Popular Culture

Ray Bradbury: Enemy of the State

Remembering the late science fiction writer

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Ray Bradbury won't "live forever," as he wished, but he may well live on as the most-read critic of the state in America's public schools. It was in public school that I first encountered Bradbury's magnum opus, Fahrenheit 451, which is required reading in the government schools he would have shuttered.

Bradbury, who died this week at the age of 91, was a man of the right, a detail sadly airbrushed out of most obituaries this week. Like the best science fiction writers, he imagined worlds and realms outside the grasp of government, where the focus was always on the people that populated them, not on the gizmos in their pockets.

Libertarians can easily see one of their own in the non-comformist nonagenarian, who, despite moving to Los Angeles in the 1930s, never bothered to learn how to drive. A consummate autodidact, he also never went to college. And good thing too! He hated affirmative action, condemned "all this political correctness that's rampant on campuses," and called for an immediate ban of quotas in higher education. "The whole concept of higher education is negated," he told Playboy in 1996, "unless the sole criterion used to determine if students qualify is the grades they score on standardized tests."

But Bradbury's antipathy to formal education went deeper than passing controversies. He knew that educators, like politicians, are the natural enemies of dreamers. "Science fiction acknowledges that we don't want to be lectured at, just shown enough so we can look it up ourselves," he continued in that Playboy interview. His can-do optimism recalled the small Illinois town his family left, ultimately finding its place in his fiction even if it was set on distant worlds, which he longed to explore and colonize. For Bradbury, it was the politicians who "have no romance in their hearts or dreams in their heads" that ultimately kept America earthbound. And Bradbury, who grew up on the romantic fiction of Hugo, had romance and love to share, penning some 27 novels and 600 short stories.

He didn't hate all politicians, though. He called Ronald Reagan "the greatest president" and received the National Medal of Freedom from George W. Bush. He reserved his greatest criticisms for Bill Clinton, whom he dismissed as a "shithead," and for Barack Obama, who ended NASA's manned space flight program. That was one government program Bradbury did like. He believed it was the key to humanity become a multi-planetary species.

"We should go to the moon and prepare a base to fire off to Mars and then go to Mars and colonize Mars. Then when we do that, we will live forever," he told the Los Angeles Times in 2010. Bradbury at least lived to see the successful mission of SpaceX, a private company headed by Elon Musk, a sci-fi fan who shares Bradbury's dream of interplanetary colonization.

"I think our country is in need of a revolution," Bradbury told the L.A. Times. "There is too much government today. We've got to remember the government should be by the people, of the people, and for the people." He told Time a week later, "I don't believe in government. I hate politics. I'm against it. And I hope that sometimes this fall, we can destroy part of our government, and next year destroy even more of it. The less government, the happier I will be."

Government's existence notwithstanding, Bradbury still found contentment. He was happiest over a typewriter, dreaming and writing his customary 1,000 words a day. There, living the joy of meaningful work, as he told Playboy, he "made the major discovery of my life." Namely, "I am right and everybody else is wrong if they disagree with me. What a great thing to learn: Don't listen to anyone else, and always go your own way."

Not everybody saw it that way, of course, and Bradbury devoted much time to warning about the tyranny of both the majority and the minority, which "both want to control you." His response to those attempts at control was simple:

Whether you're a majority or minority, bug off! To hell with anybody who wants to tell me what to write. Their society breaks down into subsections of minorities who then, in effect, burn books by banning them.

Fortunately for the world, Ray Bradbury escaped the censors and insured that his work will live forever.

Charles C. Johnson is a writer in Los Angeles and author of a forthcoming biography of Calvin Coolidge.