Ray Bradbury: a brief appreciation

When I was a child, maybe eleven or twelve years old, I discovered my parents’ old science fiction books on some metal shelves in the basement. The only one of these books I really remember was a paperback edition of Ray Bradbury’s The Illustrated Man. In my mind’s eye I can still see the cover design, and the cracked binding. One of the stories in particular stuck with me, still sticks with me:

In “The Man,” a spaceship travels to a planet that hasn’t been visited by any spaceships for a long time. The crew of the space ship expects to be greeted with astonishment and wonder, but upon landing they discover that another visitor, a solitary man, has preceded them by just a few days. Everyone who met this man is filled with a kind of peace and inner contentment. This amazing man has gone on to a new planet. Some of the crew decide they must meet this man themselves, and they head off in the space ship to follow him. But a few of the crew remain on the planet; they know that the rest of the crew who are pursuing this man will never quite catch up with him, they will miss him by a day, then by a few hours, then by minutes, but they will always miss meeting him in person; they decide they don’t need to meet the man in person, that living on this now-peaceful planet with these now-peaceful people is enough.

Even at eleven or twelve years old, I figured out that this story was about religion, about a Jesus-like figure. Later, I figured out that this story was criticizing literalism in religion; it is futile to try to find the “real” Jesus, the “real” prophet, because you will never catch up with him (or her). Later still, I discovered that Ray Bradbury was a Unitarian Universalist, and this was exactly the kind of story a religious liberal would write.

Some of Bradbury’s work can be overly sentimental, with stereotyped characters and pat endings. One such a story comes to mind: In “Kaleidoscope,” a spaceship explodes, the crew in spacesuits are propelled off in all directions, knowing they will live only as long as the oxygen lasts in their space suits; they talk with each other via their suit radios, talking, crying, saying vicious things, telling what direction they’re headed in, coming to peace with one another. Slowly each one passes out of radio range of the others. One of them is captured by the gravitational well of Earth, and is seen from the surface of Earth as a meteorite, a shooting star. It’s a story about how we all have to die alone, but Bradbury can’t resist the pat ending of having one of the dying crew men end life as a shooting star upon whom a boy makes a wish. But in spite of that, I can’t help liking “The Kaleidoscope”: I know we die alone, and that most of human death amounts to little more than a lone spaceman flying off into the endless void; but I want to believe that once in a while, the end of a human life can be a force for good in the world, even if it’s little more than a brief flash of light in the night.

5 thoughts on “Ray Bradbury: a brief appreciation”

  1. Have you been reading my blog? This is a better summary of “The Kaleidoscope” than I wrote. Yes, like so much Bradbury it perches awkwardly on the fence between profundity and sentimentality (or preachiness), but more often than not he holds the balance. A lesser writer would have hammered home the point of “make a wish.” Bradbury lets it stand and lets us decide whether that tiny moment of grace is enough to redeem a life. The Illustrated Man is now sitting on my desk and I look forward to re-discovering “The Man,” which I’d forgotten.

    Sadly, I have not been able to find any evidence that Bradbury was really a UU. I went searching yesterday because a colleague wanted to know, and aside from the many repetitions on UU sites, there’s no support for it. In fact, I found, from CNN two years ago, that says,

    When he turned 14, Bradbury began visiting Catholic churches, synagogues and charismatic churches on his own to figure out his faith.

    Bradbury has been called a Unitarian, but he rejects that term. He dislikes labels of any kind.

    “I’m a Zen Buddhist if I would describe myself,” he says. “I don’t think about what I do. I do it. That’s Buddhism. I jump off the cliff and build my wings on the way down.” (Sci-fi Legend Ray Bradbury on God, ‘Monsters and Angels’)

  2. Amy — Alas, I haven’t been reading your blog since I am in the pre-vacation crunch with barely enough time to sleep and write my own blog posts.

    Bradbury used to be listed on the Harvard Square Library Web site, a project of First Parish in Cambridge, as a famous UU. The link is still on their “Arts & Humanities” page, but the Web page on Bradbury is now missing. As I recall, that Web page actually specified which congregation he was part of; so perhaps he was only a UU for a few years (as is true of so many people), and then left UUism. Alternatively, the response he gave to CNN is a response that many signed, sealed, and certified UUs might also give; we do have a tendency to hide our lights under bushel baskets.

    He is in any case a clear example of a religious liberal.

  3. Sadly, among the many books I brought here from the house, I can not find any of those Bradbury books that I know we once owned. In the 1950’s and 60’s, your mother and I both loved science fiction. I’m glad that you discovered those books.

  4. Definitely a religious liberal and yet, at least in some respects, a political conservative. Conservative UUs are a rare breed, and I’m sorry they’ve lost an exemplar.

    How interesting that our minds both went to “Kaleidoscope,” with similar thoughts. There are many Bradbury images that have stuck with me over the years, but that’s the one I thought of this week.

  5. I remember those books too. And I think I may have a Bradbury or two on my shelves. I got to know Bradbury’s work from a different perspective when I played a very small part in the stage production of Fahrenheit 451 here in Indiana a couple of years ago. (Which, by the way, is a truly tedious and awful play. Sorry, Bradbury fans. But Ray was no playwright.)

    Here’s a link to the re-run of Terry Gross’s interview with Bradbury on “Fresh Air”: http://www.npr.org/2012/06/08/154524695/ray-bradbury-its-lack-that-gives-us-inspiration

    He comes off a little crack-pot-ish in this, but at least he speaks his own mind…

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