A prolific writer of long and short fiction, Ray Bradbury often serves as an introduction to science fiction for elementary and junior high school students (though critics prefer to call him a writer of fantasy, not of science fiction), and with good reason. His short stories are well-written and highly accessible. Still, Bradbury has not received much attention from literary scholars who view him as a popular writer within a popular genre. And he has failed, particularly with his later novels, to achieve the acclaim garnered by his earliest works.
Among those early titles are Bradbury's most noted works The Martian Chronicles (1950) and Fahrenheit 451 (1954). The Martian Chronicles depicts a group of Earthlings who colonize Mars. The group meets a sorry fate, not just at the hands of marauding Martians (who kill Captain Black), but also as a result of their unwillingness to adapt to their new surroundings. They hope to merely transfer their small towns and their accompanying lifestyles from Earth to Mars. However, the differences between the two planets are too great to accommodate the colonists' wishes. This juxtaposition of the past and the future is a major theme in Bradbury's writing.
The highly acclaimed Fahrenheit 451 is centered on the still-lingering effects of the atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki at the end of World War II. The plot involves a firefighter whose job is to burn books and therefore discourage people from venturing beyond their four-wall televisions. The firefighter meets a young woman who is curious about the world around her. She influences him to begin reading books, and what follows is a tragic set of circumstances. After he rebels against a society intent on hiding the truths of censorship, government-sanctioned violence, and nuclear war, he commits a murder and is forced to flee into the country. In effect, the light emanating from the fires illuminates a world darkened by suppression.
Bradbury's short stories, though they have not received as much critical attention as his early novels, are perhaps more important because of how widely they are read, particularly by children and teenagers. Nearly every anthology used in language arts classes contains a story or two by Bradbury. Bradbury's precocious children are often disrespectful to their elders, but Lahna Diskin points out that the adults they treat poorly "are people whose authenticity they doubt." Adults who are genuine and whose lives children feel they can emulate are highly respected. Consider "The Veldt," in which George and Lydia Hadley have remodeled their children's playroom to resemble an African veldt, complete with the requisite vegetation and wildlife. "Nothing's too good for our children," George tells his wife. However, in the end the parents' extravagance gets the best of them. The story ends with horrifying, yet deserved, results.
"The Illustrated Man" (1951) is an eerie tale of a man who loses and then regains his job at a circus by transforming from a too-heavy-to-work tent man to a highly decorated freakshow inhabitant via a sudden preponderance of tattoos. Besides being a nuisance to his wife and a wonder to audiences, the tattoos function as mutable fortune tellers. They take the form of conventional tattoos (traced in ink on the man's body), but they are not permanent in that they change shape according to whatever event is being foretold. Not surprisingly, the tattoos are a hit with the circus audiences. However, as with any of Bradbury's stories, they also carry many surprising implications.
Bradbury uses such stories not only to entertain, but to cause readers to think about their own lives. Though Bradbury's topics are hardly true-to-life, they do carry with them themes that we can apply to our daily lives—courteousness, perseverance, flexibility, and self-awareness. These are some of the many lessons that parents and teachers hope to convey to children. The liberal use of adult characters also points toward Bradbury's desire for grown-ups to learn these lessons, sometimes from children.