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.