Ray A. Palmer started Imagination in 1950, and it was a in the same pulpy vein as Fantastic Adventures and Other Worlds (which eventually transformer to Flying Saucers) featuring space opera tales of fantasy and Bug-Eyed Monsters. After only three issues, Palmer passed the torch to William L. Hamling, who incidentally was one of the few science fiction authors who promoted the Extraterrestrial Hypothesis.
According to Michael Ashley in Transformations: The Story of the Science-fiction Magazines from 1950 to 1970,
"Hamling was less provocative and daring than Palmer. He knew a good story when he saw one, but avoided the extremes of Palmer. The result was fewer abominations, but also less excitement, and under Hamling Imagination became more bland than it had started out under Palmer."Even so, occasionally a story of anomalous quality slipped in, transcended Imagination's pulpy origins.
Ray Bradbury grew up loving Buck Rogers and monsters like King Kong, but his fantasy and science fiction stories were more more about the human heart. The April 1951 Imagination featured "In This Sign..." a story by Bradbury about Episcopalian missionaries led by Father Peregrine who'd traveled to Mars trying to save the souls of the natives by converting them to Christianity. The hitch being, the Martians they found were sentient beings who looked like spheres of blue light. It's an outstanding story, and proved to be a classic, touching on many important themes about religion and just what it means to be human. A scan of the the original magazine can be viewed at https://archive.org/stream/Imagination_v02n02_1951-04_cape1736#page/n0/mode/2up.
The piece was later retitled "The Fire Balloons," featured in the anthology The Illustrated Man and frequently reprinted in science fiction anthologies in different languages around the world. In 1980 it was adapted as part of the NBC television miniseries The Martian Chronicles, in the episode "The Settlers."
July 4, 1925
In his introduction to the 1974 edition of Dandelion Wine, Bradbury described the inspiration for the story:
"...one of the last memories I have of my grandfather is the last hour of a Fourth of July night forty-eight years ago when Grandpa and I walked out on the lawn and lit a small fire and filled the pear-shaped red-white-and-blue-striped paper balloon with hot air, and held the flickering bright-angel presence in our hands... and then, very softly, let the thing that was life and light and mystery go out of our fingers up on the summer air and away over the beginning-to-sleep houses, among the stars, as fragile, as wondrous, as vulnerable, as lovely as life itself."It was a memory that lasted a lifetime. Bradbury mentioed it in 1990 in an interview with John Ezard,
"At the end my grandfather would take me out to the end of the lawn at midnight. We'd light a little cup of shavings and put it underneath a Japanese fire balloon. We'd stand there waiting for the balloon to fill with warm air. Then we'd let it drift up into the night. I would stand there with my grandfather and cry because it was so beautiful. It was all over and it was going away. My grandfather died the next year and in a way he was a fire balloon going away."Shortly before his death, Bradbury again described the childhood events that inspired the story in "Take Me Home," a biographical piece in the June 2012 special science fiction issue of The New Yorker that serves as his own epitaph. "...the paper balloon held between us for a final moment, filled with warm exhalations, ready to go."
OrbsRay Bradbury called them fire balloons, and they date back to ancient China and go by many names, such as sky candles, Japanese or Chinese lanterns, hot air balloons, sky lanterns and others. The invention eventually spread through Europe and then to the United States, where it was most often used as part of Independence Day fireworks. The Boy's Holiday Book by Reverend T. E. Fuller from 1865 provided instructions for constructing a fire balloon in the section on fireworks, in a day when you literally had to make your own fun. Bradbury's grandfather was passing on the tradition of flying them in 1925. Later generations of kids took shortcuts, making their sky lanterns out of dry cleaning bags powered by hot air generated from birthday candles. Some of these have been sent up with the intent of hoaxing a UFO.
Ray Bradbury regarded the sight of these balloons flight as a magical thing, and he was able to imagine them as otherworldly spherical glowing intelligent living things. He's not the only one.