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.
In the third, short vignette in The Martian Chronicles, we have the first overt reference to the post-atomic tension I’ve mentioned a few times already. The titular ‘taxpayer’ wants to be taken onboard the rocket bound for Mars with the third expedition, because he believes an atomic war is coming. He is denied access, of course, and as he is hauled away, the rocket launches into space and speeds toward Mars, despite the mystery surrounding the failure of the first two expeditions…
THE THIRD EXPEDITION
“The Third Expedition” is perhaps the most sinister story in the entire book, and as there are some pretty sinister stories, that’s saying something. The first expedition fails because of Ylla’s jealous husband, but Ylla’s ‘connection’ to Captain York promises at least a chance of future, peaceful meetings between the worlds. Even the failure of the second expedition doesn’t feel hopeless, based as it is on a rather unfortunate misunderstanding.
The third expedition and the reception prepared for it is something quite different. It is calculating and lethal and involves forethought and planning and the cooperation of many Martians to execute. It suggests some deeper problem between our worlds, though the reader at this point in the book doesn’t know what it is or might be. Why the third expedition is met with such hostility is a question worth asking and holding onto for a while, as we read on into the book.
When the men arrive (there are, interestingly, 16 men, so the expeditions have grown geometrically from 2 to 4 to 16), they find a town much like a small American town from the 1920s, in fact, we eventually learn it is patterned after Captain Black’s hometown of Green Bluff, Illinois. The first party that disembarks to explore the town, cycles through several possible explanations, including: rocket travel perhaps started long ago in secret and this town was built by earthmen from that time, the rocket somehow got turned around and ended up back on earth, perhaps having also gone back in time, and even perhaps that this is a second chance of sorts for our loved ones who die on earth.
All suspicions aroused by this strangeness are eventually overcome as each crewman is met by someone beloved that he has lost, and each of them disappears into a different house. Captain Black races his long deceased brother Edward to the house he grew up in, where his dead parents are waiting for them both. Only later, that night, as they lie in bed in the room they grew up in, does it occur to Captain Black that he might be in danger.
That scene, where Captain Black hypothesizes that this might all be a hallucination imposed upon him by telepathy, and where he suddenly knows this is true and that he is in great danger, is just about flawlessly executed. The sense of longing and of desire in the Captain to be with his dead family is so strong, and as it melts into suspicion then fear than certainty that these mysterious people are not who he thought they were, is beautifully done. He rises to leave, and his ‘brother’ speaks to him in the dark, and when he runs, he doesn’t get far.
The picture of the town gathering to bury the 16 dead earth men the next day is quite chilling, as the various fake family members continue to play their roles as they bury the dead men. The reader is left again to wonder why the Martians would do this. Why did they not give the earth men a chance? Why did they lay this trap? That question will have to wait.
An observation before we move on. Bradbury, I think, tips his hand twice before the reveal in this story. He describes Edward as a “golden figure” when he is racing Captain Black to the house, and then again when they undress for the night, Bradbury refers to Edward’s “golden shoulders.” Given the brown/gold descriptions of the Martians in “Ylla,” I think Bradbury is foreshadowing the story’s climax in these references.
Also, it is the case that in “Ylla,” “The Summers Night” and “The Earth Men” that telepathy has played a significant role, so we should not be surprised to see it play a prominent role here. I say this, because in a lot of ways, the first three expeditions and the small vignettes before them are the most coherent part of the whole book. I’ve said before and say again, that The Martian Chronicles is fairly disjointed in places and reads much more like a collection of short stories than a novel. If it all fit together as well as the parts we’ve read so far, I wouldn’t say that.
In short, the reader should be prepared for a shift as we go forward, and for a change not just in the landscape of the story but also for less clear connections between many of the stories that follow. I won’t say there are no connections, as there are some, but you will understand what I mean as you keep reading.
Next week, we’ll look at ” – And the Moon be Still as Bright.”