Whenever I am at a loss for which story to pick as the Story of the Month, the first author that comes to mind is Ray Bradbury (which, my loyal readers, you could probably have guessed since I’ve already reviewed one of his novels and one of his short stories). I was fortunate enough to take a wonderful course that solely focused on Bradbury and his work, taught by his very own biographer. I’ve never read as many stories written by a single author before. Even so, I can safely say that he is one of the best writers I’ve ever read. For that reason, I have no qualms about naming another of his stories SOTM. So, without further ado, That’s Classic!‘s Story of the Month for March 2010 is Ray Bradbury’s “Kaleidoscope.” (I have included a link to a full-text version of the story at the bottom of this post.)
“Kaleidoscope,” which appears in Bradbury’s remarkable short story collection, The Illustrated Man, is a story that literally propels you into outer space. It is the story of about a dozen men, not far from Earth, whose spaceship blew apart and now they are accelerating further and further apart from each other, the headsets inside their helmets their only means of staying in contact. All these men, including the main character Hollis, know that they are inevitably going to die, and most can assess by what means. The captain is going to hit the moon. Stone is going to be bludgeoned in a meteor shower. Applegate is accelerating toward Pluto. And Hollis is propelled toward Earth, the atmosphere of which will undoubtedly incinerate him. Their shared, yet disparate, fates are all unavoidable.
As these men hurtle toward their fate, feeling helpless in preventing their own deaths, they understandably bicker and find fault with each other. There’s a particularly compelling argument between Hollis and Lespere, an apparent womanizer who has no regrets at the end of his life, and who lets Hollis know about it. And Hollis retorts that it doesn’t matter, that they’re all meeting the same fate now, and Lespere’s “life experiences” doesn’t make his life any better than that of Hollis. But, as Lespere explains, “I got my thoughts, I remember.”
It’s the knowledge of having affected someone else, of having meant something to someone else, that plagues Hollis. We can infer from the storyteller that Hollis has never really meant anything to anyone, and that he doesn’t feel like his life was worth anything. But at the very end of the story, in death, Hollis is finally able to mean something to someone. (But I won’t tell you anything more than that. I don’t want to end the beautifully-written ending for you. You deserve the treat of the surprise!)
Now onto the writing:
“Kaleidoscope” really is a simple story, plot-wise. The story begins after the ship has already exploded. Most of the story takes place from a vantage point close to Hollis, so we can see what he sees as Earth’s gravity is pulling him in. And soon Hollis is alone, his fellow astronauts rocketing off to the farthest reaches of space or into a collision-course with a planet, moon, or meteor. And then at the end of the story, only a few pages after the story begins, Hollis is dead.
At first, the men can see each other, but after only a few seconds they are traveling so fast they are out of sight, their headsets the only reminder that they’re not alone. This story is told unlike most other stories. Instead of having all the characters in a single location, talking to each other face to face, most of these characters are conversing without being near each other or being able to see each other. It’s an unconventional way of handling a scene and dialogue between characters, but Bradbury pulls it off.
What I love so much about this story—besides the fact that it takes place in space, a subject that has always fascinated me—is that it is so telling of the human condition. We as humans, by our very nature, become incredibly reflective when we know the end is near. We might even become bitter and spiteful and lash out. But even more than that is Hollis’ desire for his life to mean something to someone other than himself, to know that he made a difference in someone’s life. It’s just tragic that he had to die for his wish to be realized.
Bradbury, like his character Hollis, certainly makes an impact with this story. So please don’t make it to the end of your life before reading this story. It is sure to make you think about your influence in life—as well as in death—quite a bit differently. It’s certainly worth the read.
To read a full-text version of “Kaleidoscope,” please click here. (Thanks to scaryforkids.com for posting this story.)