Today I heard the news: Neil Armstrong, the first man-on-the-moon, died yesterday. So, it is fitting that the next book in my ‘have read recently’ pile is Ray Bradbury’s collection of short stories about space flight.
Bradbury wrote most of these stories during the 1950s, the decade when the Russian Sputnik programme began. In 1959, after multiple failures, the Russians managed to achieve a crash-landing of an unmanned craft on the lunar surface. During the 1960s, the American efforts to reach the moon were stepped up and by the second half of the decade, successful soft-landings on the moon were being achieved by both nations. But it was the Americans who set the first human on the moon when, in 1969, when Neil Armstrong stepped off the ladder of the Eagle and placed his foot in the dust of the Sea of Tranquillity.
So, back to Ray Bradbury – writing science fiction in the 1950s – when manned landings were still an unrealised dream.
- Some of the stories are about the delightful and terrifying pull of space travel. Told with a sense of childish awe, and a hint of obsession, these stories are about the yearning to be a spaceman and include R is for Rocket, The Rocket Man and The Rocket.
- Other stories deal with hostile alien environments; a haunting story about a planet where it rains constantly (The Long Rain) and a complex tale set in a planet where burning day is followed by freezing night (Frost and Fire).
- Then there are the supernatural tales – and a reminder to me that good science fiction writers can also write good ‘ghost’ stories – The Fog Horn, The Dragon and The Strawberry Window.
- And two great stories about time travel: one is a tale of ‘real’ time travel – A Sound of Thunder, involving dinosaur hunting trips and dealing with some of the dangers of altering the past; and the other is a gentle tale of ‘virtual’ time travel in The Time Machine, where Bradbury visits a favourite theme – the repository of knowledge in the memories of the old.
My personal favourites were:
1. A Sound of Thunder – because of the neat twist at the end.
2. The Long Rain – because of Bradbury’s fantastic use of language to evoke the misery of existence on a planet pummelled by unrelenting rain.
3. Frost and Fire – because of its complexity as it deals with human’s struggling against both a hostile environment and a tremendously shortened life span, all set within a brilliant quest story.
What didn’t I like? Well, the dialogue is stilted by modern standards, some of the characters’ gung-ho attitudes may seem naive, and the plots are firmly male-orientated with – women consigned to minor roles, mainly supporting male family members. But these are all common features of 1950s sci-fi, so I can’t be too critical.