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.
This short vignette captures the ‘frontier’ feel of the American story and transports it to Mars, imagining that the first men were hardened men who were “accustomed to spaces and coldness and being alone.” And then Bradbury speaks of the monopoly America has on the rockets and how the rest of the world watches as we send rocket after rocket into space, and of the world “buried in war or the thoughts of war.”
In the timeline of the book, it is only October 2002, just three years and change after the first expedition, but things are falling apart on earth. The atomic war hinted at in “The Taxpayer” seems to be on its way, and this vignette serves to advance the tension of that frightening prospect.
This vignette shows a finished town, “Tenth City,” and speaks of ordinary life going on inside it. Some gather at church, some work in their houses, and so forth. It is Earth come to Mars in a neat package. Except it isn’t Earth, as the next story will remind us…
Anyone familiar with Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 is familiar with “the firemen.” In that book, they were those who burned books, so they started fires, they didn’t put them out. Here, they are the ones burning the remains of the dead Martians, which are what the boys in the story go to see, to play the dead bones like xylophones and to kick about in the black leaves that are the dried remnants of flesh and skin that fell from those bones.
It may interest the reader to know that, I’m pretty sure, the firemen of The Martian Chronicles are older than the fireman of Fahrenheit 451, at least by publication date. Perhaps Bradbury already had the vision of the firemen from his later work when he wrote “The Musicians,” but either way, it is a striking juxtaposition of nostalgic boyhood, daring each other and then going off to that forbidden place, contrasted with the pictures of death and decay of the Martian civilization.
But the firemen are coming, to burn Mars clean, to remove all traces of the dead, so that the flood of people coming from earth won’t have to deal with the catastrophic results of their coming. The old Mars is perishing by fire, which is somewhat apocalyptic, and of course, a fascinating way to connect to the next story, which is the first of only two longer stories in the book set entirely on earth, and which has apocalyptic overtones all its own.
WAY IN THE MIDDLE OF THE AIR
The fundamental conceit of this story is the brilliant use of the rapture as an image for the departure of a large portion of negroes – in the more polite terminology of 1950 – just like an image out of a negro spiritual. As Teece chases Silly toward the rocket, slowed down by all the debris left behind on the road, the imagery gets clearer and clearer until Bradbury writes that it was “as if a whole city had walked here with hands full, at which time a great bronze trumpet had sounded, the articles had been relinquished to the quiet dust, and one and all, the inhabitants of earth had fled straight up into the blue heavens.”
It really is skillfully done, this futuristic, naturalistic re-imagining of the spiritual/religious nature of the rapture. Mars and the new start that it offers is the real ‘better place’ toward which the disenfranchised of earth are headed. Teece is your stereotypical bigot, surrounded by other bigots, but as the story progresses and the true depth of his spite and hate toward Silly is exposed, even Teece’s own father turns against him.
The taunt that Teece will now have nothing to do at night, suggesting his nocturnal activities have been at least Klan-like, prompts him to go after Silly anyway, only to have his path blocked by the aforementioned debris. He is ‘left behind,’ and again in the language of the rapture, that means he is in some serious trouble – which he is, for the war that has been hinted at before is coming. But for now, Teece takes what comfort he can in the fact that at least Silly called him “Mister.”
Next time we’ll look at “The Naming of Names” and “Usher II”