world wide and catastrophic change (tech based, mostly) often brings about world war. I don’t like what’s been happening in the Middle East and being of European upbringing I don’t trust them not to erupt into one of their blood lettings, either. But I’m Heinlein’s child, and mostly I think the glass is half full and the future will always be better than the past. But that doesn’t stop some truly disgusting interludes, and it doesn’t excuse men of good will from trying their best. The lights in this case referred to the luminaries in the field.


        3. China is experiencing the perils of its repressive system. As exports have taken a dive in the worldwide slowdown, growth comes to a halt. Fearful of expanding its domestic consumer market and creating a prosperous middle class, the Chinese ruling class has now seen growth flatline. Coupled with political infighting and the constant conflict implicit in repressing its own people, China looks less like it has “figured it out.”

        4. We have the best fighting force we’ve ever had. A generation of men and women have battlefield experience. They are practiced in leadership and knowledgable about the Middle East and the tactics of terrorists. The post-9/11 generation of military leaders will be among our best and brightest, whether in the military or in other endeavors.

        5. Technology is aiding freedom movements around the world. For every device to monitor the opposition, the tyrannies around the globe are confronted with five work-arounds by freedom advocates. Repressive regimes are waging a losing battle against social media. There is no putting the genie back in the bottle.

        6. Democracy has had enormous successes in India, Southeast Asia, Central America and the former states of the Soviet Union. With that comes the potential for new alliances, increased prosperity and the accelerated spread of freedom (success begets success).

        In the midst of mass murder in Syria, crippling debt at home, European recession, the erosion of public values and sometimes maddeningly stupid political discussion, it is easy to fall prey to pessimism. But we’ve seen much worse as a country (including large chunks of the 20th century). We can get this right.

  16. I was sickly and asthmatic as a child, often bedridden for long periods, and Ray Bradbury took me from my bed and my illness to Mars and other worlds, both beyond and within myself. Not long ago I had the great good fortune to be able to tell this story to Mr. Bradbury in person, thanking him for bringing light to an often darkened childhood. He was frail and failing, but he covered my hand with his and, with tears shining in his eyes, said, “God bless you for telling me.” I was so overcome by this lovely man I could only whisper, “No Mr. Bradbury, God bless you.” And now He is.

  17. Thank you for your tribute. Ray Bradbury was a poet of American life, he could make experiences of everyday life come into magical being, with a few terse sentences. He was a wonderful writer and I will miss him. I wanted just to feel the magic, to read him to observe his passing. I read “The Kilimanjaro device” from “I sing the body electric”. It is all of his strengths in a short story, lyrical, warm, mystical, with a deep respect and love for the extraordinaryness of American people. What a wonderful talent, and such personal kindness. A great American. God Bless him.

  18. The news of Ray Bradbury’s passing is indeed sad. I remember my first taste of his work was a collection called “A Medicine for Melancholy” and the short story “All Summer in a Day” haunted me for weeks afterwards. Your list of major influences struck a cord. Many, many people cite Heinlein and Bradbury, but mentions of Simak seem rare. I loved his work, and he was on my “must buy anything of his I see” list. As was A.E. Van Vogt. Ray will be missed, both as a writer and as a person, and his works will live on. I think that is the best legacy a writer can leave behind.

  19. The manager of the bookstore is in Hawaii for two weeks. I checked the news as usual on the internet on the store’s computer, and I’m glad I was alone for a little while after that. A few days ago, I was entering incoming books and priced and shelved a very old Sara Teasdale collection, and thought, does it have… I checked, Yes.

  20. Well said. Bradbury spoke to me in a poetic language of hope and melancholy and nostalgia for what is in humanity. He did not labor over nuts and bolts. He labored with the soul. I loved how he could weave a short story much like Emily Dickenson could weave a poem. Beautiful language painting a deep, deep dark tale.
    RIP Ray. We love you.

  21. When my dad died, I spoke with my step-sister’s husband about my old man where he expressed his admiration. My reply then and now is that there’s a gap created by his passing, and it is the responsible of we the living to throw ourselves into that gap to fill it as best we can.

  22. As the MSM recognizes RB’s passing it occurs to me that one measure of the significance of his work is this very fact that the MSM is recognizing his passing. How many SF/F authors achieved this level of cultural significance? Vonnegut, but that was largely an artifact of self-regarding Boomers finding Kurt “hip” back in the era of the ‘Nam War. I don’t think that Heinlein’s passing made national news, perhaps Asimov and Clarke, I don’t really recall. Anybody think there is a living SF/F author whose demise will be nationally noteworthy? Terry Pratchett … probably not, at least not outside of Britain (where they took note of Diana Wynne Jones.) Gaiman has so developed his brand that he might merit some media attention when the time comes, but there probably won’t be a MSM on that day.

    Niven? Silverberg? Bova, Pournelle, Turtledove, Pohl … Ellison perhaps? Jack Vance?

    1. Bradbury is the only one I have ever heard mentioned in the MSM, and I heard it at least a dozen times today (spent ten hours on the road, so had lots of time listening to the radio)

  23. In 1968 or 69, someone in L.A. put together a series of evenings with science fiction authors. I read about it in the L.A. Free Press, drove immediately to the sponsoring group’s office, and signed up for the program.

    Later that month a few of us gathered in the living room of a lovely old house in West Hollywood. There was some big free event (rock concert?) that night, so attendance was low. Bradbury walked in, accompanied by a huge white Samoyed.

    The evening was supposed to last two hours. Bradbury stayed with us for almost four hours, sitting in a big armchair with his dog at his feet. Ray read bits of this and that and drew us all into every kind of conversation imaginable–his life, his fiction, his dreams, his likes and dislikes.

    But it wasn’t just about him–he wanted to know about all of us and what we were thinking and doing. He was a good listener, modest, friendly, and well-mannered.

    I can’t remember anything that was said that night. What stays in my mind is a well-dressed, soft-spoken, ordinary-looking man who made the evening glow.

  24. I found it fitting that this song was playing on my playlist while I was reading this post dedicated to Bradbury’s memory.

  25. Heinlein, Simak, Bradbury, Sommerset Maugham, Evelyn Waugh, Ernest Hemingway, Shakespear and all of the other truly great writers; perhaps we should never hope to equal their accomplishments, but we can follow them, and perhaps, in our own way give them reason for pride in our accomplishments.

  26. Heinlein, Simak, deCamp, and Niven for me.

    But then, there was “The Wonderful Ice Cream Suit”…

  27. Ray Bradbury was the first “real” author I ever met. He was in town (SoCal) doing a book signing and my minster dragged me along to see this “author dude”. I wasn’t into SF at the time (I was a Piers Anthony teen, sue me) so Ray, in a really odd tone, asked me why I wanted to buy his book. My minister elbowed me and said “He loves to read.” I just shrugged and mumbled something about reading and writing (I didn’t want to be a writer at that point, I wanted to be a pro baseball player).

    Ray looked me over and pulled out a book from a small bag he had hidden behind the signing table. It was an ARC for his “Zen and the Art of Writing” book that was coming out months later. He handed it to me and said “Maybe this will be of interest to you.”

    He later (regretfully) declined to be my Eagle Scout dinner sponsor when asked because he was going to be elsewhere and wouldn’t have the time, but did congratulate me on attaining the rank of Eagle. I wish I’d kept in contact with him, he was a fascinating man.

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