William Morrow , 2001
ISBN: 0-380-97382-0
For many years, the paperback editions of all of Ray Bradbury’s books carried the tag line, "The World’s Greatest Living Science Fiction Writer." While Mr. Bradbury has certainly earned a place among the world’s great storytellers, the term "Science Fiction" has never quite described his work. Unlike the great science fiction writers of world literature such as H.G. Wells, Isaac Asimov and Arthur C. Clarke, real scientific theories rarely drive Mr. Bradbury’s stories. While he speculated about the first manned mission to Mars in The Martian Chronicles, his Mars is as much a place of the imagination as Tolkien’s Middle-Earth or LeGuin’s Earthsea.
         To this day, Ray Bradbury remains wonderfully difficult to categorize. Since the 1940’s, he has written hundreds of short stories, novels, poetry and plays for the stage, film, television and radio. His first novel, Fahrenheit 451, stands today as a powerful cautionary tale about government sponsored censorship. Dandelion Wine is a fantastical reimagining of his boyhood summers in a fictionalized Midwestern town. Something Wicked This Way Comes, also set in a fictionalized Midwestern town in the 1930’s, shows a far more sinister vision of the carnivals he loved as a child.
         One of the categories that genuinely seems to fit Mr. Bradbury’s work is Magic Realism. His new book, From the Dust Returned, contains elements of fantasy set in the context of a familiar world, defining it as a work of Magic Realism. It is collection of old and new stories brought together to form a single work that is not quite a novel or an anthology but that has elements of both.
         The premise of From the Dust Returned is a reunion of a family of fantastic beings. Grandmere, the family matriarch, calls the rest of the family home to be together one more time. Some members of the family include Cecy, whom Ray Bradbury’s readers will remember as "The April Witch," and Uncle Einar, a winged man. Six of the stories appearing here, including "The Wandering Witch" and "Uncle Einar," have appeared before and are well known to Mr. Bradbury’s readers.
         The earlier stories were written between 1947 and 1988. Those stories are not merely collected in this book, but are also integrated with the story line of the new work. The characters who are being called home are in fact characters who have been out in the literary world since the beginning of Ray Bradbury’s career. It is almost as if, by arranging a fictitious homecoming, Bradbury is staging a real homecoming of sorts for the characters he created so many years ago.
         And the homecoming is classic Ray Bradbury. In addition to the characters from his past stories, there are also new characters who manage to break new ground but still bear Mr. Bradbury’s unmistakable mark. Some of these include a cat who was buried with Ramses, cousins who cannot be seen in mirrors and another cousin whose eye "tended to be half shut or half open, depending on how you stared at him, and the eye behind the lid was pure fire crystal and tended to stay crossed."
         But for all of the fantastical beings that Mr. Bradbury presents here, it is the human elements they have and the situations in which they find themselves that make them memorable. Cecy, the April Witch, is an immortal being, but her yearning for human experience is as old and resonant as that of Pinnochio. "On the Orient North," which has appeared previously in The Toynbee Convector, is one of Mr. Bradbury’s most memorable stories. In it a woman has an encounter with a ghost on the Orient Express. But what is memorable about this story is not the ghost, but the fact that the woman, in the middle of a very ordinary life, accompanies the ghost on his journey of her own free will as a lark.
         Ray Bradbury has long been known for his prose style, and it is in evidence in this book. In attempting to make a comparison of Mr. Bradbury’s writing to the stylings of other writers, one tends to look to poets. Like Edgar Allen Poe, Ray Bradbury is closely attuned to the music and evocative power of words. Walt Whitman’s influence can also be felt in the long, soaring rhythms of his sentences.
         Now in his eighties, Mr. Bradbury still manages to view the world with a sense of wonder. It is no accident that he often uses children as protagonists in his work, tapping into a child’s sense of the world as a continually new place. As with Dandelion Wine, Something Wicked This Way Comes and many of his short stories, much of the action in From the Dust Returned is seen through a child’s eyes. In this case, the child is a boy named Timothy, the one mortal in this family of immortals. He alone among the characters understands that all things must come to an end someday. This provides the child with a certain wisdom that the other beings lack, in spite of their powers.
         It is possible to analyze Mr. Bradbury’s work, including this book, as one might the work of any great author. One could examine his use of symbolism or relate the body of his work to the whole of fantasy writing in the late twentieth century. One could explore the various aspects of Magic Realism in his work and relate it to the works of other Magic Realists, some of whom have cited him as an influence.
         But most readers prefer not to analyze too much, and that is a good thing. As with a flower or a John Lennon song, something important would be lost in the analysis. It is better to simply disengage from the here and now and go with the story. Even after all these years, Ray Bradbury’s work is a ride worth taking.