“The Golden Apples of the Sun” is a science fiction short story by Ray Bradbury, which appeared in the November 1953 issue of Planet Stories. It would have been eligible for the 1954 Retro Hugos, awarded in 2004, but neither made the ballot nor the longlist. The magazine version may be found here. This review will also be crossposted to Retro Science Fiction Reviews.
Warning: There will be spoilers in the following!
The narrator of the story is the unnamed captain of a spaceship called the Copa de Oro a.k.a. Prometheus a.k.a. Icarus, whose mission it is to fly to the sun and retrieve some of its fire or rather fusion power in a giant cup held by a giant remote-controlled hand. What could possibly go wrong with this plan, particularly given the name(s) of the spaceship?
In order to survive the trip to the sun, the Copa de Oro/Prometheus/Icarus is cooled down to a temperature of one thousand degrees below zero. Her crew can only survive by wearing protective suits. The first disaster to befall the mission happens when the protective suit of the first mate, a man named Bretton, fails and Bretton freezes instantly to death.
But more danger awaits, for the ice on the ceiling of the control room suddenly starts to melt, when an auxiliary cooling agent pump breaks down at precisely the worst moment. The captain and the crew frantically scramble to fix it before they are burned to cinders.
One of the crew members asks the captain whether to pull out or stay, but the captain orders to stay the course, because the mission has almost reached its climax. And so the captain operates the cup via what would eventually be called a “waldo”, while the rest of the crew still frantically tries to fix the broken pump.
The pump is repaired at just the right moment, the captain pulls the cup with the solar fire into the spaceship and the Copa de Oro/Prometheus/Icarus turns around for the long journey back to Earth, her mission a success.
“The Golden Apples of the Sun” is very short, only four pages in magazine format. There is only one named character – who only gets a name when he dies – and the plot is very slight. There is a dangerous mission, there are some complications, everything is resolved at the last minute and the mission is a resounding success.
In the hands of any other author, this story would have been a forgettable filler. And indeed I shudder to imagine what this story would have looked like, if it had been published in Astounding, full of infodumps and clunky technobabble and nonsense science.
However, “The Golden Apples of the Sun” is a Ray Bradbury story. And so what makes it special is not the slight plot, but Bradbury’s poetic language, filtered through the POV of the nameless captain.
Like most Ray Bradbury characters, the nameless captain shares Bradbury’s idealised midwestern small town childhood (which at least according to this article by Colleen Abel likely never happened that way). And so we get lots of imagery of seasons changing. The heat of the sun is compared to the “sweltering dog-mad days of August”, the interior of the ship is compared to “all the coldest hours of February”. When the pump fails and the ice begins to melt, the captain likens it first to the last icicle of winter finally melting in April and then to a warm summer rain. There is also a striking description of the ship and its crew burning up in the heat of the sun, “popped like strawberries in a furnace”.
The story is also full of allusions of mythology and literature. The triple name of the ship refers to Prometheus who stole the fire from the gods, Icarus who flew to close to the sun, so that his wings melted, and Cup of Gold, John Steinbeck’s 1929 debut novel, which was probably better remembered in 1953 than it is now, since it’s a historical novel about the life of Henry Morgan and rather atypical of Steinbeck’s work. The title of the story is a reference to the last line of the poem “The Song of Wandering Aengus” by William Butler Yeats. “Fear no more the heat of the sun” is a reference to Cymbeline by William Shakespeare. There is also a reference to the 1912 mythological novel The Crock of Gold by James Stephens, an author who must have been a lot more popular in the mid 20th century than he is now, since C.L. Moore also referred to his novella Deirdre in “No Woman Born”.
Indeed, one thing I find fascinating about golden age speculative fiction is how many literary references there are, including some so obscure these days that they require googling. Meanwhile, contemporary speculative fiction is far more likely to refer to other SFF works or various media properties than non-genre literature. Unless it’s Star Trek, which is full of references to Shakespeare with some Dickens and Sherlock Holmes thrown in.
Those who don’t care for Ray Bradbury’s writing tend to claim that he was not a “real”™ science fiction writer, because his stories focus more on atmosphere and mood and less on hard science. And indeed, Bradbury was not particularly interested in technobabble and infodumps, which is probably why he didn’t get along with John W. Campbell of Astounding and found his market elsewhere. However, while Bradbury does not focus on the science, what science there is in his stories is actually pretty sound by the standards of the time.
Of course, the mission of the Copa de Oro/Prometheus/Icarus is impossible. Even if it were possible for a spaceship to get close enough to the sun to grab some solar plasma (I assume that’s what they want to grab, but then Bradbury only vaguely speaks of fire), it would certainly yield fascinating scientific results, but not limitless fusion energy. Nor would constantly cooling the spaceship down protect it from incineration. The ESA Solar Orbiter and NASA’s Parker Solar Probe, the closest real world equivalents to the Copa de Oro/Prometheus/Icarus, are protected by heat shields and reflective aluminium rather than cooling circuits. They are also unmanned.
However, Bradbury’s description of the cooling system of the ship – even it wouldn’t actually do what it’s supposed to do – is pretty sound and I’m totally stealing the “ribbed boa constrictor coils” through which the cooling agent flows for a translation sometime. The “waldo” like grab mechanism to retrieve a sample of solar plasma also isn’t unlike the robotic arms used aboard the late space shuttle and the International Space Station.
I also liked the paragraph where the captain muses about the motive for their perilous mission, starting out with all sorts of reasonable ideas about unlimited fusion energy and unlocking the secrets of the sun, including the line “the atomic bomb is pitiful and small”, which must have been shocking indeed barely a year after the first hydrogen bomb test. But after all the very reasonable scientific motivations, the captain finally comes to the true reason: Because we can and because it’s fun. Somehow, I can’t imagine a line like that in Campbell’s Astounding.
Even though it’s fairly slight, “The Golden Apples of the Sun” is a popular and beloved story that has been reprinted umpteen times and gave its title to the eponymous collection. In fact, I’m surprised that it did not make the ballot nor the longlist for the 1954 Retro Hugos, considering how well known the story is. But then the competition was extremely strong that year – the winner in the short story category was “The Nine Billion Names of God” by Arthur C. Clarke. And besides, Ray Bradbury got to take home (literally, since he was still alive at the time) a Retro Hugo for Best Novel for Fahrenheit 451, so I strongly suspect that he didn’t mind not getting a nomination for “The Golden Apples of the Sun”.
Not much in the way of plot and character, but beautifully written and a very typical example of Ray Bradbury’s writing in the 1950s.