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Short Story Saturday: "Kaleidoscope" by Ray Bradbury


Kaleidoscope by Ray Bradbury


I chose this short story not only because it’s one of my favorite pieces of science fiction (hint to my next book review) but also for its dark themes surrounding the circumstances of impending doom, especially in the name of exploration and innovation.


Background

Kaleidoscope is a short story written by Ray Bradbury and published in October 1949 and anthologized in the 1951 collection of his short stories The Illustrated Man. It is a popular piece of science fiction, the genre in which Bradbury is highly regarded among writers. The story regales the conversations between a crew of astronauts as they are facing their own individual deaths.


Summary

The story begins with a rocket explosion which ejects all 11 crew members into different directions, each tumbling and flying further from each other deeper into the depths of space. The astronauts, known only by their last names–Hollis, Applegate, Stone, Barkley, Woode, Stimson, Captain, Smith, Turner, Underwood, and Lespere–can only communicate through their radio, which Stone estimates will cut out within the hour. Stone is pummeling towards the moon, while Hollis is headed towards earth. Hollis realizes that as he enters the Earth’s atmosphere, he will “burn like a match.” Stimson hops on the transmission anxiously expressing his hysterics about the circumstances. Hollis tries to calm him down, telling him that there’s still a chance that they may be found. Applegate hops on too, stating that it is all a dream, an antagonizing comment that flusters Hollis, and Hollis is suddenly filled with hate towards Applegate.

Two of the men suddenly begin to scream relentlessly. Hollis notices one of them floating nearby, and he reaches out and grabs the man. Hollis then punches the visor of the man’s helmet, thus relieving him of the infinitely worse death from a meteor strike or plummet to the moon or Earth. Applegate gets on the radio again and begins releasing his fury against the Captain and Hollis. Hollis is then struck by a meteor and loses his left hand. He is able to twist his suit and he ties off the sleeve to seal the leak. The other men keep chattering; Lespere goes on and on bragging about his multiple wives on multiple planets. Lespere is proud of the life he has led and is not afraid to die. Hollis had always been jealous of Lespere; his confidence, promiscuity, riches. But in that moment, Hollis’s jealousy evaporates as he realizes that they share the same fate. “It’s like it never was.” Hollis exclaims his thoughts to Lespere who replies that it is not the same; Lespere has the memories, Hollis only has his meanness.

Hollis’s realization at this fact sends him into tears, to which Stimson now tries to calm him of. As Hollis surrenders to his revelations about his life and imminent death, another meteor takes off his right foot. Again he ties his suit up at the breach. Then Applegate addresses Hollis again and apologizes for his antagonizing statements and confesses to the lies he has told. Stone hops on the transmission and tells the remaining men that he is entering a meteor cluster. He revels in the beauty of the metallic field and describes it as a “kaleidoscope.” He seems to fall into the meteors willingly, somewhat hopefully. Stone makes his farewell, as do Applegate and the rest of the men as the distance between them all grows too large for the radio transmission.

Alone, Hollis reflects on his life, wondering if there may be anything that he can still do to make up for the wrongs in his life, to make up for his regrets, to do one last good deed. He acquiesces to his thoughts knowing that since he was alone, there is nothing he can now do. He will burn in the atmosphere of the Earth without having made up for his empty life. As he plummets towards the Earth, his last thought is, “I wonder if anyone will see me.”

On Earth, a young boy in the countryside of Illinois crosses a road with his mother. He looks up at the sky and exclaims, “Look Mom, look! A falling star!” to which his mother replies, “Make a wish, make a wish.”


Analysis

In close terms, the story is about the acceptance of death and the influence that death has on the living. The thoughts of each character reflects how each deals with their impending demise. Each one is unique in his own acceptance, however, all are similar in that each is brought to the same level, the same “facing of death.” This admission and acquiescence to death thus pushes their lives into the past. Now they can only reflect. In a way, the characters become more human as they stare death in the face, something that Bradbury depicts in their thoughts and actions. Some look back on their lives with pleasure and triumph, others look back with disdain and regret. It is something that plagues damn near everyone at one point or another in his or her life.

In broad terms, the story could be related to the dire effects that come as a result with attaining a truth, the dire effects in this case being death. The astronauts were pioneers of science who dedicated their lives (literally) to pushing the envelop of knowledge. And in their efforts to further society’s understanding of the universe and advancing science, they ended up sacrificing their lives. There is this catch-22 scenario: to get to the truth or even close to the truth, you must lose a part of yourself (or in Hollis’s case, multiple parts of yourself).


Side-note many people believe that the story Kaleidoscope was the inspiration for the movie Gravity (2013), though I could not personally find any citations that back this up.

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