Ray Bradbury was Wrong

Sunday 7th December 2014

The Illustrated Man by Ray Bradbury, book cover image

Science fiction writer Ray Bradbury got the future all wrong. Not just the rockets that peppered the sky and the automatic chef robots that dispensed a meal at the press of a button. Ray Bradbury failed to predict that in the (perfect) future nobody would speak with the aid of an adverb, and exclamation marks would be on the verge of extinction.

A conversation last night with a friend had me searching for my favourite Ray Bradbury short story, a seldom-praised shocker called Zero Hour. Returning to it as an author, I was struck by all the ‘violations’ of modern writing style.

Strict adherents to today’s guides would spot lines like these and start hitting backspace:

“You’re old,” said Mink firmly.

“Not that old,” said Joe sensibly.

Our budding Ray Bradbury would be urged to delete ‘firmly’ and ‘sensibly’ and think of a different way to convey that message. Maybe Mink would fold her arms. Maybe Joe’s pals would nod in support.

Thing is, in the context of the rest of the story, these two lines work… wonderfully. They’re succinct. They’re unambiguous. And the parallel sentence structure is how the writer compares the younger and older children. Those adverbs are a precision fit.

And consider this:

“Thank you, thank you!” cried Mink, and boom! she was gone, like a rocket.

Today’s writer might oust the dialogue tag ‘cried’ in favour of the ubiquitous and practically invisible ‘said’. And as for those exclamation marks…

But of course that line, too, is glorious just as it is, bringing alive Mink’s fevered enthusiasm.

Old stories still have lessons for today’s writers. We’re encouraged to show, so that a reader feels for themselves: show don’t tell. Which is what Ray Bradbury’s choices accomplish. But he doesn’t just show us; he shows and tells. There’s a whole lot of telling to reinforce the showing. Like this:

It was an interesting fact that this fury and bustle occurred only among the younger children.

As readers, we’re grateful to be told, because it confirms our feelings. It reassures us we’re getting it, that we’re smart. Show don’t tell? No. Show and tell. Just like Ray Bradbury.

I still remember my reaction to reading Zero Hour: I reached the last line and my skin crawled and my eyes watered. If I didn’t say, “Oh, no,” out loud, I felt it. The gut punch is the final line of dialogue, the innocence and yet the threat in a single, perfectly chosen word. If you haven’t read Zero Hour, it’s in The Illustrated Man.

I have to say, though that — like any story — it doesn’t work for everybody. One reviewer (not linked because his summary spoils the plot) gave Zero Hour three stars and said you could see the punchline coming way in advance. Precisely. It’s the growing realisation not of the reader but of Mink’s mother that makes the story so terrifying.

Ray Bradbury might have been wrong about motor skates and vacuum elevators, but his writing was bang on. And I can... confidently say that readers of the future will continue to be swept away to the worlds his masterful use of language brings into being.

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