The Rocket Man

My mum had a knack for finding books for me from the library that I would be sure to like.  I think I was ten or twelve when she brought home this book of short stories called R is for Rocket, by, of course, the great, now late, Ray Bradbury.

I fell immediately in love with his visions of dark summer evenings and skies filled with stars.  In my early to mid-teens, I gobbled up S is for Space and then tracked down the sources for many of the stories in those collections – The Illustrated Man and The Martian Chronicles.  I was already a fan of Francois Truffaut’s marvellous film version of Fahrenheit 451, and used to imagine which book I would memorize, because of course I would join that company of readers that we meet at the end of the book/movie.

Ray Bradbury is often someone thought of as a “young adult” writer, perhaps because many of his stories feature children, and that’s ok, but readers should not underestimate his subtlety and mastery of understated horror.  Think of “The Veldt,” where children casually trap their parents in a virtual landscape to be eaten by lions, or “The Invasion,” where children are used by aliens to take over the earth.  Anyone who thinks his work is “cosy” science fiction ought to read some of those stories.

But there is also a lovely, lyrical romanticism to much of his work.  His stories reflect an ideal, 1950’s vision of  small town America, where children may run freely (but perhaps not entirely safely) through long summer twilights.  He captures the wonder, as well as the danger, of space travel.  His space ships really are rockets, tubular, with fins for tails, mechanical but not computerized.  In his universe, the US would settle on Mars, but his was not a vision of colonial conquest.  Rather, the American invaders would be beguiled and assimilated into becoming Martians themselves. And “Dark They Were, And Golden Eyed.”

One of my absolute favourites of his stories has the devastating poignancy that I associate with his work: “All Summer in a Day.”  If you haven’t read it, treat yourself.  You will be blown away, as I was, as I continue to be.

Ray Bradbury was 91; we should be celebrating his life rather than mourning his death.  Yet, I sense that many share my feeling that I’ve somehow lost a part of my childhood, that a lovely, innocent vision of the world has now passed away as well.  In another favourite story of mine, “Kaleidoscope,” an astronaut whose ship has failed plunges to earth, burning up as he enters earth’s atmosphere.  A child spots the falling star, and his mother says “Make a wish.”

Ray Bradbury has gone.  Make a wish.