Does a purely scientific world have imagination?–Ray Bradbury’s answer in “The Exiles”

I have to confess, this story is undertaken partly as an assignment from a reader and fellow blogger, Ste J.  Having asked for some notions of what readers would like to see me post about, some story, novel, or poem (fiction being my forté rather than non-fiction), I have taken it upon myself to do as Ste J (otherwise known as Steve Johnson) suggested and post on a “cheesy horror” fiction, or something similar.  I have chosen to write today on Ray Bradbury’s short story “The Exiles,” which if not found in a short story collection of his can be found in The Norton Anthology of Short Fiction.  Thus, though the story is a sort of cheesy horror story set in the future, and therefore also science fiction at the same time, it’s not written by a cheesy author, as Ray Bradbury is well-respected in many quarters.

The dual nature of the story is apparent not only in the fact that it partakes both of the horror story and the science fiction story, but also in the remarkable title, “The Exiles.”  There are two different kinds of exiles in this story, dead authors and their most famous characters being the first exiles, and the actual living human beings of the year 2120 who follow them into space unintentionally, when going to colonize Mars being the “second wave” of exiles.  As develops when the characters on both sides begin to talk among themselves, the dead authors (who occupy the same level of reality as their most famous characters in the categories of “science fiction, fantasy, horror, or the supernatural”) are on Mars because nearly all copies of their books have been burned as irresponsible fictions on Earth.  The space travellers, on the other hand, are approaching Mars because they have made Earth unliveable; they don’t know what’s making them see spirits and have mysterious maladies that often deal death, or see witches and suffer curses, but they do have the last copies of the “forbidden books” with them.  As it turns out, both Halloween and Christmas have been banned and eliminated, and though the captain of the ship and his doctor cannot figure out how the men can have been having horrible visions and strange illnesses, since they are only mentioned in the forbidden books, they have brought the last copies of the books with them, for what purpose they cannot yet determine.

Edgar Allan Poe, the famous mystery and horror writer, is the ringleader of the authors, and has as an eager second Ambrose Bierce; on the other hand, there’s Charles Dickens, who was only included in the first mysterious wave of exiles because of the ghosts in A Christmas Carol and some of his other books, and who is unwilling to inflict any punishments on the arriving spacemen.  His characters are participating in the sort of party scene for that holiday made popular in that novel, and refusing to take part in the aggression.  Some of those who are involved are Bram Stoker (author of Dracula), Mary Shelley (Frankenstein), Henry James (The Turn of the Screw), Washington Irving (The Legend of Sleepy Hollow), Lewis Carroll (Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland), L. Frank Baum (The Wizard of Oz), et. al, including any author whose works are not strictly scientific and factual.  But the saddest fantasy character and the one who seems most pitiful to all the others is the now dessicated figure of Santa Claus.  The authors and their characters determine to go on to other planets, farther and farther out into space, if the humans obsessed with science continue to follow them and are not deterred by the nightmares and hexes cast by their witches and the like (and one of the oddest things is that these once-living people and their never-having-lived-except-in-imagination characters occupy the same level of reality).

When the humans finally do alight on the surface of Mars, they decide a fitting gesture to mark their transition to a new world would be to burn each and every one of the last of their copies of the fictional works which do contain horror, science fiction, fantasy, or supernatural characters and events.  They hear a scream, and have a sudden sense of a vacuum as the books burn.  But one of the men–a sort of Everyman with the commonly occurring name “Smith”–remembers a scene from fantasy fiction when he sees an emerald city (Oz) topple in the distance as the last copy of The Wizard of Oz is burned.  The captain makes him report to the ship’s doctor.  The final straw takes place just a second later:

“The men tiptoed, guns alert, beyond the ship’s aseptic light to gaze at the long sea and the low hills.  ‘Why,’ whispered Smith, disappointed, ‘there’s no one here at all, is there?  No one here at all.’  The wind blew sand over his shoes, whining.”

It’s illuminating, of course, that Bradbury, a predominantly fantasy and science fiction author, puts things in black and white in this story.  It takes a great deal of imagination to come up with many of the concepts scientists come up with on a regular basis, and we always have that much-belabored truism “Truth is stranger than fiction.”  Yet, there are layers and layers of truth in this story, and one must decide whether or not one believes that a world without fiction would indeed be inhabited only by the wind blowing sand across one’s feet, a symbol of death and dearth and sterility.  I for one would find it a far inferior place, and think liars would probably be much more popular than they are, purely for their imaginative efforts, were fiction writers not available.

I’ve given a quick summary of this entire story, and I know I didn’t issue a spoiler alert, but it is a very short story, and one which is worth reading even when you know (or intuit) ahead of time what the outcome is going to be.  It’s also just a bit kitschy (if not entirely cheesy, as Ste J requested), and a little dated, by now, since the time when we have with a Mars Rover and a great deal of imagination scientifically speaking already explored part of the surface of Mars.  As well, it’s one of a great number of literary works which rely on or refer to other literary works for part of what makes them functioning stories, and naturally it helps if you have some inkling of the stories involved which are being referred to.  If nothing else, it could guide you to some of the great stories of imaginary worlds and people which are ours to share.  Let’s hope we have the sense to keep our book monitors under control in the real world, and forego book burning and destruction of our shared texts–when you take away a book, you had better be sure that you know what you’re doing, and whose reality you might be impairing (we do not want to find only the dry sand blowing over our feet in any real world we have to inhabit!).  And that’s my post for today.


Filed under What is literature for?

6 responses to “Does a purely scientific world have imagination?–Ray Bradbury’s answer in “The Exiles”

  1. Excellent, I have only tackled Farenheit 451 which didn’t impress me as much I the hype implied I would but then that is usually the case. I like the sound of this, it sounds very inventive but from how you have spoken about it, it almost sounds like a novel other than a short story.

    Yes this please me this post, I do enjoy the way that you analyse books, truth is stranger than fiction but when it is a nice bit of magical realism (or as close as it gets without being exactly so) then I am exceedingly happy.


    • Thanks for coming around to have a look, Ste J. Bradbury has a sort of “dry” and matter-of-fact style which doesn’t seem to have much creative “juice” to it in the way of imagery or poetry, so in a way he’s an example of the creative lack he was writing about. But then, I must admit (blush) that I have never read “Farenheit 451” or some of his other highly acclaimed works, and so I come to this short story with a disadvantage. I told myself that at least he seems to respect a number of great authors, or he wouldn’t have mentioned them in his story the way he did (and yes, it is a short story–I probably seemed to be dragging it out by re-telling it).


  2. Farenheit 451 is Orwell lite really, it has that feel but doesn’t do it half as well, it is a decent read but not particularly impressive. I will give him another go though and this short story and accompanying book will be the one I hunt for first, I think I also have a battered copy of Something Wicked his Way Comes as well but where I have no idea.


    • Ah! That old “but where I have no idea” conundrum! That’s a sci-fi-fantasy experience in itself when you have a lot of books. I have often experienced the nightmarish turn of knowing I have a book, having a memory of just where I had it last (several times ago, which means I have several “it-was-there-before-I-moved-it” memories back to go through). I usually find it, but if only Ray Bradbury had written some sort of story where the library is consciously hiding the key book from the reader, or something! I’m glad you’re interested in the story, and the anthology is good too, with lots of authors worth reading in it. And anthologies are a godsend when you’re looking for something to do a post on that is relatively short. It doesn’t mean that you necessarily have to skimp on analysis, but some readers find short fiction more approachable than novels, and if you’re finishing up a novel for a forthcoming post, it’s sometimes easier to do short fiction instead and give yourself a little longer to work on the novel post (and now I’ve given my hand away!).


  3. Richard Gilbert

    Victoria, I’m going to have to read this now! Bradbury fascinates me – I don’t always fully savor his creations, but his creativity and length of career fascinate me.


    • Thanks for reading, Richard. Yes, I feel that I have to read “Farenheit 451” now, just to see if he’s any more poetical in it. I know I shouldn’t necessarily expect poetry from sci-fi, but it’s the only thing I can fault him for in the short story, that he neglected developing his imagery a bit more. But it’s still a great story, don’t get me wrong. As I told Ste J above, it’s very matter-of-fact in tone (even when dealing with witches and werewolves).


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