Kage Baker grew up reading Ray Bradbury. Momma loved his stuff, and anything Momma liked, she handed (like, at gunpoint) to everyone else she liked. So, for the readers in the family, which was mostly the girls, Ray Bradbury was mandatory.
Kage felt this was a little wasted because Mr. Bradbury’s stories are very boy-centric. That mattered a lot more when we were 12 and 13 years old. Nonetheless, she loved the fantasy stories in particular, and the evocation of a special kind of Americana that was Mr. Bradbury’s province of excellence. The October Country and Something Wicked This Way Comes were among Kage’s favourite mood pieces.
What she didn’t think was that Ray Bradbury wrote science fiction.
This is, of course, not the standard view; it’s almost heretical, in fact. Kage herself eventually came to detest the fanboy attitude that the only science fiction was “hard” – about machines, devoid of feelings, relationships or characterization; that it was all rocket ships and ray guns. Once she was actually writing science fiction, her views changed spectacularly. Before then, though …
“Ray Bradbury is supposed to be a science fiction writer?” she said to me one afternoon over diverse books.
“Yes, of course,” said I. I read all his stuff avidly.
“He can’t be. I don’t like science fiction,” said Kage, while the Weasel of Irony romped unseen about her feet.
“Of course he writes science fiction! What about all the Mars stories? What about “The Veldt”? “There Will Come Soft Rains”? Farenheit 451, for heaven’s sake!”
“Never read those,” she said stubbornly. “I don’t like science fiction. He writes fantasy.”
However … left to her own devices, Kage could change her mind. No one could do it for or to her, but given time and resource materials, even Kage could finally admit to change. When she began to get complaints that her own stories were not hard enough science fiction, she sat down and resolutely began to research just what the hell “hard science fiction” actually was … and as part of that, she finally sat down and read all those Ray Bradbury stories she had eschewed before.
She was sorry Momma had died before Kage could admit her error. But that was all right, really, because nothing ever convinced Momma she wasn’t right, either.
She discovered the Martians, with their eyes like golden coins and their lost lives drifting down the dreams of vanished canals. She discovered the carnivorous Playroom, and the ashen silhoette of a child with a ball etched into a crumbling wall. She discovered that the line between fantasy and science fiction can be very narrow indeed – and that if a writer lets their audience define it for them, their writing will be crippled.
You have to listen to what your readers want, but if you try to please them all, what you write will be populist dreck. A writer needs to write what they will, and let the audience apply the labels. Most of the labels will be pointless anyway, no matter who applies them; so why worry? Write what’s in your head. If you write it well enough, someone will read it and get the point, even if they “don’t like science fiction.”
Kage got letters, after a while, from people telling her they didn’t like science fiction: or fantasy, or time travel stories, or romances – whatever they thought they were getting when they picked up one of her books. But, they would then say, they liked hers. Kage would roll her eyes ruefully and say, “Sorry, Mr. B.! I didn’t know!”
Today, Ray Bradbury is 91 years old. Which is nonsense, of course – he can’t be 91 years old! He’s running on a lawn under the summer stars, 12 years old, eyes a-stretch for wonder. He’s drifting down the Grand Canal, watching the filigree towers reflected in the black, black water. He’s immortal.
Happy Birthday, Mr. B.