If I were to make a list of the science fiction authors that the teenage me resentfully read out of a desperate longing for SF, any SF, Ray Bradbury would be near the top. I didn’t care for his fiction … but he was considered a respectable author, despite all the rocket stuff. That respectability, plus his slipshod approach to science, made him suspiciously literary to my eye. But it did mean that libraries, even libraries in small rural schools, could be counted on to have at least a few of his books.
Take 1962’s R is for Rocket.…
Introduction (R Is for Rocket) • (1962) • essay
Let me simply quote Bradbury
This is a book then by a boy who grew up in a small Illinois town and lived to see the Space Age arrive, as he hoped and dreamed it would.
“R Is for Rocket” • (1943) • short story
All boys can dream of being rocket men but only a tiny minority will be selected. And there’s an unspoken cost.
This is a society in which everyone accepts that their brains will be kept scrubbed and hygienic by the Top Men. This is not presented as dystopian. Also, nobody much minds that paralysis guns are commonly owned and frequently used. Of course there is no way that things could go horribly wrong.
What caught my eye then, and revived in the re-read, was this conversation about protagonist Christopher’s best chum:
“Sir,” I said. “A question. I have a friend. Ralph Priory. He lives at an ortho-station — “
Trent nodded. “I can’t tell you his rating, of course, but he’s on our list. He’s your buddy? You want him along, of course. I’ll check his record. Station-bred, you say? That’s not good. But — we’ll see.”
What’s so bad about being station-bred? It’s not entirely clear but it may boil down to “orphans are second-class.”
Though his own prospects occupy the majority of Christopher’s attention, Ralph does get his own character arc.
“The End of the Beginning” • (1956) • short story
The first moon rocket inspires one American and to a lesser extent his wife.
I wonder if it is just Space! And Man’s Destiny! that make the lead break into grand speeches or if he does this with everything?
A lot of people must have been more inspired by this than I was, because I have run into any number of variations of passages like
Tonight, he thought, even if we fail with this first, we’ll send a second and a third ship and move on out to all the planets and later, all the stars. We’ll just keep going until the big words like immortal and forever take on meaning. Big words, yes, that’s what we want. Continuity. Since our tongues first moved in our mouths we’ve asked, What does it all mean? No other question made sense, with death breathing down our necks. But just let us settle in on ten thousand worlds spinning around ten thousand alien suns and the question will fade away. Man will be endless and infinite, even as space is endless and infinite. Man will go on, as space goes on, forever. Individuals will die as always, but our history will reach as far as we’ll ever need to see into the future, and with the knowledge of our survival for all time to come, we’ll know security and thus the answer we’ve always searched for. Gifted with life, the least we can do is preserve and pass on the gift to infinity. That’s a goal worth shooting for.
over the years. Not least Babylon 5’s riff on the same theme.
“The Fog Horn” • (1951) • short story
What answers the fog horn’s lonely call?
This story inspired the film The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms.
Bradbury could not have foreseen that when he wrote the following:
“It’s gone away,” said McDunn. “It’s gone back to the Deeps. It’s learned you can’t love anything too much in this world. It’s gone into the deepest Deeps to wait another million years. Ah, the poor thing! Waiting out there, and waiting out there, while man comes and goes on this pitiful little planet. Waiting and waiting.”
there is in fact a real world analog of his despairing behemoth: the 52-Hertz whale has been calling out to other members of its species since the 1980s, at least, and the last I heard, had received no verified response. Since whales live centuries, it’s possible for the last individual of a extinct whale species to enjoy that status for a long, long time, in human terms.
“The Rocket” • (1950) • short story
Rocket flight is eight decades old and still too expensive for any but the rich. No hope for Fiorello Bodini and his family to see Mars. Not together, at any rate. Decades of scrimping have accrued enough money for one of the Bodini to venture to Mars and back, to tell their family of the wonders they see. But which one will go?
Bradbury does not venture far from the conventional 1950s stereotypes about Italians.
I think the miracle at the end takes focus away from the choice the Bodinis make.
“The Rocket Man” • (1951) • short story
A father’s return from space is overshadowed by the certainty that he will again leave his wife and son to return to the dark deeps. Or the deep dark. Whatever.
Bradbury was a big believer in the Destiny of Man in Space; he was also aware of the price individuals would pay for this dream. The Rocket Man’s need to go into space is treated less as a wonderful service to The Race and more as irresistible addiction.
“The Golden Apples of the Sun” • (1953) • short story
Bold men in space craft steal the secret of eternal power from the SUN ITSELF!
Using a cup. A cup.
Even using a Silly-Story-o-Meter calibrated for Bradbury, this story pegs the needle. There are stone-age hunters trapped in pocket dimensions full of hungry dinosaurs who have a better grasp of modern science than Bradbury. The problem with Bradbury — well, one of the problems with Bradbury is that he wants to be a champion of Progress! And Man’s Destiny! while having absolutely no interest or knowledge of the fields needed to make his dreams a reality.This is for me the most annoying aspect of Bradbury’s fiction.
“A Sound of Thunder” • (1952) • short story
Big game hunting in the age of the dinosaur is not for the careless or the cowardly.
The time line the time travelers come from seems to have been a pretty crapsack world, even if it was not quite as bad as it could have been. Sure, Keith won the Presidential election and not the repellent Deutscher, but surely the fact that “an anti-everything man (…), a militarist, anti-Christ, anti-human, anti-intellectual” was in the running at all is a bad sign? And there’s this interesting comment:
People called us up, you know, joking but not joking. Said if Deutscher became President they wanted to go live in 1492. Of course it’s not our business to conduct Escapes, but to form Safaris.
Running away into the past is a common enough concept that it gets its own proper noun? Bradbury did have at least one story about a husband and wife trying to Escape a terrible future war. I wonder if “A Sound of Thunder” was part of that sequence?
Bradbury wrote quite a few well known stories; I would hesitate to call any one of them his best known, lacking any real data. But I would guess that this story would be in the running. Not only is it the source of the term “butterfly effect,” but the Simpsons felt free to reference “A Sound of Thunder” without explanation.
“The Long Rain” • (1950) • short storyExplorers
on rain-soaked Venus make a desperate attempt to reach a safe haven,
despite everything the environment and natives can throw at them.
Natives. Steal their world and they get all pesky.
“The Exiles” • (1949) • short story
At long last, the light of reason falls on imagination’s final refuge.
A civilization of Graeme Whitlings?
“Here There Be Tygers” • (1951) • short story
What challenges will the spacemen of tomorrow face in the deeps of space?
Inexplicably not titled “My Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, the Planet”.
If anyone wants to look at gender roles in Bradbury’s fiction, remember to consider this story.
“The Strawberry Window • (1955) • short story
A miserable housewife on Mars yearns to return to Earth, but she does not reckon with her husband’s vision.
Are there any women in Bradbury who get to have Big Ideas and make Grand Speeches or do they exist merely so the men have someone to declaim to?
“The Dragon” • (1955) • short story
Only the fool hearty venture out to meet the dragon of the timeless plain.
“The Gift” • (1952) • short story
No parent wants to disappoint their child but these parents can do nothing about the fact that the realities of space travel means their rocket has no candles or trees to celebrate Christmas. Or can they?
Nurse! 10 cc of insulin, stat!
If this were a proper SF story, the parents would just explain that mass restrictions on payloads preclude a tree, point out that the kid is spending Christmas in freaking space, and then push the tyke out an airlock. Because Destiny Demands Hard Decisions.
It was a Ray Bradbury story that revealed to me that cheap ball point pens came along around the time I was born (my older brother remember ink wells in desks). This story makes me wonder just how recent a development electric Christmas lights are.
Frost and Fire • (1946) • novella
The descendants of castaways, the desperate wretches of this story can do nothing about the reality that the lethal radiation of the alien star their world orbits dooms them to eight-day lifespans.
I bet you have dozens of questions. Bradbury answers all of them. Unsatisfactorily. How do they reproduce in their short lives? Super accelerated metabolisms. How do they hang onto the skills needed to survive? Race memory! And on and on, each detail more ludicrous than the previous one.
And yet, I have never forgotten this story. Stupid Bradbury.
“Uncle Einar” • [The Elliott Family] • (1947) • short story
Using his beautiful silken wings would betray Einar’s alien nature to the mundanes around him and his loved ones. Safety seems to require forever denying himself the pleasure of flight.
I think the specific subtext modern readers might read into the story of a man having to hide his beautiful silken wings is not necessarily the one Bradbury meant: he just didn’t like conformity in general.
“The Time Machine” • [Dandelion Wine] • (1955) • short story
Boys discover that their town has a time machine hidden in plain sight.
Many of us get to become time machines. Isn’t that wonderful?
“The Sound of Summer Running” • [Dandelion Wine] • (1956) • short story
A boy yearning for new sneakers discovers he has a talent that may not be amazing, but will definitely be useful.
To quote The Simpsons’ Martin Prince:
Martin Prince: As your president, I would demand a science-fiction library, featuring an ABC of the genre. Asimov, Bester, Clarke.
Student: What about Ray Bradbury?
Martin Prince: I’m aware of his work.
In general, that’s my view, right down to the dismissive tone. I am aware of Bradbury’s work. Time and access to vaster archives of fiction than I had as teen allow me avoid his oeuvre. Progress!
And yet.… When I cracked this collection open and looked at the table of contents, I remembered more than half of the stories as soon as I saw their titles. Sure, some of them are stupendously absurd, and others are sickeningly sentimental. But others … others have something, an essential seed of greatness that overcome my general aversion for Bradbury and lived on in the deepest layers of my memory. That’s either inspiration or horrifying. Bradbury as brainworm.
So let me amend Martin’s words slightly: I am aware of (Bradbury’s) work and some of it is pretty good.