In the 1940s, when a young Ray Bradbury began a series of stories that would eventually become The Martian Chronicles, man had yet to even send a satellite into space. Since then, six U.S.-launched landers have touched down on Mars, with a seventh, Curiosity, due to land in 60 days.
The first images sent back by Viking 1 in 1976 confirmed what scientists already knew — nothing like the advanced Martian societies of Bradbury’s imagination existed on the planet. Still, scientists are hopeful that we’ll find signs of past life; more importantly, many of them were inspired to explore Mars in the first place thanks to works like The Martian Chronicles and The Illustrated Man.
One of those people was Ashley Stroupe. She first read his work as a 10-year-old girl living in the suburbs of Washington, D.C. Today she holds a job with the charmingly prosaic title of “Mars Rover Driver.”
Bradbury, who lived in California since moving there with his family in 1934, visited NASA‘s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena several times. It was there, in 2009, that Stroupe gave him a tour of the facilities, showing off pictures of Mars and letting him drive the rover simulator.
“Seeing his enthusiasm and his deep emotional connection to Mars, and even to the rovers, was just so amazing,” says Stroupe. “I had two really strong influences in my life that pushed me towards space travel. One was my dad, who worked with Mercury and Gemini.”
The other, says Stroupe — who has been driving NASA’s rovers Spirit and Opportunity for the last six years — was Bradbury. “I’m getting to explore the very world Ray Bradbury introduced to me.”
If he inspired people to explore space and dream up new technologies, Ray Bradbury certainly had a complicated relationship with the modern world. Fahrenheit 451, a classic taught to high-schoolers to this day, is a forceful defense of the written word and a condemnation of state censorship.
You would think he would cherish the opportunity for the book to reach more readers, regardless of the format. That was not the case. In 2009, Bradbury told the New York Times “Yahoo called me eight weeks ago. They wanted to put a book of mine on Yahoo! You know what I told them? ‘To hell with you. To hell with you and to hell with the Internet.’”
Was Bradbury a Luddite? He was certainly wary of how man might use technology to make the world a darker place. In Fahrenheit 451, he gives a prescient description of a flat, wall-mounted television that broadcasts sensational programming meant to dull viewers’ intellects. In 2009, MTV premiered Jersey Shore, a vindication of Bradbury’s views if I’ve ever seen one.
His views on technology are perhaps best expressed in his short story There Will Come Soft Rains. It describes an automated house that maintains itself on a rainy day, cleaning itself with small robots and speaking reminders out loud to nobody.
It was written in 1950, five years after Truman authorized the use of atomic weapons in Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The house from the story is empty, of course, because everyone who had previously lived in it had been wiped out in a nuclear explosion.
That was Bradbury’s gift, to write with one eye toward the promise of the future and one toward the failures of the past — to be, as he told the Paris Review, like “Janus, the two-faced god who is half Pollyanna and half Cassandra.”
In the same interview, Bradbury — occasionally criticized for playing fast and loose with the facts of science — explains that science fiction isn’t just about wondrous new worlds and technologies:
“Science fiction is any idea that occurs in the head and doesn’t exist yet, but soon will, and will change everything for everybody, and nothing will ever be the same again. As soon as you have an idea that changes some small part of the world you are writing science fiction.”
That, perhaps, is why his fiction remains so resonant. He didn’t fixate on the technical details of his stories or wallow in the cleverness of his creations. He wrote about far-off technology, but always with how it related to human beings first and foremost in his mind.
So, yes, he disdained cellphones and e-books and television — perhaps not unusual for someone born in 1920. He didn’t drive or fly on airplanes. But when it came to technology, he was unwavering in his support for the big stuff: rockets and missions to other planets, scientific risks borne by whole nations instead of investment dollars risked by a wealthy few.
At a time when Congress is trying to cut NASA’s funding, which already stands at a paltry 0.5 percent of the country’s budget, Bradbury’s work is a call for big risks in the name of progress — to, as his famous credo went, “Jump off the cliff and build your wings on the way down.”
At the current rate, man won’t walk on Mars anytime soon, but it’s almost certain that one day we’ll reach the planet Bradbury so often wrote about. When we do, Stroupe thinks we’ll owe Bradbury no small debt.
“He’s the one who took us there first,” she says. “Whatever journey we take there, he will always be there with us. I wish it could be me. I really do. I always wanted to go Mars because of his work.”