Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Astounding Stories #10: “Way in the Middle of the Air”

with 6 comments

Way in the Middle of the Air

Note: As I dive into the research process for my upcoming book Astounding: John W. Campbell, Isaac Asimov, Robert A. Heinlein, L. Ron Hubbard, and the Golden Age of Science Fiction, I’ll be taking the opportunity to highlight works within the genre that deserve to be rediscovered, reappraised, or simply enjoyed by a wider audience. You can read the earlier installments here

The golden age of science fiction, at least as I define it, ended in May 1950, with the initial publication of the article “Dianetics: The Evolution of a Science” in Astounding. (Technically, the issue would have appeared on newsstands the month before, but let’s not split hairs.) Yet with every end comes a beginning, and science fiction itself was far from dead: The Martian Chronicles was released just a few weeks later, and it success marked a signal moment in the genre’s passage into the mainstream. Its author, Ray Bradbury, had been desperate to get into the pages of Astounding, but despite the patient mentoring of Leigh Brackett and the friendship of Robert A. Heinlein, he was only able to sell one short story and a couple of minor pieces. In the end, he was the only major science fiction writer of his era who emerged outside the influence of John W. Campbell, and this wasn’t simply an oversight. Campbell had met Bradbury and critiqued his submissions at length, and the two men shared mutual close friends, but they never saw eye to eye. And while Campbell’s overall track record remains unimpeachable—it’s all but inevitable that he would overlook a promising talent or two out of the dozens he developed—it still feels like a loss. When I raised the issue at a panel last month at the Nebula Conference, the editor Stanley Schmidt said that it was less a question of a failure to recognize talent than of Bradbury not quite fitting in with Campbell’s vision, which is true enough. But it’s hard not to see his absence as anything less than a gap in the history of the magazine.

My favorite story in The Martian Chronicles is “Mars is Heaven!”, which appears under the title “The Third Expedition,” but the one that I’ve been thinking about the most is “Way in the Middle of the Air,” which starkly exposes both Bradbury’s strengths and his limitations. Bradbury had trouble selling it: it was published for the first time in the book itself, although it later appeared in Raymond A. Palmer’s Other Worlds Science Stories, and when you read it, you can see why. It’s about a small town in the South whose entire black population packs up and leaves on a rocket for Mars. The story is seen through the eyes of a group of white landowners, who sit sullenly watching the exodus from the porch of a hardware store. Its satirical targets are obviously the racists who are left behind, and there’s no question that Bradbury’s heart was in the right place. But the result is still intensely problematic, at least to modern readers. The black colonists are seen mostly as a monolithic mass moving through the center of town: “And in that slow, steady channel of darkness that cut across the white glare of day were touches of alert white, the eyes, the ivory eyes staring ahead, glancing aside, as the river, the long and endless river, took itself from old channels into a new one.” And the only reasonable reaction to lines like “the watermelon patches, if any, were left alone to heat their hidden liquors in the sun” and “in still farther meadows, the watermelons lay, unfingerprinted” is to wish fervently that they didn’t exist.

Ray Bradbury

But the real problem is that once the colonists have left for Mars, we never hear from them again. In the text as it stands, the implication is that they all returned to Earth, like everybody else, when war broke out back home—which feels even less plausible in this case than it does for the other settlers. Bradbury was keenly aware of this omission, and his reaction to it is fascinating in itself. In the biography Becoming Ray Bradbury, Jonathan R. Eller writes:

For his October 1949 submission of The Martian Chronicles typescript, he had prepared a short narrative bridge passage to explain why these people did not appear anywhere else in the saga. In this bridge, titled “The Wheel,” the interplanetary journey is portrayed like a spiritual saga in miniature, an Old Testament-style journey to the Promised Land. In this brief interlude, the actual destination is really less important than the freedom it stands for—the black pioneers deviate from course and eventually end up on Venus. But this option was too facile and dismissive, and Bradbury soon realized it; “The Wheel” was deleted from the Chronicles before the galleys were set, and Bradbury instead completed a full and logical sequel set on Mars.

This sequel, “The Other Foot,” appeared in The Illustrated Man, but it doesn’t fit in with the chronology of The Martian Chronicles: for its plot to make sense, it requires that only black colonies exist on Mars. For all his efforts and good intentions, Bradbury was unable to find a place for these colonists anywhere in his larger story.

Which tells us a lot about the author himself. If the Bradbury of this period has a weakness, it’s that he’s prone to falling in love with an image or a gag or a twist for its own sake, without considering how it fits into the big picture or working out its deeper implications. You see a similar problem in “The Silent Towns,” an equally discomfiting story in the same collection, and he was so taken, it seems, by the effect of “Way in the Middle of the Air”—which is an undeniably powerful story—that he made room for it here, despite his full knowledge that the absence of the black colonists in the rest of the narrative would create a self-evident hole. (He ultimately appears to have had second thoughts about it: the story was omitted in the British publication and in the later 1997 edition.) For many readers, his most appealing quality as a writer is the warm streak of nostalgia that pervades his fiction, but it can also shade into sentimentality in its worst sense, in which the symbols and trappings of small-town America are mistaken for a coherent set of values. Personally, I prefer Bradbury in his darker, more sinister mode, which is why I think his masterpiece is “Mars is Heaven!”, which begins as an evocation of idyllic Americana and twists it into an unforgettable nightmare. “Way in the Middle of the Air” deserves to be read and remembered, if only because it’s the kind of story that few other authors of the era could even have contemplated writing: it’s impossible to imagine it ever running in Astounding. But it strands its colonists in the middle of the air, and it would be left to other writers to take them to the stars.

6 Responses

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  1. “In the end, he was the only major science fiction writer of his era who emerged outside the influence of John W. Campbell.” I have to disagree with this — Pohl. He may have not flourished as a writer until the 50s, but he was active in the 40s, and even the late 30s, as editor, agent and writer.

    I agree strongly with your comments on Bradbury. I’ve never liked his work as much as it seems I should, and I think you’ve helped me see why.


    June 3, 2016 at 4:10 am

  2. That’s a fair point about Pohl, although he was so closely associated with Campbell on a personal level—at least in the early days—that I tend to forget that he never sold a solo story to Astounding. But yes, he definitely qualifies.


    June 3, 2016 at 8:51 pm

  3. Something I’ve wondered about is the position of John Wyndham in the US. For UK and Australian kids of my generation and older, _Day of the Triffids_ (or _The Midwich Cuckoos_, or …) was very likely the first ‘adult’ SF encountered, more likely than Foundation or anything by Heinlein or even Clarke. He began in the early 30s in Amazing and Wonder and Gernsback-style magazines, with awful Gernsback-style fiction, and then fell quiet during the war years, which of course affected UK writers much more than US ones. Post war he emerged with Triffids and his other ‘cosy catastrophes’ ( and at least out here in the Antipodes was seen as a successor to Wells and as one of the handful of biggest names in the field. I’m not suggesting he should be considered in your thesis, since he was from before the Campbellian ‘Golden Age’ and after it, but not during, but I am just curious as to how you see him.

    I get the impression that, possibly due to the vast shadow of Wells, SF in the UK was never as strongly divorced from the mainstream, and figures like Wyndham, John Christopher, Ballard and Moocock were not as tightly pigeon-holed as the biggest SF figures in the US; and in fact that brings me back to Bradbury, because (it seems from way over where I stand) out of those biggest 1940/50s names, Asimov, Heinlein, Clarke, Bradbury — well, it seems to me that Bradbury is the one that most clearly went beyond the SF market.


    June 6, 2016 at 8:48 pm

  4. I’ve actually never read Wyndham, and my knowledge of the whole British tradition in science fiction is pretty spotty. If time allows, one of my goals for the next couple of years is to fill in some of the gaps—although, as you point out, it mostly falls outside the scope of my study, which is daunting enough as it is.


    June 7, 2016 at 3:34 pm

  5. Maybe it’s an advantage of being in a ‘little’ country, where we get a
    lot of imported product that attains high profile. Australia seems to
    follow the UK and the US equally (they are lagely the same tradition
    anyway, of course). Certainly the UK SF tradition is very broad, with a
    strong non-genre thread going back to Wells, and then forward through
    the likes of Stapledon, Huxley, Orwell, Amis and the like up to Doris
    Lessing, and Iain (M.) Banks, whose SF was close to the core of modern
    SF but who was not a figure limited to or by the field.

    Looking at figures that grew out of the magazines, and indeed
    transcended them, the Brit ‘Big 3’ to me has always been Aldiss,
    Ballard and Moorcock — somehow Clarke seems to belong to the whole
    world. Aldiss is SF’s premier ‘man of letters’, I think. A major writer
    in and out of SF, he has also been a historian, critic and influential
    anthologist. Few major writers have given so much of themselves to
    looking at the work of others. He has been so experimental, and
    challenged himself so continually, that his work lacks the unity that
    lends itself to a fixed and comfortable sense of the author in the
    reader’s mind. Very much unlike Asimov, Clarke, Heinlein.

    Beyond those names, I really like the work of Christopher Priest —
    The Separation, The Prestige, The Affirmation, and so on — I think he
    has made a marvelously uncompromised career. Richard Cowper is forgotten but his best work is great (Twilight of Briareus, Road to
    Corlay). I’ve long liked Brunner. M John Harrison. Doug Adams, for
    goodness sake. The list goes on.


    June 13, 2016 at 9:20 pm

  6. @Darren: I just wanted to thank you, belatedly, for this list—I’ve been behind on my responses to comments. I’ve been thinking about Aldiss a lot recently, thanks mostly to reading his survey Billion Year Spree, and he was a huge fan of Astounding. And I expect that he’ll end up being a part of this book, even if it’s only in a tangential way.


    July 16, 2016 at 6:34 am

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