Jonathan R. Eller is the director of the Center for Ray Bradbury Studies at Indiana University. Before taking part in a Zócalo event asking “Are We Living in a World Ray Bradbury Tried to Prevent?,” Eller spoke in the green room about collecting books and coins, the humble dandelion, and the importance of believing in a better future.
What was the first science fiction book you ever read?
A science fiction novel called Slan. It was by the Canadian science fiction writer A. E. Van Vogt. That copy of Slan was actually my mother’s copy. She was in college in the mid-1940s, and she bought it when it came out.
I read it in ’60 or ’61. It’s a novel about the next evolutionary step for humanity where telepaths are involved and you can tell who they are because they have little antennae buried in their hair. But it’s really a novel about fear of otherness. So, what does the rest of the world do? They’re afraid of these advanced humans. Reading Van Vogt’s Slan at that age really set me up very quickly for moving onto Ray Bradbury, who had the same affinities to talking about how we deal with otherness, and how, sometimes, we don’t do a very good job with dealing with things that are different from our ourselves. It was a pretty heavy science fiction book to read for a kid, but it got me started.
What year, past or future, would you want to time travel to, and why?
I would pick 100 years from today. That’s a Bradbury influence. He wrote a story called “The Toynbee Convector.” It’s about a rich man, a scientist, who builds a time machine and goes 100 years in the future. And when he comes back, he publicly says, OK, I’ve been to the future, here are the pictures to prove it. We make it. We’re OK. We’re going to have a wonderful future 100 years from now, because we get through all of this.
So the world is very happy. They celebrate this. But after 100 years pass, everybody gets ready to see the time traveler’s machine show up. If they see him arrive as a young man in his machine, they’ll know he really was there. Well, he doesn’t show up. And the time traveler, who’s still alive and old man now, just smiles, and says, you see, it worked. It was all a hoax. I faked the pictures. I just wanted people to believe that we would have a future. Because if you believe it, you will have it.
Do you have a favorite plant?
When I was in high school, I was an Eagle Scout, and I worked on forestry projects and planting projects in the summertime. I have to say in spite of working with a lot of plants and trees, my favorite is the lowly backyard dandelion. I was told [that]—during the weeks every year when all the dandelions turn from bright yellow to that milky white seed color—if you look at bottles of dandelion wine during those same weeks, those bottles turn from clear to milky. So it's sort of like they’re immortal in a way; they have some connection to the old world from which they were harvested years ago. I don’t know if this [story of the dandelion wine] is true, but I heard it, and like Ray Bradbury I’m very susceptible to the power of suggestion.
What relaxes you?
All my life I’ve been a collector. Collecting old books and coins, especially foreign coins, these things are like gateways into history. I’ve always been a historian at heart. I’m a literary historian now in my life as an academic. But collecting coins and books are like time machines that have come out of the past, and they tell us things we didn’t know.
To reverse that question, what keeps you up at night?
What keeps me up at night is probably the kind of thing that keeps a lot of people up at night … worrying about the world’s future. The wars never seem to end. I spent 20 years in the United States Air Force. We always felt the tensions would eventually subside; the world would finally learn to live together. And it looks like we still have more work to do. But I’m still hopeful. You have to be optimistic.
Where’s your favorite place to go in Indianapolis?
The Barnes & Noble bookstore on the northside of Indianapolis where [my family] used to live was a favorite place for us to go.
I hope that [physical] bookstores will survive the pandemic and its consequences. Books are such a large part of our culture’s soul in this country. And Ray Bradbury’s soul is in every bookstore. He met his wife at a bookstore in Los Angeles. Fowler Brothers bookstore, which isn’t there anymore. She was a clerk at Fowler’s and the store manager asked her to keep an eye on this guy with an overcoat and briefcase who would come in the evenings to read books and magazines because he thought he was a thief. And so they watched each other watching each other and eventually started to talk to each other and that was the beginning of his romance that led to Ray Bradbury marrying Maggie McClure.
What’s the best advice you’ve ever received?
Ray Bradbury once told me never to be afraid to ask for something. If you don’t ask, you’ll never know what’s possible, will you? I met Ray when I was still in the military in the 1980s and in the military there’s a time to ask questions, but most of the time, questions are not encouraged. Attention to duty is more important. So it was a bit of a mind shift for me, when he said, don’t be afraid to ask for something.
He also once said to me—this was almost 20 years ago, and I had been visiting with him, one spring or fall in Los Angeles. He’d be working on his stories, and I would be doing research in his office with his papers or in his library. At the end of the day we’d get ready for dinner and he’d say, how’d it go today? And I would give him a quick rundown: Well, I found this, I took notes on that. Overall, Ray, it was a good day. And he just looked at me and kind of blinked through his large, thick glasses and he said, “Every day is a good day, Jon.” And I never forgot that. Because in his mind, every day was a good day. You take the good with the bad, but it’s a wonderful thing having life on this planet, and he was always, in one way or another, grateful every day.