At 91, Ray Bradbury left this planet with the Venus Transit, which only comes once in a century. I didn't manage to get out sky watching to see it and I never got to shake Ray Bradbury's Hand. I wrote to him more than once in my life, my letters always returned without being delivered because I never managed to find the right publisher that had his address to pass it on. He had fan mail filters up, I'm sure. Otherwise he would not have had time to breathe, let alone write any more stories. I was not the only one.
While Ray was leaving Earth, that same night I sat down to edit The Sword of Arkatyr.
He's gone now. There will be no more ever. He's become eternal. He's joined the ranks of my ancestors, with Poe and Lovecraft and Shakespeare, he's immortal now. He's gone but he'll never be gone from my life. What he did to me, he did to so many others.
He's gone but the seeds he planted blew on midnight winds. Ten million dandelions spring up on the Internet, pouring rich golden wine into the world.
He taught me how to write. Literally. Vomit in your typewriter every morning. Clean it up at noon. That's from Death is a Lonely Business, the novel that helped me survive my Pain Robot Decade in the 1980s. I reread it every time I wanted to kill himself.
I dreaded that Transit for so many years. I wanted to thank him in person. I wanted to send him a copy of my first pro-published book signed with a thank you note and an acknowledgement. He's loved by so many millions of people that if I'd had the $25 to buy him a copy of Raven Dance, he wouldn't have time to read it. I met one of his closest friends though, Ray Harryhausen, we talked about Ray and maybe he told Ray Bradbury how many times he'd saved my life.
He saved me when I was ten living in a dank basement with an unlocked gun room with fifty rifles, hand guns and other ordnance plus enough ammunition to hold off a Russian army right next to my room. So far from the rest of the house that if I had decided to die when I recited Hamlet's Soliloguy and meant it, no one could have stopped me. Funny how at the time I was seeing a psychiatrist with a diagnosis of clinical depression with suicidal tendencies... but the gun room was left unlocked right next to my bedroom.
Something Wicked This Way Comes told me I didn't have to die. I didn't have to be what I was told to be and expected to be. The dark boy, Jim Nightshade, was worth saving and worth being the friend of the sunshine boy, Will, who was loved from the moment he breathed. It was all right to be brainy and dark and weird, live in a bug-raddled filthy hole, get beaten up every time I went to school and torn apart by teachers, priests, psychiatrists, doctors and all the good people.
I belonged with the midnight candles and I could grow up like the man with green wings. It didn't matter that I had gifts that scared people and was crippled and disbelieved.
He didn't quite understand about Kafka. I think that was because he was the sunshine boy. He didn't know there are some holes so deep that Kafka looks like light instead of shadow, hope instead of poison, that just knowing someone else has been through that much and felt that bad is a relief. I was not quite as wretched as Gregor Samsa, that's what I got from Kafka. The calming, validating truth those levels of human cruelty weren't something reserved only for me in all of human history and life.
That didn't matter though. I got the point. If I didn't fit in where I was born and Earthlings hated me, I could still grow up to be a fine Martian just like him.
Dark my neighbors are, and golden eyed. The city where I live has shining towers and glistening mosaics that dance in the sun, sea-mists that roll between gingerbread six-flats and the comforting susurrus of so many voices, so many languages, so many customs and ways and peoples all right next door, all my neighbors. Ray taught me to love them before I ever met a black person, to see them as people, to listen to their words and songs and thoughts.
When I did, I found fiery defenders and inspiring poets. I found words that gave me a reason to fight within myself and in the word. Would I have read James Baldwin if I hadn't read The Martian Chronicles? Would I have known that if I internalize the viewpoint of the oppressor, I assist in my own oppression? Would I have said that to myself when psychiatrists put me through conditioning techniques used in Cambodian re-education camps - and thought that institution was better than being 'home' when 'home' meant prison but everyone pretends that it's all just fine and perfect if I wasn't so ungrateful. I had everything a child could want, why was I so lazy and ungrateful?
I had Ray Bradbury when the psychiatrists said "Face Reality" and meant "Conform to social reality, it's what people believe in. You're who we say you are, ignore reality." I took the words for what they were. Reality held Ray Bradbury.
From the time he was twenty he was exuberantly happy. He enjoyed all his life right down to the last and slid out laughing with the Venus Transit, absolutely as cool as Samuel Clemens arriving and leaving with an awesome comet. He coudln't have written a better end to the Life of Ray Bradbury. His life and his works said the same thing.
Ray Bradbury was real. It was provably true, no matter what anyone said, that someone made a living writing Science Fiction and beyond that, had a wonderful life. I don't know if he ever got hideously rich. He's famous, he might have. I suspect he'd have lived the same if he was living on $5,000 a year in Venice Beach like another grand old SF master who passed away some years before. The money got him a cool power chair and a house with a nice den in it, a happy black cat in his lap and good health care. I don't think it mattered to him beyond the real things he enjoyed in his life.
I think it mattered more that he had to set up fan mail filters to slow the flood of gratitude, accept it en masse rather than individually because he didn't have a thousand years to write thank you notes for the thank you notes and gifts. I think it mattered more that he met enough of them to know how many lives he changed. That those letters were singing the same song. Thanks to you, I'm a writer. Or an artist, or a dancer, or a movie set construction guy, or any creative work. Thanks to you, I'm alive to do this thing.
I know how strong the medicine is. He heard those words enough times that mine would've been just one more iteration. The world is full of suicidal children who grew up to be adults with good lives because the Illustrated Man or the Martian Chronicles or Death is a Lonely Business or that wonderful series of stories about gay blokes in Ireland, something he wrote was there for them on a long night when death looked good and life looked pointless.
He knew what he did. He didn't need my validation. I needed his. I still have it in every one of his cherished works.
What I owe him for that is to pass it on. What I owe him for that is to do what I would have done long ago if I hadn't had quite a lot more Adventures along the way. When they're over, that's what they are. He had a few too. Mexico, the catacombs, the Day of the Dead. Some of the poet's grand stories were Plein Air renderings, drawn from the world as well as the world of dreams. The young men who shared the Ice Cream Suit didn't let poverty break them. They sang, their rich voices rising into the night to win dark girls who laughed and flirted.
He showed me what I had when I had nothing.
He taught me the crummy little black notebook that was so disorganized, the same one that every page got held against me in a psychiatrist's evaluation, was worth living for.
It was not as simple or as trite as the Power of Positive Thinking. It was not Horatio Alger's materialism. His dandelion wine tastes far more like empowerment. His characters struggled and sometimes they lost. Ray Bradbury taught me how to fight the most important battle I've ever had in my life. The one that happens every time Pain Level Nine skids up to Pain Level Ten and the animal body wants to crawl under a bush and die.
He taught me survival wasn't enough.
Death is a Lonely Business again. The mad young writer, the I-guy of that detective story, meets the hard-boiled detective character who's secretly got a half finished manuscript in his bottom drawer. The cliche turns into a real man who does one thing well and gets plenty of success at it, but buries a heart-dream in the bottom of his desk and craves it worse than most of his breed crave a bottle of booze.
That's when who's tough changes around. "The Martian," what the I-guy character got nicknamed by his neighbors, shakes up the hard-boiled detective and roars some hope down his throat. Makes him see the wonders of the world within himself again, do the legwork of typing out page after page, correcting mistakes and polishing it within an inch of its life, get the story told. That entire book is about suicide, about the choice to live or die, it's got the same theme as It's A Wonderful Life with one powerful truth pushing it farther and higher.
The bloke in It's A Wonderful Life gave up his dream for other people and decided to accept that and the gratitude of those who benefited from his sacrifice. He still never got to travel.
The detective in Death is a Lonely Business finished his novel. The writer sold his story. Together they solved the crime. Together they fought the killer within themselves and within the world and rather than give up their dreams, they claimed them. They made them real.
That's what dreams are for. Don't cut your wrists on broken dreams in a bathtub of tears. Mend them and make them real. When it's over, all the hard parts are just a cool Adventure.
I sit here in the city of my dreams, a middle aged adolescent with a happy colorpoint cat on my bed, saluting a friend who's become eternal. All I can do to thank him now is pick up and carry on. I love you, Ray. Thank you. Thank you for all of it. I'm here to write this because you did.