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Hints of the Transcendent in the Science Fiction of Ray Bradbury

February 25, 2021


While he is perhaps best known for his critically acclaimed dystopian novel Fahrenheit 451, Ray Bradbury thought of himself primarily as a writer of short stories. Often wedged in between Isaac Asimov and Arthur C. Clarke as one of the “ABCs” of twentieth-century science fiction, Bradbury’s work is remarkably divergent in style and substance from that of those authors, indeed from most sci-fi of the last seventy years.

Bradbury’s stories sometimes contain themes and plot elements that hint at the existence of a transcendent reality beyond the physical universe that we can observe and measure. Two notable examples, “The Man” and “The Fire Balloons,” can be found in Bradbury’s acclaimed short story collection The Illustrated Man.

“The Man” follows the exploits of two space explorers, Captain Hart and Lieutenant Martin, who have arrived on an unnamed planet. Upset that the native inhabitants have not come to greet the astronauts, Hart is indignant. Turning to his comrade, he laments, “Why do we do it, Martin? This space travel, I mean. Always on the go. Always searching. Our insides always tight, never any rest.” And here we encounter the central theme of the story, the endless searching. It brings to mind St. Augustine’s famous saying about man’s ceaseless longing for the transcendent, for the eternal, for God: “You have made us for yourself, and our heart is restless until it rests in you.”

Martin soon discovers that another mysterious visitor has profoundly altered the lives of the native people. “He healed the sick and comforted the poor,” Martin reports. “He fought hypocrisy and dirty politics and sat among the people, talking, through the day.” While Martin does not say so explicitly, it is clear that he believes this wise and compassionate figure to be one and the same person as Jesus Christ. The cynical materialist Hart confronts the natives. He dismisses their reports as mass hallucination or an elaborate hoax. Hart places more trust in his scientific instruments than in the humble witness of the people. Frustrated by his commander’s sneering condescension, Martin calls him out: “I’ve gone through the city and seen their faces, and they’ve got something you’ll never have—a little simple faith, and they’ll move mountains with it.” Martin declares his intention to remain with them and share in the joy they have found.

Hart is eventually convinced that something supernatural did indeed take place in this seemingly ordinary world. Haggard and distraught, he cries out, “Why, the chances are one in billions that we’d arrive at one certain planet among millions of planets the day after he came!” Desperate to see the Man, Hart demands to know where he has gone. But he is missing the entire point of faith. As Jesus instructs St. Thomas the Apostle after the Resurrection, “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet believed” (John 20:29). When the answers he desires are not forthcoming, Hart threatens to shoot a local official. The mayor responds with pity: “You’ve traveled a long way and you belong to a tired people who’ve been without faith a long time, and you want to believe so much now that you’re interfering with yourself. You’ll only make it harder if you kill. You’ll never find him that way.” Hart resolves to search the stars for the Man so he can beg him for some “peace and quiet.” But Hart will never know true peace or joy because he lacks faith. In his anguished grasping at the way, the truth, and the life, he finds the very thing he desires slipping through his fingers.

In “The Man,” Bradbury rejects a shallow scientism and points to faith as the way in which we will satisfy our restless longing for the transcendent. Similarly, “The Fire Balloons” explores spiritual realities by meditating on the destiny of the soul and the nature of sin. Unfortunately, this story is marred by Bradbury’s flawed anthropology.

In “The Fire Balloons,” two Episcopal priests, Fr. Peregrine and Fr. Stone, travel to Mars as missionaries. The two ministers debate the implications that the discovery of extraterrestrial life would have for the Christian doctrine of sin. If Martians possess additional senses, organs, and limbs, might not new sins be possible? Conversely, what if they lack limbs or even sexual reproduction? “Amoebas cannot sin because they reproduce by fission,” Fr. Peregrine pontificates. “They do not covet wives or murder each other. Add sex to amoebas, add arms and legs, and you would have murder and adultery.” Alas, here Fr. Peregrine (and Bradbury) lapses into the ancient heresy of Gnosticism, which identifies the body and the material world as the sources of evil and sin. This runs athwart the biblical pronouncement that “God saw everything that he had made, and behold, it was very good” (Gen. 1:31).

After arriving on the Red Planet, Peregrine and Stone travel into the hills where they soon encounter the Martians, who resemble luminous globes of blue light. These “fire balloons” rescue the hapless priests from an avalanche of boulders. Fr. Peregrine believes these strange creatures possess a moral life, declaring, “They had a choice; let us live or die. That proves free will!”

The priests build an outdoor altar to hold religious services for the Martians. The fiery globes soon arrive and one of them begins to address the priests telepathically. The Martian reveals that their race was once incarnate creatures with bodies similar to humans until “a good man, discovered a way to free man’s soul and intellect, to free him of bodily ills and melancholies . . . and so we took on the look of lightning and blue fire.” This “good man” was clearly not a Martian Christian but a Martian Platonist. According to Plato, the human body is the prison of the soul, and the primary goal of philosophy is to effect a jailbreak, allowing the soul to leave suffering behind. This is opposed to Christian anthropology, which declares that human nature is a union of soul and body. The human body and all its attendant sufferings have been redeemed by the mystery of Christ’s Incarnation and Passion. Our eternal destiny is not to discard our bodies forever, but to experience bodily resurrection, imitating Christ himself.

The Martian continues, “We have put away the sins of the body and live in God’s grace. . . . We have left sin behind.” Again, Bradbury betrays a worldview that is fundamentally Gnostic and Platonic, rather than Christian. Sinful matter opposed to unsullied spirit is a false dichotomy. Even beings with purely spiritual natures, such as the fallen angels, are capable of sin. Our faith as Catholics teaches us that the Blessed Virgin Mary was preserved from sin for her entire earthly existence and, at the end of her life, was assumed body and soul into heaven.

Despite these missteps in “The Fire Balloons,” Ray Bradbury is to be commended for having used science fiction as a vehicle to explore questions of eternal significance. While science fiction is often touted as the ideal genre for discussing “big ideas,” many sci-fi writers are hampered by a narrow materialistic scientism that does not allow for the possibility of the transcendent, let alone the supernatural. Perhaps it’s time to rediscover what made Ray Bradbury’s stories so unique, memorable, and thought-provoking.