Kaleidoscope by Ray Bradbury

First published in Thrilling Wonder Stories, October 1949.

I found this fantastic video on youtube – it’s by youtube user Joey Fameli.

This is probably the closest thing to a bona fide sci fi classic in these three volumes. I know it, of course, from The Illustrated Man, one of the greatest collections of SF stories ever. I read it again and again when I was a kid. I can still feel the strangely embossed cardboard cover of the edition I owned back then (Corgi Essential SF Library Edition – I also owned Golden Apples of the Sun in this version). It came from the stack of second hand sci fi in The Beehive Book Exchange in Porirua, down the alleyway by the big butchers’ shop in the old part of the mall.

That copy’s long gone, but I picked a new copy a couple of years ago, after many years away and visited it again. Some of the stories are a little corny by today’s standards – The Man, The Visitor and The Other Foot, for example, are very much of-their-time – but everything was dignified and carefully crafted and some of the stories pack a real kick. The Veldt is still brilliantly chilling, The Rocket is sweet and moving, The Exiles is delirious and slightly unnerving.

This is another one that still has its charge. Understanding why must surely take us closer to understand the heart of classic sci fi.

Kaleidoscope is the story of a group of wrecked space men. Their rocket’s exploded and they are adrift in space, trapped in their space suits and with no hope of rescue. All they have is radio contact with each other.

There’s not much plot in this story. It’s a close third-person view point study of the spacer Hollis, listening in on his thoughts and final words of the dying man and his colleagues. It’s an intensely psychological drama where Hollis tries to make sense of his life in the last hour or so he has left while listening to his ship-mates do the same.

Bradbury is particularly good at evoking the simultaneous claustrophobia and agoraphobia of being lost in space. He focuses on the palpable and real experience of it – old arguments with co-workers, the empty sky and the star, the sudden brutal force of being struck by a meteorite and loosing a limb.

As in Rings of Saturn, the story has a strongly frontier theme and echoes the adventure stories of an earlier era. Science fiction seems to have colonised – if you’ll excuse the expression – this kind of frontier literature, and it can still provide a thrill. It connects science fiction to the an older tradition in American fiction, that helps to explain SF took off so strongly in the USA. Fifty years before this was published frontier stories dominated the pulps, in the same way that the empire dominated British popular fiction.

Placing this story in this type of familiar environment adds to the vital credibility of the setting. Like the frontier fiction, frontier SF has the whiff of authenticity about it, the sense that this is something that could, conceivably, happen rather than a fable or fairy tale. It’s not so much the detail of the technology – in fact there’s no technological detail at all – but the conviction of the characters that asserts a highly believable futuristic scenario. Even today, with our dreams of interstellar travelled no closer to being realise, we can picture that interplanetary activity sketched in this series.

Bradbury affects that imaginary leap that’s essential for classic SF, not just suspension of belief but something a step further, something with slightly more roughage to it than just a fantasy. He gives us a credible future and a chance to picture ourselves there, not as unlikely space heroes or super-scientists, but ordinary working joes.

Themes: space as a workplace, shipwreck, the frontier, what’s life all about anyway?

Posted in History of the Science Fiction Magazine, pulp, reading log, science fiction is dead, SF

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