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A READING LIFE

Bradbury's dangerous, unforgettable visions

When I was a child, many moons and a couple of black holes ago, we had a screen porch where of an evening and most summer days I'd sit listening to cicadas trill or to the tap of rain's fingers on the roof, reading. It got pretty crowded out there sometimes, what with Nick Adams, a few Sutpens or Snopeses, half a six-pack of musketeers, Verlaine and Rimbaud, mutants from ''More Than Human," Nero and Archie, Meursault, Raskolnikov, and the rest of that lot.

Another frequent visitor was Ray Bradbury.

This was the '50s, and he was on just about everybody's porch. A few years before, he'd broken out of genre magazines into slicks like McCall's and the Saturday Evening Post, even won an O. Henry Award. ''The Martian Chronicles" came out in 1950, ''Fahrenheit 451" in 1953 (the same year he wrote the script for John Huston's ''Moby Dick"), ''The October Country" in 1955.

Some writers have a presence so pervasive that we take them wholly for granted; they're the floor we walk on. For almost 70 years now, ceaselessly, untiringly, Bradbury has toiled in his garden. Stage plays, dozens of teleplays, books of poetry, children's books, and collection after collection of stories have tumbled from his pen. Fantasy novels, autobiographical novels, crime novels. He's been a part of my life for most of it, and is an integral part of how I think about myself and the world. I am not alone in this.

Years after that screen porch was gone, writing my own first stories, I would turn to Bradbury's, to stories like ''The Wind" and ''The Pedestrian" and ''The Veldt," to try to figure out how he did it, where the magic came from, how it got there. In this, too, I am not alone.

''I mean come on, all you smartass literary cynics who make points off other men's careers," Harlan Ellison wrote in ''Again, Dangerous Visions," ''can you ever really forget that thing that called to the foghorn from the sea? Can you really forget Uncle Einar? Can you put out of your mind all the black folk leaving for Mars. . . . Can you forget Parkhill in 'And the Moon Be Still as Bright' doing target practice in one of the dead Martian cities, 'shooting out the crystal windows and blowing the tops off the fragile towers'? There aren't many guys in our game who've given us so many treasurable memories."

Memories such as Mr. Meade of ''The Pedestrian," arrested and committed to a psychiatric center for walking without a purpose in the night streets.

Or the house in ''There Will Come Soft Rains," going on about its business long after its occupants are extinct: preparing meals, clearing the table and cleaning itself, at last trying to put out the fire that takes its own life, the single wall left standing reciting over and over a Sarah Teasdale poem: ''Spring herself when she woke at dawn/Would hardly know that we were gone."

Bradbury turned 84 this past August. He still hasn't gotten the biography or the critical work he so fully deserves. But two recent books, ''Ray Bradbury: The Life of Fiction," a densely argued reading of his work by Jonathan R. Eller and William F. Touponce from the Kent State University Press ($34), and the latest in University Press of Mississippi's ongoing collections of interviews, ''Conversations with Ray Bradbury," edited by Steven L. Aggelis ($48 hardcover, $20 paperback), are a good start. These, and the fact that I'm teaching science fiction, rereading with students stories I first read years ago, have got me to thinking quite a lot about Ray Bradbury of late. Ray Bradbury, who has never driven a car, out there running ahead of Father Time to see what's up. Ray Bradbury the self-professed ''collector of metaphors" who ''use[s] a scientific idea as a platform to leap into the air and never come back."

''I am not so much a science-fiction writer as a fantasist, moralist, visionary," Bradbury remarks in one interview from ''Conversations," repeating something he has said again and again, in different words, all his life. ''I believe we are better than we think we are, and worse than we can imagine, which gives me hope. . . . We will survive our worst attempts to hurt ourselves."

Elsewhere Orson Scott Card's review of ''The Stories of Ray Bradbury" for the Washington Post Book World is quoted, nailing exactly what Bradbury, what all of us at our best as artists, are up to: ''It is not the characters he expects you to identify with. Rather, he means to capture you in his own voice, expects you to see through his eyes. And his eyes see, not the clich plot, but the whole meaning of the events; not the scenes or the individual people, but yourself and your own fears and your own family and the answer, at last, to the isolation that had seemed inevitable to you."

Ray Bradbury has accomplished what very few artists do. With his visions of possible futures and edgy presents, he has shown us a way out of the trap of our selves, shown us how we can break the momentum of the past, of our habits and willful ignorance. He has not only transformed science fiction, he has changed us.

A ''James Sallis Reader" will be out shortly from PointBlank Press, a new novel from Walker next fall. 

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