"A Summer with Ray Bradbury" - Wrap
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.
Well, way back over Memorial Day weekend when I posted my first official post for my summer project of doing a 'book club' on Ray Bradbury's classic, The Martian Chronicles, Labor Day and the end of both summer and my series seemed to be pretty far away. Now both are here, and it is time to wrap this series up.
I've mentioned a few times that I used to teach this book, which is true. I think I taught it about ten times over the years, but I haven't now for almost a decade. So, as I think about this past summer and how much fun it was to spend time with the book again, there are a number of things that come to mind as parting thoughts to briefly reflect on here.
One thing that comes to mind is the originality of Bradbury's description of the Earth's encounter with Mars. I think of 50's movies about Martians and they are nothing like this. First of all, in Bradbury's book we go there, whereas it always felt like in the movies they were coming here. Also, while there is hostility in the initial encounters, it isn't of the ray gun, take me to your leader direct conflict type. The personal vendetta of "Ylla," the big misunderstanding of "The Earth Men," and even the cold, calculated trap of "The Third Expedition," they're just so different then those movie scenarios. And, in the end, it is the Earth that wipes out Mars and not the other way around.
Another thing that comes to mind as I reflect back is just how vivid many of Bradbury's descriptions are of Martian culture. I enjoy the whole book, all three distinct 'parts' as I describe them in some of the earlier posts, but my favorite is probably the first part when the Martian culture is still alive and well to be encountered. There's a bright, sunny feeling to those stories that is really unusual for scifi and space stories. The darker world of Mars after that first part feels more like the standard story of man in space.
I could also mention here that Bradbury's ability to successfully knit together a book from such disparate stories is impressive. While I feel that the term 'novel' really shouldn't be applied to The Martian Chronicles, I understand why it is. The book is more than just a collection of short stories, it rises above that to something else, and lacking a specific title for that something else, I suppose novel will do. As a short story writer, Bradbury shows off his mastery of the form time and time again, as he seems to achieve maximum effect in each short encounter, no matter how different the setting or event or tone.
Thematically, neither of the big themes in the book are terribly surprising. Writing in the wake of Hiroshima and Nagasaki explain pretty well Bradbury's fear that we were on a trajectory to destroy ourselves. That also explains Bradbury adopting perhaps that most ubiquitous of all scifi themes, the idea of only caring about whether we can do things with technology and not enough about whether we should.
What's interesting to me is that after the utter pessimism of a story like "There Will Come Soft Rains," that he would write a story like "The Million Year Picnic" where he suggests that the solution is to get rid of the institutions of Earth and start over. That suggests that man's problem is something extrinsic to himself - ie, in the institutions we create, and not in us. It seems to me, rather, that man's biggest problems are not institutional, they are personal - they are inside us, not outside of us. Thus, Bradbury's final images of important Earth documents being burnt as survivors of the great atomic apocalypse prepare to start over on Mars seem to me strikingly naive for someone who seems so pessimistic about mankind elsewhere in the book.
Of course, I am a Christian and see man as a fallen mess, whose great hope is deliverance from the outside, and Bradbury clearly didn't see the world that way. Still, while I can't agree with the way he saw people and our future, and while that disagreement makes me both more optimistic than he is (I don't think a sovereign God will let us annihilate ourselves) and more pessimistic (completely starting over will never fix things as long as we're the one's making the new institutions), I still enjoy Bradbury as a writer and a story architect very much - and I sincerely hope that anyone who has taken this opportunity to read Bradbury too can say the same.
"A Summer with Ray Bradbury" - The Million-Year Picnic
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.
THE MILLION-YEAR PICNIC
In "The Long Years" we saw that in 2026 Mars was largely empty, and in "There Will Come Soft Rains" we saw that in 2026 Earth was largely destroyed, so with "The Million-Year Picnic" we get Bradbury's last word on the future of the human race in this speculative history of Earth's contact with Mars.
It's a simple story, in many ways. The Thomas family - a family with 3 little boys & a girl on the way - has come to Mars on one of the last rockets from Earth. They have come, hoping to rendezvous with the Edwards family - a family with 4 little girls. It's clearly a sort of new Adam & Eve story, where they hope to start over and begin to rebuild the human race.
Symbolic of that rebuilding, Mr. Thomas burns various government documents as a way of suggesting that the systems we had built on Earth had failed and that more than repopulation would be required if humanity was going to rebound from this catastrophe. He was a governor on Earth, and as he burns the documents he speaks the funeral oration for the failure of our way of life. There aren't any surprises here, as Bradbury's theme has already been made clear, but here is perhaps the key section:
Science ran too far ahead of us too quickly, and the people got lost in a mechanical wilderness, like children making over pretty things, gadgets, helicopters, rockets; emphasizing the wrong items, emphasizing machines instead of how to run the machines. Wars got bigger and bigger and finally killed Earth. That's what the silent radio means.
The final act is for Thomas to take his wife and boys down to the canal they use to reach the Martian city where they are settling, and to introduce them to the "Martians." As his family lean over the edge and stare down into the water, they see their own reflections, and Bradbury's final twist is revealed. The last humans from Earth are the last Martians, and perhaps from that world and civilization which Spender so admired earlier in the book, we'll learn the things we need to learn to build a better society.
And that is Bradbury's final word in The Martian Chronicles. My final word on The Martian Chronicles will wait until next weekend though, when I wrap up this summer series with my last post on the book.
"A Summer with Ray Bradbury" - There Will Come Soft Rains
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.
THERE WILL COME SOFT RAINS
This story has been so often anthologized that it is probably the best known of all the stories in The Martian Chronicles. The fame is probably deserved, too, since it is a phenomenal short story and a great example of Bradbury's mastery of the form.
In "The Long Years," we got a glimpse of Mars in the year 2026, learning that the planet was nearly uninhabited, and Captain Wilder's own curiosity about Earth should have echoed the reader's, as we were meant to wonder if it was also a 'tomb planet.' "There Will Come Soft Rains" answers that question for us, and it is an unsettling answer.
The story, strikingly, has no human characters. The protagonist is a mechanized house, and we watch it die, the final house in the city where it once stood to do so. The apocalyptic carnage of the scene that Bradbury describes deviates abrasively from mundane nature of the running commentary the house provides, and in that tension lies the success of the story.
There are so many fascinating things in this story, this post could get very long and unwieldy, but I'll try to show some restraint and simply highlight three things that perhaps deserve the most attention.
First, I think the silhouettes of the family that once lived in the house, visible on the side of the house, is one of the most striking images in the book. Perhaps the most striking. When I first read the story, I misunderstood what I was reading here. I thought the family had been 'burned' into the side of the house, but that's not what Bradbury suggests. Rather, the whole side of the house is charred EXCEPT where the family member intercepted the force of the atomic wave. Where their bodies absorbed that force, the house was somewhat spared, thus the silhouettes are the only places where paint remains, not vice versa. I first read this as a teenager, and this image has never left me.
A second striking thing about this story is the Sara Teasdale poem the story is named for, "There will come soft rains." It is the poem the house chooses to read in the evening to the long dead family that no longer dwells there. The poem is just 12 lines long, but they're pretty dark lines. If you read just the first 6, you have some typical Romanticism, with glowing, almost over-the-top descriptions of the beauty of nature. The last 6 lines, by contrast, speak of how nature won't miss us when we're finally gone, the strong implication being we're going to destroy ourselves and nature might almost be better off without us.
Third, and last, Bradbury's story begins on August 4th and ends on August 5th. Hiroshima, of course, was bombed on August 6th. He's too careful a writer for this to be an accident. Here we get pretty close to the heart of The Martian Chronicles, I think. The world in 1950 was pretty scared - and rightfully so - of the power that had been unleashed with the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. That fear is clearly in and around and under this entire book. Here, it is perhaps most clear, as Bradbury juxtaposes the remarkably inventive and imaginative technology of the mechanized house with the remarkably destructive technology of the atomic bombs that have laid waste to the Earth.
This is, I think, Bradbury's fundamental point. The same people and the same science & technology that may one day produce rockets that can travel to Mars and houses that can cook our breakfast, are the same people with the same science and technology that have already made the bomb. So what does the future look like? And will we be able to avoid the atomic holocaust envisioned here?
It is comforting to think that 64 years after The Martian Chronicles was first published, the atomic/nuclear holocaust still hasn't come. And, believing in a sovereign God who holds the world in His hand comforts me sufficiently so that I don't think it ever will, but that doesn't mean that Bradbury's question isn't still relevant. Technology and how we use it has always been a double-edged sword, and if our hope is in ourselves and in our creations alone, we have cause to be afraid...
Next week, we'll look at the last story in The Martian Chronicles, "The Million-Year Picnic."
"A Summer with Ray Bradbury" - The Long Years
THE LONG YEARS
The short vignette 'in between' stories are over, and now we are down to the final three Martian Chronicles. All three of these last stories take place a long time after all the ones we've read so far. The entirety of the rest of the book takes place between January of 1999 and December of 2005, but here we find ourselves in 2026, and there we will remain until the end.
This first of these stories from 2026, "The Long Years," is a stark contrast in mood from the light, humorous feel of "The Silent Towns." It tells the story of Hathaway, one of the men from the Fourth expedition. The twist that comes perhaps midway through the story, is that his wife and three children, whom we see with him early in the story, are actually robots. His real wife and children died some 19 years previously, and he builds these to keep him company. There are a number of clues before the reveal, like the 4 crosses he visits and the fact that the wine they drink runs down their chins, and of course, robots that look just like people have already played an important role in the book, namely in "Usher II."
In addition to the story about Hathaway and his robot family, we get a good deal of information/closure on other characters and stories we've encountered so far. We learn that Parkhill went home shortly after the war started 20 years earlier - so he didn't end up having much use for his hot dog stand or the land deed for half of Mars. Walter Gripp is still living alone and smoking his cigars - no word on Genevieve Selsor. Captain Wilder from the Fourth expedition has been out exploring other planets, and he has just returned. And, of course we learn about the current situation on Mars and Earth.
Mars is described as a tomb planet. Other than Gripp, Wilder's circumnavigation of Mars reveals no one else alive - human or Martian. On Earth, the war continues, but Hathaway and Wilder both expect that after 20 years, the devastation is likely extensive, if not complete. It is an ominous backdrop to the somber events of this story.
And, it is a ominous prelude to the next story, "There Will Come Soft Rains," which is perhaps the most famous of all The Martian Chronicles, an extremely unusual, powerful and effective story.
"The Long Years" ends in a really poignant way (I think Bradbury really excelled at his endings). We have Hathaway's robot family, alone now that Hathaway is dead (he dies of heart complications) and Bradbury leaves us with the striking visual of them going through their routines that Hathaway programmed and that they themselves don't fully understand, and with a striking line about the dead sea, going on being dead. Not very cheery, but then again, Bradbury's picture of a world that has destroyed itself, and the other planet it comes into contact with, is not terribly cheery.
Next time we'll look at "There Will Come Soft Rains."
"A Summer with Ray Bradbury" - The Watchers and The Silent Towns
This is the last of the short vignettes, as the stories that follow this one are all 'full' stories that stand very well on their own. It ties in with "The Luggage Store," as the outbreak of war on Earth creates a wave of homesickness among the settlers on Mars. It is as though they have been dreaming while on Mars but the sight of the burning Earth wakes them from the dream, and they all think of loved ones they haven't seen or heard from in while, and that is the beginning of the exodus back to Earth, though of course, not everyone goes ...
THE SILENT TOWNS
Without a doubt, "The Silent Towns" was always a crowd favorite among my students when I taught The Martian Chronicles. While the last three stories after this are fairly dark, this one is light and humorous and quite the foil to the atomic-holocaust backdrop that Bradbury has painted for it. What's more, Bradbury plays on the old "not if you were the last person on Earth" theme (only its Mars, of course) with very entertaining results.
Poor Walter Gripp. He lives remotely and missed all the hubbub and the mass return to Earth. Now he's all alone. Only, he hears a phone ring & realizes someone else is still on Mars. He desperately hopes that someone is a 'she.'
It is. It is Genevieve Selsor. Walter tracks her down by calling the largest beauty parlor in a place called New Texas City - after all, where else would a woman be when the world is deserted and she can be anywhere she wants to be? (No hate mail please, this is Bradbury 'winking' at the reader...)
Alas, the call is interrupted before they get very far, and a delirious Walter drives the 1000 miles to New Texas City, singing a song of his own making in homage to Genevieve, Oh Genevieve, sweet Genevieve, the years may come, the years may go... I'm not sure why I always found this so amusing, but the image of the already besmitten Walter on his way to see Genevieve makes me chuckle, mostly because I've read the story before & know what he's going to find.
Of course, by now, the reader who has been paying attention knows enough to know what's coming, at least, she knows enough not to trust Bradbury here. He likes a twist, especially cruel ones, and things can't end well for Walter, can they?
Well, after finding Genevieve gone from New Texas City, Walter has to drive the 1000 miles back to where he'd been (and to where Genevieve had gone in her own excitement) to finally meet her. Oh, and meet her he does. She's not quite the dream girl Walter had hoped for. She's like a dream, as nightmares count as dreams, and she's both awful to look at and awful to be with.
They spend a perfectly terrible day together, full of much unpleasantness for Walter, and then comes the final straw - Genevieve tells him about the wedding dress she's picked out. That's all poor Walter can take, and he makes a run for it, going to his car and tearing out of town.
He puts 10,000 miles between himself and Genevieve Selsor, finds a nice small town, and lives there with enough food and cigars to last as long as he needs to. And as the last line says, "... when once in a while over the long years the telephone rings - he doesn't answer."
Well played, Mr. Bradbury, well played.
Next time, we'll look at "The Long Years."
"A Summer with Ray Bradbury" - The Luggage Store & The Off Season
THE LUGGAGE STORE
Another of the short vignettes that primarily sets up an event in the story that follows, in this case, the long-hinted-at and finally-arriving atomic war on earth. Perhaps the most interesting thing about "The Luggage Store" is the appearance of Father Peregrine. Some may know that Bradbury added a story called "The Fire Balloons" from The Illustrated Man to The Martian Chronicles in a couple of later editions, but most editions that you will find in stores/libraries don't have this one. (You can still find it in The Illustrated Man if you're interested, I believe.) Father Peregrine was the central character in that story, and here he is buying a valise for the trip back to Earth...
THE OFF SEASON
I am not a big fan of "The Off Season," mainly because the story is dominated by Sam Parkhill being a jerk. The reader may recall that Parkhill is a member of the 4th Expedition, and he's the kind of guy that convinces Spender that we're going to ruin Mars - obviously with good reason. Let's talk about the plot briefly, also look at the issue of how the Martians are portrayed physically, then focus on the most important issue, the role of "The Off Season" in the overall structure of the book.
Parkhill has built a hot dog stand & is going to make a fortune. However, war breaks out on earth & the expected multitudes don't come, so the story ends with his long-suffering wife wryly pointing out that its going to be "a long off season." Along the way, he's visited by a majority of the surviving Martians, who give him land deeds for about half of Mars.
This seems particularly inappropriate because he's such a jerk. One would think someone more like Spender, who actually cared about Martian society, would make more sense. There is, though, a kind of cruel irony in their gesture. They know the war is coming, they know the Earth is about to destroy itself, so half of Mars will be more than big enough for any human survivors and refugees, just like half of Mars is more than big enough for the few Martians who survived the Disease as it is referred to here.
That survival of the Disease perhaps best explains the odd description of the Martians and their appearance. The early stories show them as short, brownish with gold-coin eyes, but these are floaty, with masks and billowy clothes. One is described as having two mesh silver hands, which is why I pointed out the mention of a silver hue in the description of the running Martian in the previous story, "The Martian."
Assuming Bradbury didn't just throw disparate stories together into the book and ignore these discrepancies, the two most likely explanations are either that there was more than one kind of Martian on the planet, and perhaps those that survived were simply of this kind, or - and more likely, I think - Bradbury is suggesting that those who survived the Disease are physically changed by it.
Lastly, a word about structure. I see The Martian Chronicles as having 3 distinct parts. Part 1, which is probably my favorite, consists of the various expeditions seeking to make contact with Mars, and in the timeline, only covers from 1999 to 2001. Part 1 ends with "The Fourth Expedition" and the realization that the Martian society has suffered a catastrophic epidemic.
Part 2, I would say, is about the settling of Mars, and it runs between "The Fourth Expedition" and "The Off Season," covering 2001 to 2005. We learn of the Firemen burning the remnants of Martian society, of the builders erecting cities for human habitation, of the growing influx of settlers. There are some great individual stories in Part 2, but it doesn't feel as coherent and unified on the larger scale as Part 1.
Part 3, in my opinion, begins with "The Off Season" and the image of the Earth glowing with fire that constitutes the atomic war which has finally begun, and goes to the end of the book. It consists of a few stories set in 2005 when the war has just begun, and then a few iconic stories set in 2026 intended to show the disastrous consequences of that war.
I think Part 3, like Part 1, does a better job of finding some unity from the disparate stories it consists of. I would guess thats because the atomic war which has loomed in the background is a stronger and more vivid larger event that gives the reader a sense of these things being connected. Likewise, the initial question of "Are we going to be able to make peaceful contact with the Martians" does a better job holding together the very different stories in the first part.
At any rate, we've entered the endgame now, and these last few stories contain one of Bradbury's more lighthearted and funny stories, as well as one of the most poignant portrayals of our post-atomic fears that you will find anywhere in our literature.
Next time, we'll look at "The Watchers" and "The Silent Towns."
"A Summer with Ray Bradbury" - The Old Ones & The Martian
THE OLD ONES
The reader will have noted by now that some of the short vignettes achieve something like a stand-alone quality, while others are little more than brief introductions to the stories that follow. "The Old Ones" is the latter, a brief introduction to the the notion that once Mars was reasonably tamed, the elderly came too, and "The Martian" tells a story about one such couple...
Bradbury is commonly pretty sparse with his prose, his tone bordering on the humorous and light-hearted, even when telling a pretty sinister story. Perhaps especially while telling a sinister story - that's part of his effect. The simple language juxtaposed against the terrible twists of fate. "The Martian" then is a very different feeling story, much sadder and more elegiac than normal.
I won't belabor the plot which is simple enough. The LeFarges lost a son on earth named Tom a long time ago, and they have come to Mars to forget. One night, though, a boy appears in their yard, and the next morning their long dead son is in their house.
The mechanism by which this is possible is no mystery given the presence of "The Third Expedition" earlier in the book. A Martian, using telepathy, has taken on the form of their son and come to live with them. They learn not to ask questions and simply enjoy having him, until they make the mistake of taking him to town where the longings of others pull the Martian from them, and eventually kill him, as so many see the Martian in the image of the loved one they miss, and this intense longing from so many directions seems to 'blow a fuse' of sorts in the Martian who can't handle it all.
Running through the the story are the twin ideas of loneliness and longing. We get glimpses of several people, not just the LeFarges, who long for someone absent, and we see that while some of the Martians have survived the catastrophic epidemic that killed the rest, they are lonely for company and companionship. As LeFarge contemplates this very idea, we read, "Who is this, he thought, in need of love as much as we? Who is he and what is he that, out of loneliness, he comes into the alien camp and assumes the voice and face of memory and stands among us, accepted and happy at last?"
As with the story "Night Meeting," Bradbury continues to humanize the aliens, who after both the accidental and the deliberate killings of the first expeditions, might have needed a little humanizing. He also portrays the longings of the human heart with poignancy at our selfishness, especially when each person at the end is so driven by what they want, they overload the Martian and then slink away through the rain, leaving him dead. Their longings have destroyed him, and they leave him behind as he no longer can provide them with what they want.
A final footnote here, as we haven't seen the last of the Martians. The figure of the Martian running through the town being pursued by various parties who want him/her to be the person they have been missing, seems to LeFarge to have a face "like silver shining." This silvery hue to the face seems new, as the few descriptions early on don't mention it. I point it out now, since it'll come up again & we'll reflect when we see it again on what this might mean.
Next time, we'll look at "The Luggage Store" and "The Off Season."
"A Summer with Ray Bradbury" - The Naming of Names & Usher II
THE NAMING OF NAMES
There are a few things going on in this short vignette, and most of it can be summed up as evidence of Spender's fears (not Captain Wilder's hopes) from "And the Moon Be Still as Bright" coming true. We see the imposition of Earth names on the Martian landscape, "all the mechanical names and the metal names of Earth." This picture of the literal smashing of the ancient Martian stone by the hard, pragmatic metal of Earth is meant, I think, to be symbolic of the ancient and beautiful way of life of the Martians being replaced by the pragmatic and not-so-beautiful life of Earth.
This becomes increasingly clear as Bradbury writes with some scorn about the coming of the sophisticates who bring with them the rules and regulations of Earth, so that they can "plan peoples lives and libraries." This is the clear set up for "Usher II," as is the ominous reference to some of those who had come to Mars to avoid being pushed around, deciding to push back...
"Usher II" is one of the really fun, really memorable short stories in The Martian Chronicles, especially for fans of Edgar Allen Poe. On the surface, it is a tour de force of Poe's short stories. The outside of the house is obviously patterned after Roderick Usher's house from "The Fall of the House of Usher." Inside the party takes place in 7 rooms patterned after the party rooms from "The Masque of the Red Death." And, as the story unfolds, several murders take place to mimic deaths from Poe stories, climaxing with Stendahl walling in Garrett in tribute to "The Cask of Amontillado."
For the true fan, there are innumerable allusions to the various stories in direct quotations, images and events, and it is fun to read through, pick them out, and admire how Bradbury pays tribute to Poe. I find the tribute very fitting, for Poe in many ways is the man more than any other who paves the way for Bradbury. Both excelled in the medium of the short story, especially when telling tales of the fantastical.
Below the surface fun of this tribute to Poe, Bradbury is of course trying to make a much more serious point. He again indulges his tendency at times to sermonize (as he does earlier with Spender) as he writes about the "Moral Climates" people and the censorship of not just books, but anything dealing with the fantastical or imaginative. This is obviously the theme that drives Fahrenheit 451 too, and it is sometimes hard for us in our time, so far removed from 1950 and the specter of McCarthyism to fully understand.
Whether we ultimately sympathize with Bradbury's theme and sympathies here or not, there is a great ironic twist in the story that is just the kind of thing that Bradbury does so very well. "Usher II" revolves around this basic irony - the victims of Stendahl's murderous scheme are largely if not entire ignorant of Poe and his stories, so they are vulnerable to them. This is very succinctly expressed by Stendahl as he walls Garrett in, "Ignorance is fatal, Mr. Garrett."
Indeed it can be.
Next time we'll look at "The Old Ones" and "The Martian."
"A Summer with Ray Bradbury" - The Shore, Interim, The Musicians & Way in the Middle of the Air
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"
"A Summer with Ray Bradbury" - The Settlers, The Green Morning, The Locusts & Night Meeting
This is one of my favorite of the smaller vignettes in the book. The list of reasons at the beginning for men going to Mars, including all the opposites - because they were afraid or unafraid, happy or unhappy, looking for something or leaving something, etc. - feels to me a bit like the famous opening to Dickens' A Tale of Two Cities. At any rate, it does a good job painting Mars as an unusual frontier and describing the Loneliness, the sickness that struck the first men to leave Earth for a new life on Mars.
THE GREEN MORNING
Bradbury, like a lot of fantasy and scifi authors, does some of his best work adapting well-known stories to his fantastical setting, in this case, the Martian landscape. We'll see at least one more notable example later in the book, but here he tells a Martian version of the Johnny Appleseed tale. Benjamin Driscoll arrives on Mars only to faint because of the thin air and to be told he may have to go home - that some just can't handle it & he might be one of them.
Driscoll won't have any of that, so he gets himself a job planting trees to produce more oxygen, and for a solid month he does just that, but he only moves forward and never looks back because it hasn't rained and he doesn't want to be discouraged by looking back to see nothing growing. And then, one night, it pours. The rain falls heavily for two straight hours, and Driscoll falls asleep drenched but happy.
In the morning, he decides to look behind him for the first time since he started planting the trees. And when he does, Bradbury writes simply. "It was a green morning." Trees of all kinds have grown overnight, not into little sapplings, but into great, full-grown, tall, majestic trees. Something about the Martian soil and rain or something has created this impossible result. Driscoll is overwhelmed, and when he takes a deep breath of the wave of oxygen that blows out from the new forest behind him... he faints. Again.
It is a classic Bradbury moment. He loves the humor-twist, as much as he enjoys the chilling, terror-twist, and as a reader I often think I see him winking at me from inside the pages of his story. Driscoll's going to be fine, and more to the point, the Martian atmosphere is going to be fine for the larger numbers of settlers to come.
And now, the initial, hesitant pioneers that Bradbury called the 'lonely ones' in "The Settlers" are joined by an ever-growing number of people that he now describes like locusts. Not a flattering description, and as a reader, we get the sense that the dam is about to break and the flood-tide is on its way to Mars, and that perhaps this may not be a good thing...
The three references to time in the first two and a half pages of the story foreshadow the fact that we're in for a time story. The old man at the gas station talks about time being "crazy up here," and as Tomas drives on into the Martian night he speaks first of there being a "smell of Time" in the air and then of being almost able to "touch Time." And then, of course, we have a meeting between past and future, between Earth man and Martian.
Tomas and a Martian named Muhe Ca have a conversation - by telepathy, of course - and the big issue that soon emerges is the question of who is past and who is future. The cities that appear alive to Muhe Ca are but ruins to Tomas, and that appears to settle the conversation, though of course both of them are hesitant to think of themselves as part of 'the past.' Muhe Ca rightly says that no one really wants to see the future, as the inevitability of death and decline of things we love - not just ourselves, but the places and people we love - isn't something we really want to see.
Three quick thoughts before leaving "Night Meeting" behind. The first is that this is the peaceful, friendly exchange between Martians and Earthmen that the reader always knew was possible from the very first unfortunate encounter in "Ylla." It's interesting that Bradbury puts it here, after the Martian world has all but been wiped out, but he does include it, and for that I'm glad.
Second, we see a bit of Spender's fears beginning to come to pass. In "The Green Morning" the town that Driscoll leaves from to plant trees is called First Town, which seems natural enough, even if unimaginative. Here though, we see Tomas speak of Green City and Illinois Highway, and of all the Oregon lumber now on Mars to build a mini-Earth here. These images juxtapose somewhat with the old timer's comments early in this story about not expecting anything from Mars, about just enjoying it. This idea of honoring it, or even learning from it that Spender and Wilder spoke of in " - And the Moon be Still as Bright" doesn't seem to have room in the rapid expansion of Earth-culture on Mars.
Third, and last, though this Martian, Muhe Ca, doesn't seem to be from Tomas' own time, the old timer does say that there are natives still about. So, Bradbury has at least planted the seeds that perhaps not all of the Martians are gone, and indeed, we shall meet some yet...
Next time, we'll look at "The Shore," "Interim," "The Musicians," and "Way in the Middle of the Air."
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