Ray Bradbury, William Blake, and Catholics in Space

Back when I was writing my book on Science Fiction and Catholicism, I came across a story by Ray Bradbury which I meant to include, but I couldn’t decide where to discuss it.

On the one hand, it appeared to speak to the Catholic Church’s earliest involvement in SETI (Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence), but on the other, it spoke, as did Bradbury’s poem “Christus Apollo” (which I did include in the book) to Christianity’s main problem as regards non-terrestrial intelligence – whether Christ would have to incarnate on other worlds.

In the end, I had to cut a lot of text, and ideas, from the book and I didn’t get around to looking at “The Machineries of Joy”, the title story from Bradbury’s 1964 collection. So, as it’s Christmas, I thought I’d do so now, as it offers an interesting perspective on the predictive component of religious futurism.

Bradbury wrote the story for Playboy magazine originally in 1961, at a time when people could legitimately claim to read the publication for the prose. It’s a low-key narrative, mostly related via dialogue between priests who take opposing positions on the appropriateness of man’s expansion beyond the bounds of Earth. The story has not been well-examined. Neil Gaiman’s 2010 introduction to the collection refers to it descriptively and briefly as “Priests debate and argue about space travel …” But it’s worth taking a closer look.

It wasn’t Bradbury’s only foray into Catholicism as a theme of course. His story “The Man,” is a classic of the Jesus-in-space sub-genre. And priests often featured in his fiction, usually as a kind of shorthand for the religious disposition rather than any specifically Catholic theological purpose.

In short, Catholicism performs in Bradbury’s fiction similarly to the kind of ‘faux Catholicism’ I discussed in my book, a largely fictional form of faith that is innately conservative, faintly anti-science even when embodied by priest-scientists, and certainly anti-progressive politically.

This faux Catholicism is, in short, ultimately anti-Enlightenment, and is positioned by SF generally in order to present an easily grasped opponent to the utopian, atheist, scientific, pro-technological, almost posthumanist impetus that much of SF espouses, either tacitly or overtly.

In “The Machineries of Joy”, Ray Bradbury presents us with a narrative of warring priests. In the progressive corner is the Italian priest Fr Vittorini, who stays up all night watching television in the hope of witnessing the launch of a rocket from Cape Canaveral. In the regressive corner, we have the Irish priest Fr Brian, who finds the idea of humanity expanding beyond Earth to be an existential risk for the Christian faith itself. Presiding over this debate is their boss, Pastor Sheldon, who brings about an end to the hostilities by encouraging debate, understanding and a nice glass of Lacryma Christi Italian wine.

Their debate takes place on two battlefields. The first is the existence of a papal encyclical by Pius XII on space travel, written in 1956 at the time of an “Astronautical Congress” held at the pope’s summer home in Castel Gandolfo. The second is William Blake, claimed by the Irish priest as a kind of Irishman (allegedly descended from the Irish on his mother’s side, so he alleges) and his own particularly visionary version of Christianity.

It ultimately transpires that the papal encyclical does not in fact exist, and has been invented by Fr Vittorini as a way of annoying his Celtic colleague. Bradbury conveniently does not explain to us how Vittorini might have fabricated a plausible newspaper clipping about the Astronautic Congress, however.

Equally, Vittorini has also invented a poetic phrase which he attributes to Blake but later admits to having invented himself – the titular “Machineries of Joy.”

“Somewhere did Blake not speak of the Machineries of Joy?” asks Fr Vittorini slyly. “That is, did not God promote environments, then intimidate those Natures by provoking the existence of flesh, toy men and women, such as are we all? And thus happily sent forth, at our best, with good grace and fine wit, on calm noons, in fair climes, are we not God’s Machineries of Joy?”

“If Blake said that, I take it all back. He never lived in Dublin!” is Fr Brian’s comic response.

What’s curious about both of these loci of variance among the priests is the religious futurist component. Perhaps Bradbury was aware of the Catholic Church’s early involvement in SETI and cognate astronomical research. Certainly the mention of Castel Gandolfo suggests that, as it is not only the papal summer home but also the location of the Vatican Observatory, which has driven much of the church’s research in this area, including later hosting a series of conferences on SETI and astrobiology.

Blake did not, to my knowledge, mention the phrase “machineries of joy” anywhere in his work, and certainly not in the very acute sense referred to by Fr Vittorini. Indeed, as Bradbury and Vittorini acknowledge, this is pure invention. But whether Bradbury was aware of early Catholic involvement in extraterrestrial research or not, he certainly seems to have been referring obliquely to Blake’s famous poem “Eternity”. The poem, which is brief, is worth quoting in full at this point:


He who binds to himself a joy

Does the winged life destroy

He who kisses the joy as it flies

Lives in eternity’s sunrise

To Blake’s concept of flying joy, Fr Vittorini, as a proxy for Bradbury himself, adds the trope of machinery, specifically rockets in the early Space Age era. Bradbury’s story seems to warn against a regressive luddism in terms of Fr Brian’s negative reaction to the idea of transgressing the boundaries of this planet. Only by kissing the joy as it flies beyond those boundaries, in its machineries, can eternity be achieved, he seems to suggest.

Equally though, after Fr Brian has done penance and come to personal terms with this astronautic progress, the conclusion gives us a curious conundrum. Fr Brian in his mind’s eye merges with the machineries, with the astronauts themselves. “He waited for the thunder. He waited for the fire. He waited for the concussion and the voice that would teach a silly, a strange, a wild and miraculous thing.”

What is that miracle? “How to count back, ever backward … to zero.”

The miracle is to be reduced to nothing. This is also, perhaps, an iteration of eternity that Bradbury intends to convey, or equally, the conflict between the positions of Vittorini and Brian have not been fully resolved. Theologically, it’s a beautifully poised conclusion.

But also, it demonstrates the difficulty of engaging in religious futurism. Bradbury’s story evokes opposing perspectives from within Catholicism to express positive and negative opinions about the idea of leaving this planet. He correctly identifies the existential difficulties that Christianity might face if extraterrestrial sentience was encountered, a theme he pursued to greater length in Christus Apollo.

But he could not have foreseen that the Church’s ultimate engagement with astronautics would be neither counting itself down to zero in resignation, nor seeking colonially to dominate space as once the Church sought to bring its version of salvation to the New World of the Americas.

Despite those teasing hints at prophecy, Bradbury did not actually foresee that Catholic futurism would ultimately be driving research into life beyond this planet, or that a pope would not merely write encyclicals in favour of rocket travel, but actively espouse the baptism of Martians as Pope Francis has done.