I is for Imagination – more of why I love sf/f

Dust jacker of the first edition of Bradbury's collection, R is for rocket.
Dust jacker of the first edition of Bradbury’s collection, R is for rocket.
I don’t remember when I first read a story by Ray Bradbury.

That’s not quite right. The sentence is true, but it doesn’t convey the full meaning. It’s equally true that I cannot remember a time when I didn’t know about Ray Bradbury’s incredible stories. He isn’t the only author who falls into the category. Since my Mom read to me from her favorite two authors: Agatha Christie and Robert Heinlein, since I was a baby as part of her plan to make sure I learned to talk correctly, I can’t remember a time when I didn’t know about Heinlein or Christie. And it’s more than slightly likely that Mom read some Bradbury in there at one point, so that might account for it…

But the point is, I can’t remember the first Bradbury story I read. I can’t remember a time when I would have seen Bradbury’s name and a book and not leaped to the conclusion that I would like it. Lots of people like Bradbury, obviously. I distinctly remember a text book in one of the later elementary grades had included a short story by Bradbury, for instance. And public school libraries stocked Bradbury stories.

I do remember the second time I found the short story collect, R Is for Rocket in a school library. It was fourth grade, in Ft. Morgan, Colorado, during my first visit to the school’s library after we had moved to that town. There it was, on the shelf, and I had the joyful thought, “Oh! I remember this book!” and had to check it out. I don’t remember the first time, only that moment of recognition a second time. R Is for Rocket was usually filed in Young Adult sections, which is usually targeted at kids 12 to 18, so they aren’t always included in elementary school libraries. Two of the schools where I attended 3rd grade had, as I recall, rather pathetic libraries dominated by what I thought of as “little kid” books, so I probably hadn’t encountered it previously as school. Probably Mom had checked it out of a public library at some point, and let me read it.

Anyway, I checked it out and devoured it. I remembered a bunch of the stories, though not always how they ended. I re-read it several times before our next library day. I had looked for other Bradbury books the day I checked out R Is for Rocket and hadn’t seen any. So when I took it back, I asked the librarian if there were others, that maybe someone had them checked out when I had been there the week before. She looked him up, and according to the card catalog the only other book by him they had was Something Wicked This Way Comes. But I couldn’t find it. She pointed me to a bunch of Heinlein juveniles that they had, and that was fine, but I had read most of them already.

Eventually, because I kept nagging the librarian about it every time we had library day, she told me that the book had been lost, and never replaced. My teacher overheard this conversation and asked me what book was I so interested in. When I told her, she got a very unhappy expression and said something along the line of, “Of course you would be interested in a book like that.”

The next week, when it was time for library day, I was told that I wasn’t going back to the library that week because I had misbehaved too much. I was left in a room ordered to keep my head on my desk while my teacher took rest of the class to the library. She took my books back to check in for me. Afterward, the teacher took me aside and gave me books she had picked out for me that week. I don’t remember what they were, other than I thought they were all boring and way too easy to read.

I was allowed back in the library the next week, and was relieved to be able to pick out something I actually liked. The librarian made some comment that she hoped I was feeling better. So I found out that my teacher had told her I hadn’t been in the previous week because I was sick. I eventually learned that Something Wicked This Way Comes hadn’t been banned, per se, but it had actually been lost a couple of years before, and objections were raised about re-stocking it. Some people, the librarian never said who (but I had a good guess who at least one was), felt the book was too scary for elementary children. I thought about some of the stories in R Is for Rocket and hoped that the people who objected to Something Wicked… never read it!

Bradbury stories were never safe. Most of his stories had a decided air of menace, about them. A lot of them are almost outright horror stories. But there was also always some glimmer of hope, even in the tragedies such as “The Rocket Man” or “The Long Rain.” Not hope for the characters who die at the end, but Bradbury always managed to convey the idea that even if you fail, even if you are trapped on a deadly planet that has mutated you and the other survivors so that each of you are born, grow up, and die in a matter of days (“The Exiles”), but you are born with your ancestors’ memories and you know that the second rocket is there, on the next plateau, but it is impossible for any of you to travel there during the short period of time each day when the radiation isn’t deadly, it’s still worth trying to find a way.

I think that’s one of the reasons that Bradbury appealed to me so much. Sometimes his dire situations were very real and relatable, sometimes they seemed very unlikely. But he always found a way to breathe an air of authenticity into them along with that notion of hope and never giving up. Definitely something that this closeted queer kid growing up in rural communities and fundamentalist churches needed.

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