Ray Bradbury’s “Kaleidoscope”: Imminent terror and futility

Literature. Writing. Blogging. Ray Bradbury.

I have had a host of stories follow me around after I’ve read them (I think we all have). These stories typically follow me because they’ve unsettled me in some way or another. One of which is “Cold Equations” by Tom Godwin. Another is “A Good Man is Hard to Find” by Flannery O’Connor. And yet another is “Kaleidoscope” by Ray Bradbury.

I was thinking tonight that there are few authors who really nail that first book with what they will become in the future. J. K. Rowling, for me, has a perfect first book in Harry Potter, and J.R. Tolkien masterfully demonstrated his storytelling ability with The Hobbit. Bradbury, though he grew and grew as a writer, capitalized on his talent with both The Martian Chronicles and The Illustrated Man. Even in his early phase as a writer, he was still one of the most lyrical and inventive craftsman of his time (possibly ever).

In his early works, you see the same kind of intense inventiveness and creativity as you do in his later works and collections (such as Driving Blind [1997]). He was a permanent talent. For the purposes of this blog post, we will focus on “Kaleidoscope,” which serves as an excellent example of his talent and features the cosmic wonder of space paired with the intense horror of death. Today, we are going to summarize and analyze this short story; though, I must say, if you haven’t read it, don’t do yourself the disservice of listening to me rhapsodize, and just go read it yourself first. Spoilers ahead.

Onward!

Summary

“Kaleidoscope” concerns a group of astronauts who are sucked out of their spaceship on a trip through space. The accident involves a meteor and the rocket the astronauts were riding in. Bradbury’s voice regarding the incident is unmistakable.

“The first concussion cut the rocket up the side with a giant can opener. The men were thrown into space like a dozen wriggling silverfish. They were scattered into a dark sea; and the ship, in a million pieces, went on, a meteor swarm seeking a lost sun.”

(Ray Bradbury | Kaleidoscope)

In the space of mere moments, the men face the absolute terror of an imminent death and have to come to grips with their own mortality…very quickly. The true terror of their situation, however, is that they must face their death alone, with only each other’s voices for company, as they slowly sailed into the vastness of space.

“They fell. They fell as pebbles fall down wells. They were scattered as jackstones are scattered from a gigantic throw. And now instead of men there were only voices-all kinds of voices, disembodied and impassioned, in varying degrees of terror and resignation.”

(Ray Bradbury | Kaleidoscope)

Some of them fail to come to grips with the tragedy, while others grin and bare it if only to understand their place among the stars. Though we learn of all the men’s fates, the audience is centered on Hollis’s own thoughts toward the end of the story, as even though all of the astronauts are fated to die, he alone would disintegrate in Earth’s atmosphere.

“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.”

(Ray Bradbury | Kaleidoscope)

In the end, all of them meet their end in space (or the atmosphere), and the story finishes with a little boy and his mother looking up to see a shooting star (Hollis’s disintegrating body), and she tells the young boy to, “Make a wish.”

Analysis

I read this story when I was probably 17 or 18 years old and it really upset me at first. I think paired with H.P. Lovecraft and Robert E. Howard (my author choices at the time) was smart, though, because they all focused on futility in theme. “Kaleidoscope” has futility in its DNA because it comes from the collection The Illustrated Man, which features a lot of death and carnage and futile gestures throughout each of the stories inside.

But there’s something else the story is trying to tell us, too. In the following section, Hollis thinks about his relationship with another character, Lespere, and the complexity of life in the face of death.

“They came to death by separate paths and, in all likelihood, if there were lands of death, their kinds would be as different as night from day. The quality of death, like that of life, must be of an infinite variety, and if one has already died once, then what was there to look for in dying for good and all, as he was now?”

(Ray Bradbury | Kaleidoscope)

Hollis finds that even though futility and chance are rich in their lives, there is still hope and time to make amends, or at least change in oneself to do better. In one moment, he thinks, he is giving advice, and in the very next he is uncapable of grasping with his own meanness. But such is life. This is the tragedy and triumph of “Kaleidoscope,” and I think it’s a great reminder that even in the briefest moments of life, we can still be the people that we want to be through gratitude, respect, and compassion for others.

Works Cited

Bradbury, Ray. The Illustrated Man. “Kaleidoscope.” Simon and Shuster. 2012.