A race against time: Ray Bradbury’s “Frost and Fire” (1946)
Time is the main topic in the short story “Frost and Fire”, whose original 1946 title was “The Creatures That Time Forgot”. It is about the inhabitants of a planet (probably Mercury) whose proximity to the Sun shortens their lifespan to exactly eight days. They are born with “racial memory”, able to talk and think, and knowing they descend from the survivors of a spaceship crash, whose remains are visible on top of a hill. If they could reach it without being burned by the sunlight radiations, would they be able to prolong life?
The story is set in the future, but the dilemma of protagonists Sim and Lyte is our own. We know that our natural life is limited. If we choose to enjoy the little time we have, we risk conforming and remaining ignorant (“just sit and talk and eat”, Sim complains). If we choose to employ our time acquiring knowledge and questioning things, we risk dying without having ever enjoyed life. How to ensure our time is meaningful?
“Frost and Fire” is also about the present, 1946, when this story was written. The Second World War had just finished, proving, if anything, the fragility of life. Some pre-war science fiction texts (The Shape of Things to Come, 1933, H.G. Wells) had accurately predicted the conflict. The characters in “Frost and Fire” know that the spaceship crashed because there was a war somewhere whose reasons or outcome they ignore. A 1945 trip to Mexico had “increased Bradbury’s consciousness of both race and mortality” (Eller, quoted in Krafft 422). He may as well have been inspired by the sentence: “I do not know how the Third World War will be fought, but I can tell you what they will use in the Fourth — rocks!” “Frost and Fire” reflects the anxieties of the period, the realization that science and technology can bring progress as easily as they can bring regression and destruction. Like the Second World War survivors, the characters have regressed to a caveman-like period, but are aware of a past when there was civilization and longevity. Those of them who are Scientists are distrusted and live like outcasts in deep caves. However, Bradbury’s story does not reject technology, but encourages using it wisely: although sceptical about the Scientists, Sim seeks their help to gain knowledge and repair the ship.
“Frost and Fire” is also about my memory of reading the story in the early 1990s. I was fifteen when my best friend gave me a book of Ray Bradbury’s short stories (R is for Rocket, translated into Spanish as Cuentos del Futuro). I had struggled to like science-fiction till then. I loved the action and adventure, but I found the technological side cold, the characters passionless and robotic. I was attracted to Bradbury for the very reasons that had other authors questioning if he was a real science fiction writer (see Rabkin 15). His concern was never accurate technology (Brin 471), but to ensure that ethics and morals were not engulfed by scientific advances. His characters had feelings, his stories emphasised the “human instead of mechanical” (Kelley). I loved Bradbury’s dystopian future because it was hopeful, not apocalyptic.
“Frost and Fire” was my favourite story in the book. I thought it would make a great film. Unfortunately, the only adaptation I know of (Quest, 1983) omits the most appealing parts: the Mercury setting and the beautiful love story between Sim and Lyte. As an adolescent heterosexual tomboy, I wished to have their relation of partners and companions: their rival Nhoj assumes Lyte is Sim’s wife because she fights by his side. Without knowing that the story had been written in 1946, I thought Lyte was a very modern and progressive heroine. I hated the topic (infuriatingly common in films and novels) of the heroine waiting at home during the adventure, to be claimed at the end by the victorious hero. Lyte was a clever woman and a warrior who accompanied Sim in his quest (“If you fall, I fall”). She chose to stay with him when he was injured, thus refusing to be the prize of the fight between him and his enemy Chion.
My favourite moment in the story is when Sim wakes up inside the crashed spaceship, which he and Lyte reached after a desperate race with the sunlight. Conscious that another day has gone and they should now be old, he is scared of opening his eyes. When he finally dares, he discovers they are both still young (the metal protects them from the aging radiation). His obstinacy in reaching the ship was not futile, but allowed them to defeat time. For me, it was the confirmation that I should never wait for my meaningful companion to claim me after his quest. Instead, love and life would happen while we fought for our quest together. Had Lyte waited in the cliffs, she would be an old woman and a stranger instead of having shared Sim’s destiny.
In the final scene, Sim and Lyte prepare to leave the planet in the repaired spaceship, together with the survivors they managed to rescue from the cliffs. Having enjoyed average lifespan for a while, they now believe their previous life in the caves was just a dream. Like many in the post World War generation, they wonder how people could possibly have lived “in such a nightmare”.
Is the final sentence “The nightmare was over at last” too optimistic? If they reach the Earth, their life will be longer but still limited. Moreover, has the war finished? Is Earth destroyed? As they move off – planet, we have the sensation that destination is irrelevant. Sim and Lyte have one another, and plenty of time to enjoy together.
- Brin, David “Ray Bradbury, an appreciation”, Nature, Volume 486, Issue 7404, June 2012: 471.
- Eller, Jonathan R. Becoming Ray Bradbury. Quoted in Krafft, Andrea. “Review of Jonathan R. Eller’s Becoming Ray Bradbury”, Journal of the Fantastic in the Arts, Volume 25, Issue 2/3, May 2014: 421 – 424.
- Kelley, Ken. “About Ray Bradbury. The Playboy Interview”. Playboy. 1996. Retrieved 5th January 2017. http://www.raybradbury.com/articles_playboy.html
- Rabkin, Eric S. “Defining Science Fiction”. Reading Science Fiction. Eds. James Gunn, Marleen S. Barr, Matthew Candelaria. New York. MacMillan. 2009.
 Although this sentence was attributed to Albert Einstein in a 1949 interview (with Alfred Werner, Liberal Judaism 16, April-May), it is believed he was paraphrasing an unnamed army lieutenant who had witnessed the nuclear test in the Bikini Bay Atoll in 1946.
Dr. María Seijo-Richart has an International PhD in English at the University of A Coruña (Spain) and a MA in World Cinema at the University of Leeds, where she currently works. Her science fiction favourites are the two Rays: Bradbury and Harryhausen. María enjoys writing fiction, especially epic stories about female warriors.