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Buster Keaton in Sherlock Jr., 1924

December 7, 2012

BOOK REVIEW

An Impatient Gulliver Above Our Roofs
by Ray Bradbury


It’s Ray Bradbury Week at Friday’s Forgotten Books over at Patti Abbott’s blog Pattinase.

© Wikimedia Commons
My first real exposure to space science, apart from what I had been taught in school, was the science show Cosmos: A Personal Voyage written and presented by American astrophysicist Carl Sagan. Doordarshan (Far Sight), India’s national television network, ran the 13-part series in the early 1980s. It was telecast on Sunday mornings and children and teenagers, like me, sat huddled around black-and-white television sets for Sagan’s perspective on the universe and the infinite possibilities that lay within and beyond it.

Around this time an Indian publisher of comics came out with a new comic-book titled The Black Hole in partnership with Disney Comics.


Cosmos and the comic-book along with Steven Spielberg’s Close Encounters of the Third Kind and E.T. did more to enhance my knowledge of space and universe, both real and fictional, than all my science textbooks in school.

Ray Bradbury came later, much later, as did other writers of science fiction, a literary genre I wasn't quite familiar with until the early part of this century when I picked up, rather tentatively, The Invisible Man by H.G. Wells. I liked it a lot and imagined the end in different ways. For instance, the invisible man would not have suffered an ignominious death.

Between then and now, I have read no more than three novels and a handful of short stories by Bradbury which doesn't exactly qualify me for Ray Bradbury Week. I have, however, read more about Bradbury than by Bradbury including interviews and assorted profiles and quotable quotes. He scores high on sound bites.

I decided to review one of the few short stories I had read and selected The Million-Year Picnic (1946) for this occasion. I read it twice but finally decided against writing about an adventurous family’s rocket-propelled picnic to Mars. I need to really understand Bradbury’s fiction and writing before I review any of his work. It takes getting used to. 

November 24, 1967
Now I was aware of Bradbury’s connections with NASA, especially the fact that the US space agency, only last August, named a landing site on the red planet as Bradbury Landing. What I didn't know was that, in 1966, the renowned sf writer was sent by LIFE magazine on assignment to the Manned Spacecraft Center in Houston, Texas, and, in 1967, he came back and wrote an article An Impatient Gulliver Above Our Roofs that won him the Aviation Space Writers Association's Award and the Robert S. Ball Memorial Award.

The article, accompanied by some brilliant photographs by Ralph Morse, a highly creative photographer for LIFE magazine, is one of the finest pieces of writing I have read this century. There is both a poetic and magical touch to Bradbury’s writing. He starts by talking about how, in 1929, at the age of nine, he was influenced by science fiction…by Buck Rogers, Amazing Stories, Flash Gordon, Sputnik, and watching John Glenn splash down in 1962…and describes Houston, Texas, as “the home you have been waiting for since 1929 when you were truly born,” the year you thought and dreamed of “impossible futures.”

Bradbury was thunder-struck by what he saw inside the Manned Spacecraft Center where he “stood agape amidst giant electric eyes and ears, watching ruby red laser beams flash down black tunnels, whistling centrifuges…” staring up at a single invention, the rocket, which, he said, was redesigning mankind.

His profound and humbling experience prompted Bradbury to declare that man would land on the moon in 1969, which he did, on July 20 of that year, and referred to his prediction of a Mars landing in 1999 in The Martian Chronicles (1950) as an event that America would beat by 20 years—“1980 would be a safe bet!” Bradbury was, obviously, emotionally overwhelmed by the visit to the space programme for he exclaimed: “Great God, I never dreamed this!”

Through over half-a-century of writing, Ray Bradbury has been telling his readers to do just that—dream on a scale as big and grand and infinite as space.

Later, accepting the two awards, Bradbury said, “I am the great-great-great-times-a-thousand nephew of dragfoot. I am the one with the bad eye and the weak arm and not so deft ankle. And I, bastard son of Ab the Caveman or Unha the Blind was sent by LIFE magazine some 17 months ago to watch the runners and jumpers, the bounders and catchers, and the bringers-back from space at Houston, Texas."



Note: You can read Bradbury's article in LIFE magazine here.

14 comments:

  1. Did not know about this. Thanks much for the link. wonderful Bradbury esoterica!

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    1. Charles, you are very welcome. The article in LIFE was a pleasant discovery and I enjoyed reading Bradbury's experience in his inimitable style.

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  2. Nicely expressed. The 1980 prediction is an example of how a future year can seem so distant, while one from the past seems so recent.

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    1. Thank you, Ron. Bradbury was a visionary whose ideas and theories reflected in his thinking and writing. It didn't matter whether he was proved right or wrong.

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  3. Really enjoyed reading about this Prashant - it's so interesting that Bradbury, a very individual author of SF who largely eschewed hard science in his stories, was so involved witht he space programme. Amazing that he lived long enough to see so many of his dreams became reality

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    1. Thanks, Sergio. I didn't know about Bradbury's keen interest in the space programme until I read his piece in LIFE. In fact, he also wrote an article called "Why Man Explores" for NASA's educational publications division which I forgot to mention here. I wonder what he had to say when man actually landed on the moon. Will have to look into it.

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  4. Bradbury helped us all to dream. For that I will be forever thankful.

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    1. You are so right, Jerry. His creative brain was in overdrive and he conjured up all kinds of scenarios that are believable enough to actually take place.

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  5. I've never read any Bradbury except for 451 FAHRENHEIT and maybe one other title which escapes my old lady memory at the moment.

    My fault for not really ever loving science fiction writing - it's a fault I can't, somehow, overcome. However, I do love science fiction movies. So go figure.

    Though I know that Bradbury did not always concentrate on interplanetary space travel.

    Over the years I just never got interested. And I know it's a major fault.

    Hey, nobody's perfect.

    But I still enjoyed reading your post, Prashant. I love that Bradbury was still capable of 'gee, golly whiz' even as an adult. That's probably what made him such a great writer.

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    1. Yvette, I am glad you enjoyed the post. At NASA, Bradbury must have felt like a kid let loose in a toy store. I agree, he was a terrific writer with a terrific imagination. I am guilty of not reading enough sf too and have read very little of Bradbury's work. I intend to correct his long absence in my literary pursuits next year. Like you I love science fiction and fantasy movies and never tire of watching them again and again. The STAR WARS trilogy has me in awe every time I see the films.

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  6. Harlan Ellison, a writer of similar talent and inclination, had s similar piece covering the encounter of the Voyager mission with Saturn...collected in STALKING THE NIGHTMARE.

    I hope this contemporaneous Bradbury video is visible in India:
    http://bcove.me/ir4fiwwx

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    1. Todd, thanks for the heads-up about Harlan Ellison, unknown to me until now, and her piece in STALKING THE NIGHTMARE, another first as well. I haven't had the time to check out the Bradbury video link but I think it should work here. I will let you know.

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  7. I once heard Ray Bradbury lecture at a Mind / Supermind series and I knew he was an interesting person. But a lot of this was new information to me. Thanks for this interesting post.

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    1. Tracy, you are most welcome. You were probably one of the luck few who got to attend a Bradbury lecture, that too, on something as esoteric as mind and supermind. Everything Bradbury has spoken or written is new for me and I am happy that many of his works, especially short stories, are in the public domain.

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