R is for Rocket

It’s curious how often the letter “R” seems to come up in science fiction, with its ray guns, robots, rocket ships, relativity drives, red dwarf stars and radiation shields. Consider the case of “R.U.R.”, whose title is an acronym for “Rossum’s Universal Robots”. The very name of Karel Capek’s foundational story suggests that R is for Robot – quite literally. I suspect that Isaac Asimov gave his famous robot detective the name R Daneel in homage to Mr. Capek.

But for me the letter R will always be associated with “R is for Rocket”, an anthology of Ray Bradbury stories which finally convinced my childhood self that science fiction was about far more than ray guns and space ships. The collection’s title was no doubt chosen to draw in the unwary thrill-seeking kid looking only for cheap space opera adventures. But when you actually read the thing, you find that most of the stories are about – gasp – human relationships. Of course any reader of Bradbury knows that the study of people, in all their fascinating fragility and complexity, is his not so secret agenda.

Not that this collection lacked for impact in the traditional SciFi sense. After all, it contains “A Sound of Thunder” – arguably the single most influential work ever written about the potentially pernicious effects of time travel. I love the fact that Mr. Bradbury is still around – eighty nine years old and still going strong.

Looking back on his work, I think my favorite (although it’s hard to choose) is a relatively unknown Bradbury novel that completely reversed the tenets of science fiction – “Dandelion Wine”. It’s about one ordinary summer in a small town in the life of a 12 year old boy (based largely on the author’s own childhood, I am told). Except that everything that happens seems completely magical. There are no objects of fantasy – no robots, aliens, laser weapons or spaceships. But all of the “ordinary” events the boy experiences possess essentially the same transcendent quality we associate with those fantastical things. To give one example among many, the boy refers to his grandfather as a time machine, because the old man can transport his grandson by telling adventures of his own youth, of a time long gone by.

Perhaps R is really for reading, reminiscence, relationships and Ray Bradbury.

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