Let’s have some nice things. Let’s have some nice “classic” SF, in fact.
Ray Bradbury is one of those writers who first made me want to write. The Illustrated Man blew my mind at a very young age. “The Smile”. “The Veldt” (which utterly terrified me; Bradbury was as good a writer of horror as he was science fiction). “A Sound of Thunder”. And then The Martian Chronicles, which changed the way I thought about SF and what it could do. “There Will Come Soft Rains” remains one of the most wrenchingly, unbearably sad and yet beautiful things I’ve ever read, and probably one of my favorite short stories of all time. It’s a perfect story. I literally can’t think of anything wrong with it. And I still can’t read it without crying.
Bradbury’s work is gentle, even when it’s also cruel. It’s frequently elegiac, even when it’s not overtly sad. It’s beautiful, even when he’s writing about ugly things. He has his weaknessness, and like many authors writing when he was, his stuff deals uncomfortably with race and gender, but I think there’s a humility to how he approaches things that’s missing from a lot of his contemporaries. He was profoundly skeptical of technology, of people, of the future, and yet he wrote about humanity with tremendous affection. He wanted good things for the world. He believed that we could do well.
His short story “Kaleidoscope” is among my favorites of his stuff. It’s one of those that’s quietly, gently cruel, but also deeply reflective. It’s meditation on death and what we make of it. It ended up unconsciously – at the time I was writing it – inspiring a story of mine (“What Glistens Back”) that will appear in Lightspeed at some point soon, a story I’ve been trying to write for the better part of a year and finally found a way to tell.
What Bradbury is saying, what he says in most of his stuff, is that horror and pain and beauty and love aren’t all that different in the end, that they’re ultimately not comprehensible without each other, and that – in extremis – all we have is each other.
The many good-bys. The short farewells. And now the great loose brain was disintegrating. The components of the brain which had worked so beautifully and efficiently in the skull case of the rocket ship firing through space were dying one by one; the meaning of their life together was falling apart. And as a body dies when the brain ceases functioning, so the spirit of the ship and their long time together and what they meant to one another was dying. Applegate was now no more than a finger blown from the parent body, no longer to be despised and worked against. The brain was exploded, and the senseless, useless fragments of it were far scattered. The voices faded and now all of space was silent. Hollis was alone, falling.
They were all alone. Their voices had died like echoes of the words of God spoken and vibrating in the starred deep. There went the captain to the Moon; there Stone with the meteor swarm; there Stimson; there Applegate toward Pluto; there Smith and Turner and Underwood and all the rest, the shards of the kaleidoscope that had formed a thinking pattern for so long, hurled apart.
And I? thought Hollis. What can I do? Is there anything I can do now to make up for a terrible and empty life? If only I could do one good thing to make up for the meanness I collected all these years and didn’t even know was in me! But there’s no one here but myself, and how can you do good all alone? You can’t. Tomorrow night I’ll hit Earth’s atmosphere.
I’ll burn, he thought, and be scattered in ashes all over the continental lands. I’ll be put to use. Just a little bit, but ashes are ashes and they’ll add to the land.
He fell swiftly, like a bullet, like a pebble, like an iron weight, objective, objective all of the time now, not sad or happy or anything, but only wishing he could do a good thing now that everything was gone, a good thing for just himself to know about.
When I hit the atmosphere, I’ll burn like a meteor.
“I wonder,” he said, “if anyone’ll see me?”
The small boy on the country road looked up and screamed. “Look, Mom, look! A falling star!”
The blazing white star fell down the sky of dusk in Illinois. “Make a wish,” said his mother. “Make a wish.”