R.I.P. Ray Bradbury: He Jumped Off Cliffs and Never Hit the Ground

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Science fiction writer Ray Bradbury in Hollywood, Ca. on Dec. 8, 1966.

More than fantasy or even science fiction, Ray Bradbury wrote horror, and like so many great horror writers he was himself utterly without fear, of anything. He wasn’t afraid of looking uncool—he wasn’t scared to openly love innocence, or to be optimistic, or to write sentimentally when he felt that way. He wrote beautifully enough for adults and clearly enough for kids. He didn’t give a damn if the literary lions accepted him—”If I’d found out that Norman Mailer liked me,” he once said, “I’d have killed myself.” He wrote in any and every genre, including poetry. He faced the parts of human nature most people don’t see even in their nightmares (I got nightmares before I even read Something Wicked This Way Comes, just from the title). His advice to writers—and it’s among the best ever given—is as follows: “You’ve got to jump off cliffs all the time and build your wings on the way down.”

A cliff-jumper all his life, Bradbury never hit the ground. He died peacefully on Tuesday in Los Angeles.

Bradbury was born in 1920 in Waukegan, Illinois, the son of a lineman with the electric company. It was the early days of science fiction and fantasy—Tolkien wouldn’t publish The Hobbit till 1937—so he grew up reading Poe and L. Frank Baum and Edgar Rice Burroughs. The family moved to Los Angeles in 1934, but that idyllic small midwestern city always remained Bradbury’s home planet. You feel the gravitational pull of it in everything he wrote—an American Eden, though not without its snakes.

(READ: TIME talks to Ray Bradbury on his 90th birthday)

Bradbury discovered the movies in Los Angeles, and science fiction—he met Robert Heinlein and Ray Harryhausen there. He never went to college, and his bad eyesight (his coke-bottle glasses would always make him instantly recognizable) kept him out of WWII, but he absorbed everything. He didn’t just read science fiction, he devoured Thomas Wolfe and Thomas Mann, Eudora Welty and Edith Wharton. “If you stuff yourself full of poems, essays, plays, stories, novels, films, comic strips, magazines, music, you automatically explode every morning like Old Faithful,” he once said. “I have never had a dry spell in my life, mainly because I feed myself well, to the point of bursting.” He sold his first story in 1941 to Super Science Stories and never looked back. He had an essay in the New Yorker last week.

Bradbury was always more a short story writer than a true novelist. Even his masterpiece, The Martian Chronicles, was a set of linked tales. Published in 1950, The Martian Chronicles was about humans fleeing an atomically devastated Earth for Mars (they arrived in 1999), where they get into difficulties of a stranger kind. The book was an instant success, and it transformed Bradbury’s career, and to some extent American literature. Bradbury was an early crossover figure, a science fiction/fantasy/horror writer whose stylistic abilities were so obvious, and whose thematic range was so deep and powerful, that he became unclassifiable. He was a creature of the pulps who was taught in universities and published in Esquire and who wrote in any genre that caught his eye. He was the shape of things to come—Kurt Vonnegut, Philip K. Dick, Michael Chabon, Jonathan Lethem, and Neil Gaiman would all follow in the path he cleared.

(MORE: Ray Bradbury Talks Technology)

Bradbury was prolific (as was pointed out in this NSFW but otherwise unmissable tribute-in-song). He wrote more than 50 books, and he was a gifted public speaker on top of it. He wasn’t a shrinking violet, or a tortured artist, or even a Bohemian—he raised four daughters in the same house in Los Angeles, where he lived for half a century. He was his own man: he was lionized by the literary establishment—he was given a special citation by the Pulitzer committee in 2007—but he never courted them. “The mainstream hasn’t been paying attention to all the changes in our culture during the last 50 years,” he told The Paris Review. “The major ideas of our time—developments in medicine, the importance of space exploration to advance our species—have been neglected…Why the fiction of ideas should be so neglected is beyond me. I can’t explain it, except in terms of intellectual snobbery.”

Bradbury wasn’t a “hard” science fiction writer: he wasn’t especially concerned with technological or astrophysical or xenobiological realities. He wasn’t a prophet of the Internet; he never even learned to drive. (He said, more than once, “I don’t try to describe the future, I try to prevent it.”) His interest was in psychological reality: the Mars the colonists find is not so much alien as uncanny. It’s alien the way our unconscious is alien—it’s the part of ourselves that we don’t recognize.

Bradbury was a fearless explorer of both outer space and inner— they were really the same thing to him. He loved innocence, but somehow that never impaired his understanding of evil. “My stories run up and bite me on the leg,” he said. “I respond by writing down everything that goes on during the bite.” He was bitten every day of his life, and he never once flinched.

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