Sunday, May 30, 2010

The Martian Chronicles by Ray Bradbury

"I've always to see a Martian," said Michael. "Where are they, Dad? You promised."

"There they are," said Dad, and he shifted Michael on his shoulder and pointed straight down.

The Martians were there. Timothy began to shiver.

The Martians were there--in the canal--reflected in the water. Timothy and Michael and Robert and Mom and Dad.

The Martians stared up at them for a long, long silent time from the rippling water...

The oldest stories in Ray Bradbury's Martian Chronicles were not meant to be part of a comprehensive mythology, and some of the seams show: The brown-skinned, golden-eyed Martians of "Ylla" and "The Summer Night" are conspicuously unlike the glittering jade mantis of "The Night Meeting," but Bradbury doesn't seem to find it necessary to detail why there are two sentient species on Mars, or how they interacted with one another. But for the most part, all the stories here seem to fit together into a larger whole, if not in testament to Bradbury's ability to go back and fill in the gaps, then definitely to the consistency of the themes that dominate his work: the passage of time on scales large and small, the vitality of small-town life, the hope for social progress that only science fiction can truly reflect. Bradbury imposes a larger arc on the stories he had already written in which, in roughly a thirty year span, man first reaches Mars, colonizes it (accidentally killing off the local population), and returns back to try to save an Earth dying from world war.

"The Night Meeting" is my favorite of these. In it, a man named Tomas Gomez encounters a Martian while traveling through a dead Martian town. Both are shocked at and fascinated by the others' presence, but when they try to shake hands, they pass right through each other. Eventually, Gomez and the Martian determine that they exist on different planes of time. When Gomez points out that his time-dimension must be the later one--he can see the ruins of the same great city that the Martian is from--the Martian dismisses the significance of this:

"Who wants to see the Future, who ever does? A man can face the Past, but to think--the pillars crumbled, you say? And the sea empty, and the canals dry, and the maidens dead, and the flowers withered?" The Martian was silent, but then he looked on ahead. "But there they are. I see them. Isn't that enough for me? They wait for me now, no matter what you say."

I love this for two reasons. First, it wonderfully expresses a theme to which Bradbury frequently returns, usually with less subtlety: the primacy of the moment, living and cherishing the here and now. Secondly, it affirms that Bradbury's chosen task, writing about the Future, ironically does the exact opposite. Here Bradbury uses the Future to tell us, as the Gospel says, "do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself."

But the episodic nature of The Martian Chronicles makes it uneven. Consider "The Third Expedition," in which an explorer comes to Mars only to land in what seems to be his hometown of Green Bluff, Illinois in the day of his childhood. The line between Green Bluff and the Green Town that provides the setting for Dandelion Wine and Something Wicked This Way Comes (mine, Brent) is nearly nonexistent. As such, the explorer's experience mirrors Bradbury's modus operandi. The explorer travels to Mars, only to find he is back in Green Bluff. For all his ingenuity, Bradbury seems incapable of truly imagining a world in which the small Illinois town he was born in is not the fulcrum of the universe.

This idiosyncrasy of Bradbury's turns The Martian Chronicles into something of a paradox. His investigation of Martian society can be strikingly creative:

Mr. and Mrs. K had lived by the dead sea for twenty years, and their ancestors had lived in the same hourse, which turned and followed the sun, flower-like, for ten centuries... Once they had liked painting pictures with chemical fire, swimming in the canals in the seasons when the wine trees filled them with green liquors, and talking into the dawn together by the blue phosphorous portraits in the speaking room.

I especially like the idea that the Martians are telepathic. This is how Gomez can communicate with the Martian, and in an earlier story an expedition crew is locked in a Martian asylum because the natives they meet assume their strange appearance and story are the mental projections of mental insanity.

But elsewhere, Bradbury seems trapped by his own perceptions. The worst offender here is "Way in the Middle of the Air," a story about how all the blacks in the United States decide to move to Mars to escape social oppression. A bitter racist named Samuel Teece is outraged that he is losing his hired help:

"I suppose you got names for your rockets?"

They looked at their one clock on the dashboard of the car.

"Yes, sir."

"Like Elijah and the Chariot, The Big Wheel and The Little Wheel, Faith, Hope, and Charity, eh?"

"We got names for the ships, Mr. Teece."

"God the Son and the Holy Ghost, I wouldn't wonder? Say, boy, you got one named the First Baptist Church?"

"We got to leave now, Mr. Teece."

Teece laughed. "You got one named Swing Low, and another named Sweet Chariot?"

The car started up. "Good-by, Mr. Teece."

"You got one named Roll Dem Bones?"

"Good-by, mister!"

"And another one called Over Jordan! Ha! Well, tote that rocket, boy, lift that rocket, go on, get blown up, see if I care!"

This story is set in 2003, but its depiction of race relations is culled straight from the year The Martian Chronicles was written, 1946. How is it that Bradbury is able to imagine a Martian society so unlike ours, but can't conceive how human society might have changed in almost sixty years? This story leaves a bad taste, and underlines an undercurrent of pessimism that sets The Martian Chronicles apart from most of Bradbury's other works.

Still, the stories that succeed outweigh and outshine those that don't. Strangely, Bradbury kills off the Martians early on (from chicken pox, sort of like The War of the Worlds), but it seems necessary to get them out of the way. At its heart, The Martian Chronicles is about human ambition and discovery, the possibilities afforded by a new frontier. For Bradbury, space travel seems to represent a fundamental challenge to the compassion and wisdom of the human race. His characters, sadly, don't respond to this challenge very well, but the last image of the book--a human family seeing their reflection in the rivers of Mars, knowing they are looking at true Martians--suggests a hope that Bradbury will be proven wrong.

1 comment:

Brent Waggoner said...

This is a really good collection. I really like There Will Come Soft Rains and the Second Expedition (about the asylum), but it's definitely a little uneven.

Now, comment on my Point Omega review.