During Ray Bradbury’s lifetime, science fiction moved from the outer orbits of the literary world to a place much closer to the gravitational center. Nobody had more to do with this than Bradbury, so it’s appropriate that when The New Yorker came out with an issue dedicated to science fiction last week, including anecdotes and musings on the genre from a number of writers, Bradbury’s piece appeared first.
In it, he describes being enchanted, as a young child, by the process of releasing fire balloons into the sky. “I’d helped my grandpa carry the box in which lay, like a gossamer spirit, the paper-tissue ghost of a fire balloon waiting to be breathed into, filled, and set adrift toward the midnight sky.” Bradbury says he was so moved by the sight of the fire balloon lifting off that he stood there, “tears streaming down my face,” as he watched it go. What fascinates me about this anecdote is how fully Bradbury embraces both the literal fact of the balloons and their metaphorical possibilities. It’s a poetic image, but while his eyes are trained toward the sky, his feet remain planted firmly on the earth. Soon, his relatives head back inside, “leaving me to brush the tears away with fingers sulfured by firecrackers.”
I read The Martian Chronicles in seventh grade, and I remember noticing how distinct it was from most of the science fiction I’d read before that. Mars is never the same thing from story to story; it changes depending on the character of the people encountering it. The red planet is a site of wonder or horror, delight or drudgery, based on the characters who have the experience of it. And as soon as the planet is fully colonized, those who live there begin to feel the pull of home. As many millions of miles as they may travel, they can’t escape themselves. In this way, Bradbury told me that the real subject of science fiction—like all of literature—is people. Everything else is just window dressing.
So it’s ironic that one of the most powerful stories in The Martian Chronicles is a piece called “There Will Come Soft Rains,” in which there are no human characters. Instead, it takes place in a futuristic house that’s been abandoned as its inhabitants have returned to Earth. Even so, the house has a distinctively human quality, its robotic processes reflecting the intelligence both of the people who once lived there and something singularly itself, as it fights the fire that will inevitably consume it. So, as a remembrance of the man’s work, I can’t do any better than this:
The house shuddered, oak bone on bone, its bared skeleton cringing from the heat, its wire, its nerves revealed as if a surgeon had torn the skin off to let the red veins and capillaries quiver in the scalded air… Heat snapped mirrors like the brittle winter ice. And the voices wailed Fire, fire, run, run, like a tragic nursery rhyme, a dozen voices, high, low… And one voice, with a sublime disregard for the situation, read poetry aloud in the fiery study, until all the film spools burned, until all the wires withered and the circuits cracked.