Short Reviews – Referent, by Ray Bradbury (as Brett Sterling)

Friday , 26, May 2017 5 Comments

Referent, by Ray Bradbury writing under the shared pseud Brett Sterling, appeared in the October 1948 Issue of Thrilling Wonder Stories.

The October 1948 issue ends on a bizarre note with another Ray Bradbury short (this time under the pseud Brett Sterling).

Referent features a boy in a sort of educational crèche colony; some sort of weird old-fashion boarding school in the distant future of 1997 is the mind-prison of young Roby Morrison until an alien visitor provides him with an opportunity to escape. But ultimately it’s really just a semantics puzzle and some commentary on the imagination of children which ossifies with age disguised as science fiction.

The alien being is a “referent”; without labels, it just is. Except whenever Roby labels the referent, he defines it and thereby limits its shape, potential and being. Shapeshifting and whining ensue. Eventually, young Roby runs away from his schoolmasters, and the schoolmaster, intent on finding Roby, imposes the label of Roby on the referent. The referent gets dragged back school, stuck in Roby’s form, while the real Roby hijacks the alien’s spaceship and escapes to freedom.

Being Bradbury, the writing is solid and amusing enough to keep this from being a total stinker, and the implications are not so odious as The Square Pegs, but after this, I’m glad to be done with this issue. It never quite got back to that fantastic peak which it started out on with Brackett’s The Moon that Vanished, and even with a few good stories throughout, there were plenty of valleys in this issue. At 180 pages, readers would certainly get their money’s worth, but I think it could’ve stood to be a little tighter. If That Mess Last Year, The Square Pegs, No Winter, No Summer, and Referent were axed, the issue’s average quality would go up substantially and you’d still be left with a pretty good “big ideas” magazine.

  • Xavier Basora says:


    So what in your opinion happened? Was it due to poor editorial choices? Going through the motions writing?


    • cirsova says:

      I don’t know for certain, but I seem to recall reading that Thrilling was often used as a 2nd or 3rd tier market for cast-off stories that were rejected by other, more successful and better paying outlets.

      It very easily could’ve simply been that some of these writers just really needed to publish some stories they’d had for a bit for the money and Thrilling was happy to have stories from more well known authors. I really can’t say specifically.

      It’s hard to judge based on a single issue, but the theme of Thrilling seems to be big ideas more than, say, Planet Stories’ “action in space”, so it can accommodate a broader range of stories, in some regards. But it also means that you get stories like Referent or ‘No Winter, No Summer’. A story like Miracle Town was able to work because of its whimsy and downright ‘goodness’.

      “That Mess Last Year” was one of the only ones I could be super down on for the writing itself. “Square Pegs” set itself up to be a different (and better) story than it ended up being (a tease at potential action that turned into one character giving a lengthy lecture on the relativism of mental health).

  • deuce says:

    “But ultimately it’s really just a semantics puzzle and some commentary on the imagination of children…”

    I would derive a lot more enjoyment out of Bradbury if not for his fixation on childhood. I respect his craftsmanship and how he lived, but stories about kids generally leave me flat. That was the case when I was 8 — and one reason I grabbed TARZAN AND THE JEWELS OF OPAR from the library shelf — and it is still the case now. Occasionally I run into a “kid story” that I enjoy, but it’s not often. Lemme put it this way… how many tales about kids/childhood can you find before the Enlightenment — which period saw the start of this fetishization of childhood? Sure, there are the tales of Cuchullain’s boyhood, for instance, but those really show how precocious he was, not how childlike.

    The dwelling on “children as heroes” with a unique — and even superior — view of the world only really came about in the Enlightenment. That was the same period which saw the rise of the Noble Savage and Blank Slate doctrines, and both have links to the idea of childhood as a totally separate and special state. Of course, Freud’s highly subversive theories were also obsessed with childhood.

    Please don’t get the idea that I hate children, because that certainly isn’t the case. I just think that stories about them often miss the mark and I don’t find those tales particularly interesting.

    For the record, I love TARZAN OF THE APES, The BLACK CAULDRON, TREASURE ISLAND and LORD OF THE FLIES. All of those are “stories about children” and they aren’t the only ones I enjoy.

    • cirsova says:

      As a younger reader, I really enjoyed both the Martian Chronicles and Illustrated Man. I haven’t revisited them, as I’m afraid that they’d let me down. I recall Illustrated Man being more horror stories with a science fiction bent. The thing I read most recently by Bradbury prior to this was his collab with Leigh Brackett, which was fantastic, so there’s no denying that he could write an action-packed yarn. He just does not often choose to do so.

      It is interesting, though, Bradbury apparently said at one point that part of why he didn’t write about dames or a lot of sex stuff was because he didn’t have hang-ups about them.

      The weakness of this was more trying to turn a bad joke about language into a story.

    • deuce says:

      I enjoyed THE ILLUSTRATED MAN, THE MARTIAN CHRONICLES and FAHRENHEIT 451, but none of them are particularly child-centric. A lot of his other stuff is — or so it seems to me. As I said, I respect his talent and like the guy personally.

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