February 4, 2014
Where to Find It: The Illustrated Man, The Stories of Ray Bradbury
First Published: Thrilling Wonder Stories, October 1949
Plot Synopsis: A rocket crew experiences a catastrophic explosion onboard their ship, finding themselves cast out into space, going off in separate directions, yet still able to communicate to one another over helmet radios as they each come to terms with their inevitable fates.
Bradbury on the story: “I sat down at my typewriter and asked myself, ‘What would happen if an explosion occurred on a rocket and all the astronauts on board became castaways?’”
Critique: Bleak in its concept, Bradbury’s astronauts each have their own epiphanies regarding mortality as they drift off into the forever vastness of space. Anger, regret and acceptance are all examined amidst the chilling, absolute loneliness of outer space. Is there anything more lonely than drifting off, alone, into the vacuum of the cosmos? Bradbury’s ability to unify the quickly separating and drifting astronauts via helmet radio is a seamless and artful experiment in characters communicating in dialogue while no longer physically together. The ending of the story, with the point-of-view shift to a country road on Earth and a little boy seeing the astronaut Hollis reentering the atmosphere as a shooting star is a classic Bradbury metaphoric finale.
Anecdote: In the four years I worked on The Bradbury Chronicles: The Life of Ray Bradbury, I travelled from my home in Chicago to Bradbury’s home in Los Angeles every two or three weeks. I took the first flight out on February 1, 2003. When I walked into the rental car agency, I looked up at the TV monitors. Fiery debris was streaking across a brilliant blue sky. The space shuttle Columbia had catastrophically burned up upon reentry into the Earth’s atmosphere. My first thought: Kaleidoscope.
When I arrived at Ray Bradbury’s house 30 minutes later, I found Ray waiting for me. He was seated in his big oversized leather chair. The television was on and he was watching the news reports on the shuttle disaster.
“Kaleidoscope,” I said.
He had had tears in his eyes.
“By God, you’re right,” he said.