Tuesday, February 15, 2011

The Man by Ray Bradbury

One of the more tantalizing verses of Scripture is John 10:16, where Jesus tells His disciples: “And other sheep I have, which are not of this fold: them also I must bring, and they shall hear my voice; and there shall be one fold, and one shepherd.”

The verse is usually interpreted to mean the gentiles who will believe following the Resurrection and the work of the disciples. But this is the verse I thought of after I read Ray Bradbury’s interesting short story, “The Man,” one of the stories collected in “The Illustrated Man.” I also wrote about "The Martian Chronicles" here.

Published in 1948, “The Man” is full of the whiz bang fun of classic science fiction - rocket men traveling through the stars in search of meaning. The story is like others of the period, it quickly gets to the business of storytelling, with characterization in a few phrases and mannerisms, right before the main idea is served up for the reader.

In this case, our story concerns two rocket men, Hart, the captain, and Martin. Their rocket lands on the outskirts of some town on some planet in full view of the city folk, who make no effort to come out and welcome them. Hart is a cynical, cigar smoking voyager, impatient for answers, “looking for our own lost souls.” He laments that science has left man with little except traveling into the heavens looking for a better world than the one they left. One is reminded of Charlton Heston’s Taylor from “Planet of the Apes.”

Martin listens but doesn’t comment on these observations. He goes along with them amiably enough until Hart sends him into town to discover why the townspeople don’t come. When he returns, he is visibly shaken and momentarily unable to speak. The reason there was no welcoming committee for the rocket, Martin says, is that the town was busy celebrating. An unnamed man “they’d waited a long time for” had suddenly appeared again, rendering their landing meaningless. Who is he? An unnamed man who heals the sick and comforts the poor, who fights hypocrisy and dirty politics. “He didn’t have a name. He didn’t need a name. It’d be different on every planet, sir,” Martin reports.

“You don’t mean - you can’t mean - That man you’re talking about couldn’t be -” Hart stammers, until Martin nods that the man, indeed, is.

The two go into the city, where vague talk of miracles are on everyone’s lips. But Hart wants more than the pie in the sky poetry he receives in return for his questions. When asking the mayor of the town about what happened, the mayor replies, “We are all witnesses.” When asking a woman what color the man’s eyes were, she says, “The color of the sun, the color of the sea, the color of a flower, the color of the mountains, the color of the night.”

The two spacemen, though, cannot agree on what they are seeing. Martin resolves to stay on the planet, telling Hart, “They’ve got something you’ll never have - a little simple faith- you’re boiled because someone stole your act, got here ahead and made you unimportant…Take your filth somewhere else and foul up other nests with your doubt and your - scientific method!”

The captain, though, is unconvinced. He sees this as an elaborate scam, perpetrated by his nemesis Burton. His logic is simple - what they have seen can’t possible be what it appears to be. But another rocket crash lands, and the two men discover that Burton has been dead two days and never made it to this planet. This is no ruse.

Hart, like his name, is impulsive, even reckless, we later discover. We see that he has a logical, scientific mind, but we also see that the logic is in the service of his nature. He does not believe, perhaps, because he does not want to believe. Faith is beyond him. He must have proof. But we sense that even proof will not be enough for Hart. Even truth might have another explanation. Martin, (perhaps Luther?) on the other hand, is a believer, because he wants to believe. Even the doubts that Hart plants in him do not take root. He is just as passionate, though he sees Hart’s doubt as something corrosive and harmful, not to himself, but the people they were meant to discover.

But after this revelation in a burning rocket, though, Hart is ready to believe. The two men go back into the city, but cannot find The Man. “Each man finds him in his own way,” the mayor tells Hart. But the captain, impatient for answers, pulls a gun on the mayor, convinced he is hiding The Man. The mayor observes that while Hart thinks he wants to believe, that he finally can believe, the reality is - the spaceman just wants an answer. Any answer perhaps will satisfy him, for the moment.

Hart resolves to go on to the next world, and the next, until he finally catches up to the mysterious man. Maybe he’ll keep missing him, but eventually, he’ll find him. And what will he ask The Man for? “A little peace and quiet,” he says. He will not rest, nor can he rest, and when asked why, he does not understand the question.

It is only after he leaves that the Mayor reveals to Martin that “The Man” is still there, and mustn’t be kept waiting.

So what is Bradbury trying to say, if anything? We can sense another face of the Almighty in Hart himself, the impatient captain who flew his rocket over the city, expecting hordes of curious townspeople to come out in expectation, but instead, is left with his lonely ship. Why don’t they come? he wonders, like the lord of the feast from Jesus’ parable, who has prepared his house for guests but finds it empty. The questing heart is wounded by the indifference of the one he seeks.

In the mayor’s comment, that each man finds Him in his own way, one senses a creeping pantheism, that Jesus is just another name for any other vehicle man might worship. But the inability of Hart to believe, and his stubborn insistence on finding out for himself, leads the reader in another direction - even proof does not necessarily prove. One must have faith to believe in anything, whether it be resurrection, reincarnation or radioactivity. Yes, some things are easier to prove than others, and some things are undeniable fact. But even the hardest, truest things in life sometimes cannot overcome a brittle heart.

And some journeys of unimaginable distances don’t require a rocket ship, simply because they have already been made for you.

Set Your Fields on Fire

The award-winning novel by William Thornton
Available now

Some of the coverage of "Set Your Fields on Fire"

 You can order "Set Your Fields on Fire"for $14.99 through Amazon here.
It's also available on Kindle at $3.99 through Amazon here.
Read an interview I did with AL.com on the book here.   
Here's my appearance on the Charisma Network's CPOP Podcast. 
Here's an interview I did with The Anniston Star on the book. 
Shattered Magazine wrote a story about the book here. 
The Alabama Baptist wrote about the book here.
This piece appeared in the Marietta (Ga.) Daily Journal.
Here's the write-up from The Birmingham Times.
Read a story for Village Living here.
This story appeared in The Trussville Tribune and this video.
Here's my appearance on East Alabama Today.
Story and video from WBRC Fox6 here. 
Here's the write-up in The Gadsden Times on the book.
Read a piece I wrote for WestBow Press about writing the book here.
A piece about some inspiring works for me.
This is another interview with the fleegan book blog here. 
Read a piece I did for WestBow Press about writing the book here.
Read another interview with the fleegan book blog here. 

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