"There was this fence where we pressed our faces and felt the wind turn warm and held to the fence and forgot who we were or where we came from but dreamed of who we might be and where we might go..."

R is for Rocket is a collection of short fiction by Ray Bradbury, first published as a collection in 1962. I would imagine that the stories had been published piecemeal in pulp-paper science fiction magazines, or in what were then called "the slicks" ("real magazines" like The Saturday Evening Post); Heinlein had cracked that market and Bradbury's work was surely good enough. However, there's no "first published" paragraph on the copyright/printing history page, so I really don't know.

1962 was back when the future still looked like The Future, and the immediate conquest of space seemed inevitable. SF writers at the time had a sense of manifest destiny about the whole thing. They very self-consciously thought of space in terms of the European "Age of Exploration" and the conquest of the American West.

Bradbury was one of the first SF writers to have moments of doubt about the whole grand enterprise, as in The Martian Chronicles (1946-1958), but by and large it was meat and drink to him. After all, his greatest preoccupation was with the dreams of boyhood, which are mostly dreams of adventure. Heinlein said somewhere that it's the practical men who succeed best in romantic times, but Bradbury never bought into that idea. In Bradbury's world(s), it's the practical and scientific men who sterilize the human mind and kill dreams. Of course, Bradbury's dreamers dream of rocket ships, they dream on Mars and Venus, they dream of scooping up cups of the substance of the sun. Well, Ray, you can't do that stuff without science. Bradbury's work is, like, you know, philosophically incoherent or something. But guess what? It doesn't matter. He's a poet, not an engineer. You can refute it all after you put the book down, but if you can break the spell while you're reading the stuff for long enough to notice the contradictions, you must be dead. Yes, you're dead, and your best shot at reanimation is to read more Bradbury. So get to it.

Anyhow. Here's what lurks inside this one.

  1. R is for Rocket
  2. The End of the Beginning
  3. The Fog Horn
  4. The Rocket
  5. The Rocket Man
  6. The Golden Apples of the Sun
  7. A Sound of Thunder
  8. The Long Rain
  9. The Exiles
  10. Here There Be Tygers
  11. The Strawberry Window
  12. The Dragon
  13. The Gift
  14. Frost and Fire
  15. Uncle Einar
  16. The Time Machine
  17. The Sound of Summer Running

If you're an SF reader, you'll notice that about a third of the stories are classics: "The Fog Horn" is the one where the sea creature falls in love with a lighthouse. "The Golden Apples of the Sun" is the one where they go to the sun and scoop up a cup of it. "A Sound of Thunder" is the time travel story about hunting dinosaurs, where a foolish man steps off the metal path and crushes a butterfly, thus changing the future ever so slightly. "The Long Rain" is the story about the men lost on Venus, marching endlessly in the rain looking for a Sun Dome, and half of them go mad before they find it. "Here There Be Tygers" is the one about the men who land on a paradisiacal alien planet and begin to tear it up with mining equipment -- and it fights back. "The Dragon" is where the knight jousts with a train. Nobody could forget the ordinary midwestern eccentric "Uncle Einar", with his batlike wings and his terrible accident with the high tension wires. Science fiction would hardly exist without these stories. This book is a landmark, a monument.

The centerpiece is the great "Frost and Fire" ("great" like the Inferno or Oedipus Rex, I mean), about the nth-generation descendants of human castaways on the planet Mercury. They've changed and changed in that awful environment: They live in caves, emerging only for an hour or two at dusk and dawn when the surface temperature passes through a livable range on its way between killing heat and killing cold. They live for seven days. They are born knowing most of what they will ever know, they grow to adulthood in a day or two, and sometimes they go to war with the people in the caves across the valley: Those far cliffs are more resistant to radiation. The people there live for eight whole days. Who wouldn't risk everything to win a place there? The spaceships, "silver seeds", still exist, and most of them are undamaged, but they're much too far away to reach before the heat or the cold kills you. In the end, the hero finds a way to reach them.

Bradbury was blessed with a wild and dazzling imagination and with the skill to burn his images into your brain forever. This is greatness. Don't worry about genres. This is one of the best books anybody's ever written.

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