What Ray Bradbury’s FBI File Teaches Us About Science Fiction’s Latest Controversies

In Dominique Factor by Dominique LuchartLeave a Comment

If you believe Ray Bradbury’s FBI file, science fiction is a dangerous genre.

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Ray Bradbury in a 1959 publicity still from Alfred Hitchcock Presents

 

When the bureau investigated Bradbury—a man its 1959 records describe as “a free-lance science fiction, television and motion picture scenario writer”—it found little of interest.

Separate FOIA requests by the Daily Beast and MuckRock unearthed Bradbury’s files in 2012. Though they received some coverage at the time, Boing Boing, the Register, and MuckRock have discussed the documents this week, focusing to their charming anachronisms and other period peculiarities. Ultimately, however, those documents stand out most for what they reveal about the state of science fiction today.

The FBI studied Bradbury on two occasions, separated by more than a decade, but it learned less about Bradbury himself than it did about his work. The bureau’s mostly anonymous informants were richly imaginative, none moreso than Martin A. Berkeley, a former Communist Party member who reported extensively to the House Un-American Activities Committee. Berkeley, a 1959 section notes, “declared that a number of science fiction writers have created illusions with regard to the impossibility of continuing world affairs … through the medium of futuristic stories concerned with the potentialities of science.” Speaking in more general terms, Berkeley would tell the bureau “that science fiction may be a lucrative field for the introduction of Communist ideologies.”

Though Bradbury’s files speak to his commercial success, they offer no suggestion that it was driven by the introduction of any ideology, a communist one least of all. Instead, they show that his work was capable of upsetting established dogmas of many kinds. His Martian Chronicles, for example, feature the “repeated theme that earthmen are despoilers and not developers.” Elsewhere, the documents note—“without irony,” as MuckRock’s JPat Brown puts it—that Russian authorities had banned “The Fireman,” an early version of Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451.

Silly as these statements may seem, they feel somehow more resonant now than they did when they were first unearthed three years ago. In a Metafilter thread about the file from Monday, a commenter going by the name “Max Sparber” observes, “Thank goodness weirdo conservatives with a distrust for leftist writers are no longer trying to destroy science fiction.” Sparber is alluding to the failed co-optation of the Hugo awards—one of SF’s highest honors—by groups calling themselves the Sad Puppies and the Rabid Puppies.

As Amy Wallace explains in her thorough account of the saga in Wired, the Puppies’ leaders claim they’re trying to bring SF back to simpler times. Pushing back against what they perceive as an elitist wave of liberal propaganda, they claim they “want sci-fi to be less preachy and more fun.” The Puppies’ brand of “less preachy and more fun” conservatism includes reactionary misogyny, homophobia, and racism, as Wallace and others have documented. At core, however, the Puppy movement was a call for a return to an imagined childhood—perhaps that of the genre, perhaps that of its readers.

Bradbury’s FBI file contradicts the still-yipping proponents of Puppygate. It serves as a pointed reminder that science fiction, even popular science fiction, was never just about entertaining. Much as they might whine to the contrary, the Puppies aren’t angry about what science fiction has become—they’re uncomfortable with what it has always been. Science fiction has always made us imagine the world differently. No one knew this better than Bradbury himself, Bradbury whose books—as the FBI notes—sold hundreds of thousands of copies. As he would write in his short story “No News, or What Killed the Dog?” from Quicker Than the Eye, “That’s all science fiction was ever about. Hating the way things are, wanting to make things different.”

Of course, wanting to make things different doesn’t always mean making a stir. Isaac Asimov’s FBI file, for example, is mostly dull, even more a testament to overeager informants than Bradbury’s. And Philip K. Dick’s file speaks more to the author’s paranoia about other science fiction writers than to the bureau’s interest in Dick. Still, in their oddities and banalities alike, all of these documents—and especially those that pertain to Bradbury—are important reminders that science fiction invites us to see and think in new ways. It’s not always ideologically inclined, but it has rarely strayed far from the political.

Future Tense is a partnership of SlateNew America, and Arizona State University.

 

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