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A new biography chronicles the golden years of Ray Bradbury, luminary of the Space Age

Bradbury Beyond Apollo

Jonathan R. Eller
University of Illinois Press
2020
376 pp.
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One hundred years ago this month, the poet laureate of Mars was born in sleepy Waukegan, Illinois. To a generation of baby boomers, Ray Bradbury was best known for his masterpiece The Martian Chronicles (1950), a lyrical collection of stories that wondered how humans might adapt to life on the red planet. His poetic descriptions captured the world’s collective imagination, spurring the development of space technologies, including Mars-bound satellites and rovers. As Norman Corwin noted in 1971, “[Bradbury] got to Mars before the scientists…No amount of scientific data, no logs and extrapolations of computer codes, will ever dislodge him from that planet.”

To mark the centennial of Bradbury’s birth, Jonathan Eller, a professor of English at Indiana University and director of the Center for Ray Bradbury Studies, has written Bradbury Beyond Apollo, the final biography in a trilogy that explores Bradbury’s life. Eller’s thoughtful narrative is meticulous, offering more than 300 pages of analysis and snippets from Bradbury’s unpublished letters and manuscripts to document every moment of the writer’s golden years, starting with the launch of Apollo 15 in 1971 and ending with his final days in 2012. Along the way, Eller offers readers insights into how Bradbury established his legacy as a luminary of the Space Age.

Throughout his career, Eller explains, Bradbury looked for opportunities to collaborate, to strengthen his connection with fans, and to grow as a writer. Bradbury Beyond Apollo dives deep into the writer’s expansive personal and professional network of scientists, filmmakers, writers, and artists. Bradbury, we learn, established friendships early on with key players and looked for projects that would allow them to work together. He met Walt Disney in the 1960s, for example, and worked with Disney’s “imagineers” on several projects before their partnership bore fruit, namely in the form of Epcot’s ride Spaceship Earth and Walt Disney Production’s film Something Wicked This Way Comes (1982) based on Bradbury’s novel of the same name. Similarly, Eller reveals how Bradbury helped Bruce Murray and others at the Planetary Society promote space travel and planetary exploration. While not all of the writer’s projects came to fruition, he continued to dream up new films, books, exhibits, and other projects and collaborations.

For a historian of science like myself, Eller’s careful analysis of Bradbury’s professional networks is invaluable. Too often, the files of influential public figures remain closed, reinforcing their enigmatic, two-dimensional public image. The careful detail of this biography paints a rich portrait of Bradbury as a talented conversationalist and gifted collaborator and allows readers to understand the nuances of his professional relationships. The writer’s correspondence, meanwhile, offers incredible perspective into the interconnected world of postwar science communication.

Equally valuable is the full picture of Bradbury’s career as a public speaker that Eller provides readers. Bradbury appeared regularly on television and in auditoriums across the United States, strengthening his relationships with fans and helping to establish him as a leading voice for spaceflight. Although some biographers might have omitted discussion of Bradbury’s public lectures, Eller’s decision to include a detailed recounting of the author’s outreach efforts proves vital to understanding his continued influence within the scientific community.

Even as Bradbury established a persona as a martian luminary, he continued to write stories in other genres—strange tales of haunted crypts, hard-boiled noirs, and sweet musings of childhood innocence. Eller documents the continued development of Bradbury’s writing prowess, describing how the author experimented with poetry and with more realistic stories.

Bradbury was careful to delineate his expertise as that of a writer, not a scientist, when speaking alongside professionals at NASA symposiums. But his popularity demonstrated that inspiration, not just education, was an important dimension of science communication. Today, many successful scientists recognize that effective communication weaves together awe and information.

Bradbury’s lectures offered audiences opportunities to connect with him, and with each other, over a positive vision of human spaceflight. As he explained in a letter to officials at the Smithsonian in 1981, “[I am] in the business of shaking people up and rousing their blood so they go out of the show half-mad with love and stunned with the beauties of space. If we do that, the rest will follow.”

About the author

The reviewer is a historian of science based in Berkeley, CA.