Ray Bradbury -- a classic in his 80s

November 11, 2001|By Joan Mellen | By Joan Mellen,Special to the Sun

From The Dust Returned, by Ray Bradbury. William Morrow. 204 pages. $23.

Ray Bradbury, our most beloved science fiction writer, writes in the "afterword" to his 30th book that his stories have been "tales of men who discovered the skeleton inside themselves and were terrified of that skeleton." Even on Mars, you cannot escape yourself. No matter the galaxies you traverse, you are always here.

As practiced by Bradbury, by Philip K. Dick, by Issac Asimov, and Robert Heinlein, by Ursula Le Guin and all the masters, classic science fiction is utopian, indignant. It insists upon a better world elsewhere, and the possibility of refinements to a species presently sabotaging its own best interests. The world need not be as it is, nor need people. In From The Dust Returned, immortality is an option, death an irrelevancy. "She did not live," Bradbury writes of the Elliott family's Great Grandmere, "nor was she eternally dead, she ... existed."

The setting, in "upper Illinois," is the "House" drawn on the book's jacket by Charles Addams, the New Yorker cartoonist, for this very story, and originating in Bradbury's own childhood where with a young aunt he stashed pumpkins and immortality on Halloween.

With the exception of 10-year-old Timothy, the main character, the "Family" are immortals come to rest after centuries of wandering. A "sleeper" named "Cecy" can enter other people's consciousness at will, can make a young girl fall in love. With its vantage of eternity, science fiction is healing, what Bradbury always had in mind.

From The Dust Returned is as much poetry as fiction. There is no suspense and no plot. Images bound, lyrical, heartbreaking: "the chandeliers above were shaped from the tears of souls in torment at sea five hundred years lost." Bradbury in his ninth decade has transcended the judgmental. Here everyone survives, a "grand concourse of unnatural survivals of the unfit."

Bradbury imagines what it would be like to carry 4,000 years of memories. The unseen world brims with promise. Amid ghosts and mummies, crossing over, he discovers consolation. "Make Haste To Live" is the title of one chapter. "Never doubt. Simply be," Timothy is urged. "Live your life to the fullest, enjoy every moment," Great Grandmere tells him. He chooses to be an ordinary man, an American.

"Who wants Europe?" Uncle Einar's wife tells him when his tattered green wings are no longer fit for flying. He becomes, instead, a kite for his children. Aloft, he draws an exclamation point across a cloud! Whimsy abounds. If all human life forms a continuum and the ghost of a child once at the Great Wall of Thebes sits comfortably among us, there is scant cause for despair.

Injustice can never wholly be banished. A regenerate family member named "John The Terrible" returns, and before long the barbarians are at the gate, the mob with torches ready to burn down the House they do not comprehend, a scene reminiscent of Bradbury's masterpiece, Fahrenheit 451. The House is destroyed, but its essence lives on. From The Dust Returned exudes transcendence.

To enter the gate of Paradise, Bradbury writes near the end of this charming little book, you are asked, "In your life, did you know enthusiasm?" On the strength of the affirmations resident in this coda to his distinguished career, Ray Bradbury will most certainly qualify.

Joan Mellen is completing Riding The Tiger, a biography of Jim Garrison, former district attorney of Orleans Parish, Louisiana, which will be her 16th book. She teaches in the graduate program in creative writing at Temple University in Philadelphia.

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