This post is part of a series on Ray Bradbury and his book, “The Martian Chronicles,” which will run from Memorial Day weekend through Labor Day weekend.
Rocket Summer. I can almost hear the words being whispered as the artificial heat-wave from the rocket’s exhaust delivers this Ohio town from winter’s frozen grip, even if only for a moment. As the first of the vignette/description pieces that Bradbury uses to tie together his longer stories, “Rocket Summer” is a fine example of his descriptive powers.
We are also told that it is January, 1999. Aside for the practical issue that putting “Ylla” in February 1999 tells us the trips to Mars take about a month, I find the choice of 1999 worthy of mention. In 1950, 1999 would have felt a long way away, much like 2063 seems like a long way away to you and to me. However, there are lots of dates Bradbury could have picked that would have felt a long way away.
It seems to me that 1999 represents an especially pivotal year. From our vantage point in 2014, the excitement over the approach of 2000 might be somewhat forgotten – perhaps swept away with all the apparently needless fear of the Y2K bug – but back before the change, 2000 seemed like such a milestone. The turn of a century is one thing, the turn of a millenium quite another. So, I think Bradbury puts the beginning of his fantastical history in a year symbolic of transition between the old and the the new, and we hasten on to Ylla to get our first glimpse of the world of Mars.
“Ylla,” ah, “Ylla.” In some ways, its not such a great story, but I do love it.
Let me acknowledge the central weakness before I go on to plead the case for “Ylla” as a great intro to The Martian Chronicles. Ylla, also known as ‘Mrs. K’ in the story, is unforgivably naive in telling her husband all the details of her dreams, of taking him at his word when he goes ‘hunting,’ and of actually believing Dr. Nlle is really coming to the house. I think that should be acknowledged. We might say that her dreams & portents might be so fantastical that she might justifiably feel self-doubt about them herself and consequently not realize her husband has taken them so seriously, but still, as we read the story we can’t help but want her to be a good bit less passive about what’s going on about her.
At the same time, “Ylla” has quite a lot going for it. In the interest of keeping this blog post manageable, I’ll focus on three main things: POV, tone (or mood) and sheer creativity.
When I taught this, I’d have my students reread the first paragraph when they came to class and underline all the words/phrases/things it mentions that help establish the ‘alien culture’ of Mars. After the exercise, we’d skim through and note all the different things Bradbury plants in the very first paragraph to transport the reader to another time & place. Things like “crystal pillars,” “golden fruits” that grow from the walls, “magnetic dust” that takes the dirt from the house and blows away, a landscape filled with things like a “fossil sea,” “wine trees,” and a distant “bone town,” a “metal book with raised hieroglyphs” that sings when you brush your fingers across it, a history that includes seas filled with “red steam” and battles fought with “clouds of metal insects and electric spiders.”
All this is just in the first paragraph. There’s much, much more throughout the story, like the fact the house turns throughout the day to follow the sun like a flower, like the flame birds that carry the sheet on which Mr. & Mrs. K sit as transport into town, and the evil ‘gun’ that fires deadly bees. In short, Bradbury floods the reader with hints and images that create the feeling of being on another planet in the midst of an alien culture.
Aspiring writers note, he doesn’t slow down to explain how these things work, but rather, he lets them pile up one after another to create vivid images in the mind of the reader and perhaps also, to create a sense of mystery and wonder, all valuable to getting and keeping reader interest in his story & world.
By point of view here, I don’t mean first person v third person, or anything like that, but the decision to start the book from the Martians’ point of view. Obviously, that’s not the norm, especially back in 1950 where the stereotypical earth/Mars story starts with us and with them coming here. I think why he does this will become clear, so let’s just note the oddity for now & perhaps you can reflect on this as you keep reading – why would Bradbury buck convention & do this?
One thing that happens right away by doing this, is that Bradbury establishes both the striking differences & similarities between us and them. They are an older culture, their body shapes, colorings, names, language, etc, are all different. They appear to have at least some telepathic abilities. So on and so forth.
And yet, they are in some ways much the same. There is a marital malaise that has fallen upon Yll and Ylla that is all too familiar, as early in the story we read of Ylla longing for Yll to pay her the same attention Yll pays his books. Yll, for his part, plays the jealous husband when he learns of Ylla’s dreams in a way that is also very believable to any reader. In short, Bradbury does a good job suggesting that below all the manifold differences between Mars and Earth, there may be some very fundamental similarities between us and them. Whether that is good or bad is yet to be seen.
Lastly, and briefly, one of my favorite things about “Ylla” is the handling of tone & mood. I criticized how Ylla is unforgivably naive in how she handles telling her angry husband about the spaceship and so on and so forth above, but perhaps that naivete is an important part of how Bradbury establishes a real baseline of peacefulness throughout most of the story. That baseline of peace is crucial to the growing sinister nature of the husband as he prepares to go over to ‘Green Valley’ and take care of the earthmen.
In fact, both the scene when Yll comes out, bee-gun in hand and silver mask on his face, and the moment when he returns after his ‘hunt,’ are very ominous to me. The end is chilling, as the telepathic connection Ylla has felt with Nathaniel York fades and she forgets the song even as she appears to begin to forget him, Yll reassures her that she’ll be all right tomorrow, and she answers, blankly, “Yes, I’ll be all right tomorrow.”
That juxtaposition of moods, from something peaceful and light to something dark and sinister, is something that Bradbury was very good at, and he will continue to show his deft handling of tone as The Martian Chronicles unfolds, and the stories come to us, alternatively light and even funny, and then dark and ominous.
Next week, we’ll look at “The Summer Night” and “The Earth Men.”