Thursday, September 15, 2011

Radio: Kaleidoscope (Dimension X)

As I observed in our last Bradbury episode, "Marionettes, Inc.," Bradbury is a master of the short-story form.  He can pack an awful lot into a small number of words.  That one, I estimated at about 2,500 words.  "Kaleidoscope," I'd guess, is about 3,000.  Blaise Pascal once wrote, "I have written you a long letter; I didn't have time to write a short one."  Well, when it comes to his fiction, Bradbury finds the time.  Often, the shorter his stories, the more there seems to be in them.  So you'd think these two short stories might be similar tasks as far as radio adaptation goes.  But not so much.

"Marionettes, Inc." has so much idea and implied backstory in it, despite its brevity, that it unwinds itself in our imaginations like a released high-tension spring.  One could argue that part of the greatness of Bradbury as a short story writer is not just that he can write a story that almost elaborates on itself, but that, having done it, he knows when to stop, and doesn't elaborate on it himself.  It shows his dedication as a writer that he was willing to do this in a field where way too much fiction, even by good writers, looked like it was spun out with intense consciousness of the fact that each extra word was an extra penny or two in their pocket.  Fortunately for Bradbury, that kind of dedication to his craft eventually saw his words earning him considerably larger sums in the slicks.

When you're a radio scriptwriter, however, and you need to tell stories in complete scenes with dialogue-- moreover, enough to fill half an hour --it's time to elaborate.  And as I noted before, George Lefferts did a great job of it with "Marionettes, Inc."

But "Kaleidoscope," despite its similarity of scale, is a different sort of beast.  It's not compressed so much as it's polished, every unnecessary detail ground away to reveal a gleaming gem.

You see, "Kaleidoscope" is one of the best and earliest existential science fiction stories.  Yes, I know I'm sounding again like I'm applying for a professorship.  But think about it.  People are propelled to their inevitable doom, their destination beyond their control.  All they have left, essentially, is how they choose, or are able, to react to the consciousness of their own mortality.  They can dwell on the past.  They can get what bitter satisfaction they can by making others miserable.  They can treat it as an adventure.  Bradbury took what could just have been a story about astronauts flung from an exploded spaceship, and gave it universality, made it into a metaphor for the human condition.

That great philosopher, James Tiberius Kirk, once said that "How we deal with death is at least as important as how we deal with life."  An existentialist would tell him that the two are synonymous.  Consciousness of "life" as a condition requires consciousness of our own mortality.  Really dealing with life is what you do with it, despite the sure knowledge that, as far as you're concerned, it's all going to come to nothing.

Me, I run like hell in the other direction and try to distract myself, so I probably wouldn't make a good existentialist.

The problem with adapting something like "Kaleidoscope" is that adding detail is a bit like gluing the marble chips back onto a Michaelangelo statue.  It's bigger, from a certain point of view it's more complete, but the message gets lost in the medium.

The story opens with the ship exploding.  By the second paragraph, the characters are floating to their doom.  Here, we get several minutes of the why and how, background about their mission, backstory about the characters.  We learn about the need to get to Venus ahead of the "Asiatics."  Later on, the episode pretty much becomes about the specific regrets of Captain Hollis, about his worldview, about how he's been a bad husband and father.

Considering the lack of conventional action in the original story, though, it's interesting that Lefferts chooses to exclude the most obvious: Hollis getting his extremities shorn away by small, fast meteoroids, "death in space... cut[ting him] away, piece by piece, like a black and invisible butcher."  Perhaps it seemed a bit grotesque for network radio.  Maybe, considering Hollis's detachment, a dramatization threatened to become unintentionally comic-- "Whoops, there goes my foot."

Maybe the biggest misstep is mentioning, several times, the possibility of rescue.  The story works as a metaphor because the characters are completely helpless in the face of inevitable demise.  Remove that helplessness, and it's lost the universality of Bradbury's story, and the starkness of its metaphor.  It's a story about guys in space, and whether or not they'll survive.  Half an hour of radio drama.

It's not bad as that, though.  It may be a little on the nose, but I liked this exchange between Hollis and his wife, regarding their son:

"I don't want him to be soft."
"What is it, Louis? What is there about being soft that you despise?"
"Sissies are soft."
"Christ was soft."

And arguably, Lefferts makes one improvement.  In the story, it's an unspecified woman and child who witness the meteor-like streak of what only we know is Hollis burning up in the atmosphere.  Lefferts makes it Hollis's own wife and son.  You could argue that it loses the point of Bradbury's ending, which is that for all our own individual condition of life, death, and oblivion, we do have an effect on others, even if they don't know us.  But I don't know if it quite works in the story, and although Lefferts' ending doesn't have metaphorical weight, at least it's emotionally affecting.  Interestingly, Bradbury himself did something similar in an earlier story for Thrilling Wonder, "Promotion to Satellite," with an astronaut's family seeing the celestial phenomenon he's become in death.

A few miscellaneous notes:

* I got goosebumps when Hollis was entering the atmosphere.  A highly effective and spooky use of music and sound effects.

* "Since there's no friction, we'll all pick up speed."  Sir Isaac Newton is spinning in his grave.

* "[A] meteor swarm-- some little asteroids." At first, I thought this was incorrect usage of the word "asteroid," but Wikipedia notes that although today, the word refers almost exclusively to the minor planets of the inner solar system, it has "historically been applied to any astronomical object orbiting the Sun that did not show the disk of a planet and was not observed to have the characteristics of an active comet." The word "meteor," however, is incorrect. What he's looking at are meteoroids. "A meteor is the visible path of a meteoroid that has entered the Earth's atmosphere." Huh. You learn something new every day.

* I know I'm being over-literal, considering this is metaphor, but in both story and episode, I find it a little tough to accept that men starting from the same place, and propelled by an explosion small enough not to kill them, could possibly be headed for such diverse locations as the Earth, the Sun, a group of meteoroids, etc.

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