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The Essential Bradbury #15: “Kaleidoscope”

By Sam Weller at 9:23am ET

“Kaleidoscope”

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.

2 Comments »

  1. Have to agree that “Kaleidoscope” is certainly essential. I was reminded of it after watching “Gravity.” Many loved the film, but I thought that while there was much to admire, it ultimately fell flat. Whenever I find myself in a discussion of the movie, I tell people to read “Kaleidoscope.” It’s a very similar set-up, but (in my opinion) Bradbury does more in four or five pages than the movie could in an hour and a half with state-of-the-art visual effects.

    Comment by David Afsharirad — February 6, 2014 @ 11:57am
  2. I am sometimes asked which Bradbury story is my favorite. On 75% of those occasions I answer, “Kaleidoscope.”

    It is a heavy, deep story – inspiring heavy contemplation and deep introspection.

    I can’t think of any other story by any other author that manages to extract true hope from a truly hopeless situation as well as, or more beautifully than “Kaleidoscope.” It is simply Lovely.

    My thoughts return to this story in the frequent moments when I contemplate my daughter’s middle namesake, Laika – Earth’s first, unwitting explorer of space. In November of 1957 the Russians launched Sputnik II with a single passenger aboard – a gentle dog. In their haste they failed to figure into the plans a way to bring her home, and she died in orbit. In April of 1958 Laika re-entered our atmosphere in the form of a shooting star.

    Comment by Andy Burnside-Weaver — February 10, 2014 @ 1:16pm

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