Kaleidoscope

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death fiction

Ray Bradbury is without a doubt my favorite writer. His understanding of the human condition is unparalleled, and he’s a master of the written word.

One of my many favorite stories of his is Kaleidoscope, which I reread for the first time in years today. I first read this story - and The Illustrated Man, the book in which it features - when I was in my teens.

Plot

Warning: spoilers ahead!

To me, Kaleidoscope reads as a meditation on the human condition at the brink of certain and imminent (but not immediate) death.

The story unfolds with a space ship as it’s hit by a meteor, resulting in all of its crew being flung into outer space. Since the crew have no means of navigation, but do have the protection of their space suits, they are constrained to freefall, and may only communicate by radio while waiting to fatally collide with another celestial body, or drift out of range of communication. The combination of knowing that their deaths are imminent and that they can’t physically harm one another induces a series of interesting and honest if not wholly kind interchanges amongst the crew members that provide insight into the nature of life and death1.

The narrative focuses mostly on Hollis, someone who strikes me as an ordinary sort of person: someone who’s lived his life plainly, and not explicitly meanly, selfishly, or altruistically, but just in a perfectly common sort of way.

We see some interchanges throughout the story between himself and his colleagues, notably between one of his antagonists, Applegate. But the one that struck me most was his dialogue with Lespere, a character in the story who’s portrayed as someone who’d lived a very full life:

That one man, Lespere, went on and on with his talk … his wife on Jupiter, his money, his wondrous times, his drunkenness, his gambling, his happiness. On and on, while they all fell. Lespere reminisced on the past, happy, while he fell to his death.

While Lespere doesn’t seem to have the persona that I’d naturally form a bond with, the point is made that in death, we’re not all equal.

Hollis tries to rationalize away the qualitative difference in their life and death.

But you’re here now, thought Hollis. I didn’t have any of those things. When I was living I was jealous of you, Lespere; when I had another day ahead of me I envied you your women and your good times. Women frightened me and I went into space, always wanting them and jealous of you for having them, and money, and as much happiness as you could have in your own wild way. But now, falling here, with everything over, I’m not jealous of you any more, because it’s over for you as it is for me, and right now it’s like it never was.

So he shouts at Lespere through millions of miles of space that since they’re meeting the same fate anyway his experiences are worthless.

What good does it do you? Now? When a thing’s over it’s not good any more. You’re no better off than I.

But Lespere responds with a simple observation:

I’m resting easy. I’ve had my turn. I’m not getting mean at the end, like you.

When Hollis realizes this, he unconsciously starts to weep.

Lespere had lived a good full life, and it made him a different man now, and he, Hollis, had been as good as dead for many years. They came to death by separate paths and, in all likelihood, if there were kinds 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?

The story ends with Hollis falling back down to Earth, wishing he could do something good and meaningful, but realizing that it’s very difficult to do good without anyone else around.

And I? thought Hollis. What can I do? Is there anything I can do now to make up for a terrible and empty life? If only I could do one good thing to make up for the meanness I collected all these years and didn’t even know was in me! But there’s no one here but myself, and how can you do good all alone? You can’t. Tomorrow night I’ll hit Earth’s atmosphere.

Poignantly, it ends with a boy on a country road witnessing the descent of a falling star - which is Hollis - and his mother asking him to wish on it.

Thoughts

This story makes me both sad and grateful. As someone who has way more than enough of his share of wealth and whose basic survival needs are quite covered, I regret that I’m not having more of a positive impact on the world.

On the other hand, I do have things, experiences, and people I cherish.

If you feel like something’s missing from your life, you might be correct, or you might not be properly appreciating what you have, or maybe it’s a bit of both.

Personally, I realize that it’s worth pondering the consequences of my actions - and inactions - both on a momentary basis, and as they’ll figure into the sum of my life in the moments of my certain death. Did I

  • do enough for the people I loved?
  • live according to my values?
  • do what I loved?
  • live freely?
  • spend my time with people I liked, respected, and admired?

Most importantly, will I be proud of who I’ve been and who I’ve become?

These are some of the questions I should be asking now and will be asking later.


  1. This reminds me of communication on the Internet today, and how it’s so much easier to be less humane to each other behind a computer screen. [return]