The summer of my run-in with the Martians, I had never heard of Ray Bradbury but he scared the hell out of me. I was in a new home, lying in bed on a summer night, anxiously absorbing the unfamiliar sounds and darkness of the Wisconsin countryside. Places in my life had changed from one to another unexpectedly, and the significant adults in my life had shape-shifted confusingly.
Night could be a spooky time, and I would have slept with the light on if they had let me. Instead, I turned up the radio. An expedition was arriving on Mars. And miraculously, each crewmember found on the strange red planet the small town of his own Midwestern childhood, in all its innocence. The white frame houses with welcoming porches. Somewhere, the smell of apple pie baking in a summer kitchen. And relatives and loved ones who'd died long ago had all mysteriously returned.
It seemed impossible, but there it was, and the men had no choice but to reunite with their friends and family. Later, though, when night came and the men were tucked into their childhood beds, the relatives who had greeted them changed. They morphed into the real Martians. They had read the men's minds, recreated what was dearest to them, and used it to lure them to their death. I can still hear the bloodcurdling screams and ominous thumping sounds.
I was a suggestible child, and the story terrified me. The darkness closed in and I was terrified that my room would melt and change around me. I clung to the radio, turning the dial, searching for distant stations amid the crackling static, reassuring myself there still was a world I knew out there. There was a radio tower on the horizon outside my window, and for some reason it had always made me feel safe. Its blinking red lights had to be real. I clung to that thought and eventually fell asleep.
In the morning fear shadowed my room like the memory of a bad dream, and I had to remind myself it was all just a story. At the time, that was a comforting frame to put around an experience that was so disconcerting and touched on such deep fears and apprehensions.
That was my first encounter with Ray Bradbury. Later I learned that I had been listening to an episode of the science fiction radio program "X Minus One," a dramatization of "The Third Expedition," one of the stories in The Martian Chronicles by the elegiac Midwestern fabulist who died this week at the age of 91. Ray Bradbury's science fiction, tales of fantasy and stories of small town life in the Midwest often had a sunny wholesomeness that was undercut by something darker. Ray Bradbury knew how to work in the shadows.
I went on to read everything by Bradbury I could get my hands on. He was one of those writers who deeply influenced who I became and how I looked at the world.
He was a master at celebrating the American Dream while giving the American Nightmare its due, especially the fear of the other, the alien, that has always been so central to life in this wild and crazy melting pot. Our neighbors include people very different from us. We're usually polite and friendly to each other, but we have our fears.
Most of Bradbury's classics were written during the height of the Cold War, when the other was the Communist, a time of terror when a single miscalculation could have ended life as we know it on this planet. His work reflected those fears, but the fears did not begin with the Cold War, and did not go away with its passing. They are as contemporary as today's battles over immigration and the angry resentments of the Tea Party. They're as contemporary as events in Wisconsin, the demonization of "union thugs," teachers and other public employees as parasites feeding off the public trough.
It's always the same fear: We're surrounded by other people who at first glance seem harmless enough, but what if they're really monsters who will turn on us if we're not careful? Aliens are everywhere, and we must defend ourselves.
As long as politicians continue to exploit these fears, as long as we let them keep using fear to divide us, America -- for all our sunny prosperity on the surface -- will continue to be a dark place. Ray Bradbury didn't just say that. He wrote it, far more eloquently, in unforgettable stories that will be with us for a long time.