Once in ninth-grade theater, we read short stories aloud. Mine was “Kaleidoscope” from Ray Bradbury‘s The Illustrated Man. It drags on for pages and pages of marvelous description of men falling through space from their scrapped rocket. As they drift apart, each to die alone in a different corner of the sky, the men talk about life, settle their grudges, and accept their fates. It’s not a good thing to read to ninth-graders. Here I was lost in words that I still catch my breath to recall. Here were my classmates, wishing the rocket men would shut up and die. Well, I showed them. I read all of it. And among the many reasons that I didn’t get dates in ninth grade, this stunt takes a prominent place.
If Bradbury was no good for my social life then, he made up for it later. I started to realize in college that most of the people around me who liked books, liked his. And this was a bit of a revelation, because the authorities hid Bradbury from us. The words “science fiction” and “fantasy” got attached to his work, and those were enough to keep him out of textbooks, off reading lists, and away from classrooms, except where one of his more boring books is concerned. The Pulitzer board is right to recognize him, but it awards him a special citation in a way that still cheapens his legitimacy: “A special citation to Ray Bradbury for his distinguished, prolific and deeply influential career as an unmatched author of science fiction and fantasy.” The poison is still there. We can’t simply call him an author of fiction, someone who made up things that often don’t fit a category.
Look at a sample of the other stories in The Illustrated Man. “The Other Foot” shows what happens when blacks and whites come separately to Mars. “The Veldt” describes two children who use the household entertainment system to kill their parents. “The Man” treats the arrival of a Messiah from the perspective of one who just missed him. Yes, many take place in the future, on other planets, on rocket ships, but many also take occur in the small towns of ’20s and ’America. His theme is not gadgets or magic; it is the glory and the horror of being human.
I say give him a prize, but don’t give him a label. What do you think?