Ray Bradbury’s Gabriel’s Horn and the other side of Sci-Fi

It’s common in the ol’ realm of science fiction to have spaceships. To have lasers and stars and monstrous alien creatures battling hordes of space marines in galaxy-spanning wars. Technology is often at the core, and devices that would seem like magic to us are used like we use our phones now. The story starts well past the point of familiarity with these wondrous things, and is more about the characters and setting than it is with the technical wizardry on offer. In Star Wars, the idea of jumping to lightspeed or death by a thousand lasers is treated with as much surprise as waking up to a refrigerator in your kitchen. In Ready Player One, the idea of the Oasis is already cemented in the minds of the characters when we meet them – its purpose is clear, and the knowledge of how to use it is well-ingrained in society.

Gabriel’s Horn, a Bradybury short story, illustrates the other side of sci-fi, where new technology and ideas are introduced to a society with strange, unusual effects. In this case, the “technology” isn’t even all that wondrous – a tribesman finds a trumpet, something he believes is a great weapon, albeit one he cannot understand. It fails, after all, to kill deer on a hunt. Fails to protect him and his tribe when blown. We, the audience, know that a trumpet isn’t going to ever kill anything, but if you saw a rounded metal object that looked similar to the guns your enemies used to hunt your friends, you too might believe a trumpet capable of grievous harm.

It would be easy to turn the story into a comedy – a play on how dumb these people must be if they can’t figure out the purpose of a trumpet. Instead, Bradbury takes pains to show that his characters are as clever as they are desperate. Willing to try anything to save themselves from mysterious invaders, who come periodically to hunt their defenseless prey. Gab, the primary protagonist, observes the invaders, puts together plans to outwit them, and demonstrates more than enough intelligence to get the gist of what a trumpet might be used for… which is when you grasp the real sci-fi element of the story: a civilization exposed to something of which they have no conception.

Gad does not understand the concept of music, so he cannot know the trumpet’s true purpose.

And so we see, instead, what other uses might be made of something so far away from its intended place. It’s fun, it’s clever, and Gabriel’s Horn is a reminder that sci-fi can work just as well with the characters learning about their world, rather than already enmeshed within it.

A couple things:

1. March in Wisconsin is a strange time when you rediscover your lawn is a half-frozen mess of yellowed, dead grass. As if to spare you the horror, nature will hide it with snow from time to time throughout the month, giving you time to adjust to the ugly view outside your windows until, in April, rains come to turn it into a muddy soup. Knowing that you’ll be disheartened by these events, the temps play around the 40-50 degree mark during the day, tempting you to step outside without a heavy jacket, breath fresh air for a few moments, and remember that there is, in fact, a world outside your own house.

2. I remain convinced that Peanut Butter Patties are the optimal Girl Scout cookie. I also remain confident in, and nauseated by, my ability to eat a box of them in a day.


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