STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
This month marks the 100th anniversary of the birth of science fiction writer Ray Bradbury. Oh, I remember reading "The Illustrated Man" when I was a kid in school. NPR's Petra Mayer reports on his legacy.
PETRA MAYER, BYLINE: Ray Bradbury is sometimes called the poet of science fiction. His words demand to be read aloud.
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MARJORIE LIU: (Reading) He opened the bedroom door. It was like coming into the cold marble room of the mausoleum after the moon has set.
MAYER: That's author and comics creator Marjorie Liu taking part in a massive online read-a-thon of Bradbury's classic "Fahrenheit 451," held to mark his hundredth birthday. This is the moment where Montag, the hero, finds his wife overdosed on sleeping pills.
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LIU: (Reading) Two moonstones looked up at him in the light of his small handheld fire - two pale moonstones buried in a creek of clear water over which the life of the world ran, not touching them.
MAYER: "Fahrenheit 451," famously named for the temperature at which paper burns, is a portrait of a dystopian future where everyone watches giant screens, books are outlawed and firemen, like Montag, must burn the houses that contain the forbidden volumes. Liu says the book's power comes from just how nonscience-fictional it is.
LIU: Science fiction was not, in his hands, like, this distant spectacle. Science fiction was us. It was you and me. It was our families wrestling with really difficult situations and questions about one's internal beliefs.
MAYER: "Fahrenheit 451" was published in 1953, at the height of the McCarthy era. Fast-forward to today, Liu says.
LIU: And humans have not evolved at all. We're still the same, still exactly the same.
MAYER: The book deals with censorship, oppression and the influence of technology. Sound familiar?
For author Mary Robinette Kowal, what resonates is the way that Bradbury grounds his fiction in his own life. His childhood home of Waukegan, Ill., became the Green Town of his stories.
MARY ROBINETTE KOWAL: And it's not that he's writing a universal experience. He's writing his own very specific experience. But I think sometimes the more specific you are, the more universal themes can come out of something.
MAYER: Bradbury's visions of Mars laid out in his "Martian Chronicles" were somewhat less realistic. Years before humanity had any idea of what the Red Planet really looked like, he imagined a civilization there with crystal houses sprouting golden fruits. But though it seemed like space fantasy back then, Bradbury's work has inspired the Mars explorers of today. The Curiosity rover's landing site was named for him, and there's now an actual copy of "The Martian Chronicles" on Mars.
And of course, Bradbury influenced countless writers, including Mary Robinette Kowal. For her novella "The Lady Astronaut Of Mars"...
KOWAL: I named every character in there from a character in "The Martian Chronicles." And I know a lot of other writers who do that - who will kind of pepper little touches in.
MAYER: However, she adds...
KOWAL: I love Ray Bradbury. But one of the reasons that I wrote my books is because I wanted stuff that's a hundred percent more people of color and women.
MAYER: Bradbury was progressive for his time, though in later years he grew more cantankerous, comparing the censorship of "Fahrenheit 451" to modern political correctness. And while Mary Robinette Kowal says that if you're going to read one Bradbury novel it should be "Fahrenheit 451," Marjorie Liu says she draws a more hopeful lesson from "Something Wicked This Way Comes," about an evil carnival that torments a town.
LIU: The thing that really moved me about that book was that evil is mastered and destroyed with happiness and laughter and that fear has no place next to love and joy, that evil shatters at laughter.
MAYER: Petra Mayer, NPR News.
(SOUNDBITE OF BRUNO SANFILIPPO'S "THE BOOK WITHOUT WORDS") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.