In 7th grade English class, we were assigned A Wrinkle in Time. I had already read it in another class (actually half of it, because I got bored), so I asked the teacher if I could read something else instead. She went back to her desk and came back and put a copy of R is for Rocket on my desk. “Have you read this?”
I had not. But I did. And I immediately wondered why any teacher would make kids read A Wrinkle in Time when this existed.
I really had no chance at all. The first story was about boys who dreamed of going into space. The third was the inspiration for The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms. And the seventh was the greatest time travel narrative ever written.
My father had actually told me about “A Sound of Thunder” but I had never read it. Pop was older than most of my friends’ parents (like Will and Charles Halloway in Something Wicked This Way Comes) and had been reading science fiction since he was a kid. In fact, the two of us were shocked to realize that for several years in the 1930s, my father had read every science fiction novel ever written! So, I spent many hours as a child looking at the covers of sci-fi paperbacks, imagining what the books were actually about. When I saw The Time Machine on TV, Pop told me about “A Sound of Thunder.”
Hearing about it is one thing, reading it is another. Not only do I consider it the best time travel narrative of all time (sorry about that), it’s a damned perfect short story. Artist William Stout was commissioned to illustrate the story for a Bradbury anthology called Dinosaur Tales. Look at this:
Ray Bradbury had a wonderful speaking voice, his accent a friendly combination of Midwest and Angelino.
Because I love you, dearest blog readers, here is “A Sound of Thunder” read by Ray Bradbury, so you can hear for yourself:
The Bantam Books editions of Bradbury’s novels that I had growing up (including the copy of R is for Rocket I got in 7th grade) all had the same image on the back cover, showing a young Bradbury, gazing into the future, surrounded by a somewhat hellish tableau of images from his stories.
I had seen this portrait hundreds of times, so when I saw Ray Bradbury sitting at a card table just inside Crown Books in Fashion Island, I knew it was him (an older, thicker him) without reading the sign taped to the table.
I had walked over from the Edwards Newport Theater on my lunch break, not expecting to see Ray Bradbury. I went into Crown Books and slid around Ray’s table and headed straight back to the Science Fiction section, because I thought it would be rude to approach him without a book to sign. There weren’t any.
I went straight over to the cashier and asked if they put them someplace special because Ray was coming to the store. “We didn’t even know he was coming.” said the manager who was not much older than me. “We don’t have any of his books in stock.” What?!
“How long will he be here?” I asked.
“Another hour or so.” Right. 40 minutes later, I was back from Lido Village Books, just down PCH with Fahrenheit 451, The Martian Chronicles and a movie tie-in version of Something Wicked This Way Comes. They did not have R is for Rocket.
I spent the next 15 minutes talking to Ray Bradbury about dinosaurs (which he pronounced to rhyme with “flowers”) and writing. He signed my books (“Tad is a neat name. To…Tad!”) and I apologized that I had to go back to work at the theater. I asked if there was a way to contact him through is agent or publisher. He laughed. “I’m in the Los Angeles phone book! Drop me a line.”
I never got up the courage to write him and always regretted it. No one else had come to Ray’s table while I was there. I was glad to see Crown Books go out of business. Lido Village Books is still there.
Once and a while a debate kicks up about Ray Bradbury’s status as a “real” science fiction author. Like so:
Ray usually chose poetic prose that painted a picture and evoked feelings over hard, technical detail. Few sci-fi authors did that (or do that now), so he seemed to sit apart from the Asimovs and Clarkes. It’s interesting that the Simpsons’ writers chose to have Martin call out Alfred Bester rather than Bradbury, because Bester was at least as poetic as Bradbury. If you haven’t read any Bester, go get The Stars, My Destination right now.
So now I live in Los Angeles, the city Ray called home for the vast majority of his 91 years. And now Ray is gone. He was only two years older than my Pop would have been. Pop who told me about the story with a time travelling safari, and the path that you dare not step off. Pop who didn’t tell me the end of the story, so I could read it for myself.