"A Summer with Ray Bradbury" - The Old Ones & The Martian
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 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
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 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 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"
"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."
"A Summer with Ray Bradbury" - And the Moon be Still as Bright
- AND THE MOON BE STILL AS BRIGHT
Well, we've reached what is in many ways the fundamental 'pivot' in "The Martian Chronicles." In the first three expeditions, we see various bad ends come to Earth expeditions to Mars. Starting with this fourth expedition, the entire landscape changes. The Martian civilization we've seen encountered in the first three expeditions has died, and Mars is a largely empty world.
There are a number of interesting observations to make here, and there is little question that this is an important story to the overall arc of the book, but I've never been a huge fan. There are fine moments, to be sure, but Bradbury, probably like all writers, has a few thematic axes he likes to grind, and in the character of Spender here, he gets a little preachy in some places. Still, as we journey through the book, there are some things that we should observe while we pause here awhile.
One observation is that there is no short, simple, vignette between the third expedition and the fourth. We move, as it were, from one major episode to the next. We'll see this again at the end, but I wonder if Bradbury didn't feel that the sting of the slaughter of the third expedition didn't need to be right next to the silent death of the planet Mars that we bear witness to when the fourth expedition lands. Last week I raised the question, why would the Martians plot the death of the entire rocket crew of the third expedition and not even try to make contact? Perhaps the answer is here in the news that the planet has been wiped out by Chicken Pox. Perhaps they somehow knew the men on the rocket brought doom with them, and perhaps they were trying to defend themselves. Perhaps.
Another observation is that early on in this story, when Captain Wilder is talking with Spender after Spender knocks Biggs into the Martian canal, there are two theories put forth about what we, as Earth men, will do with the grand empty planet of Mars. Wilder says we'll learn from Mars and the beautiful remnants of an ancient civilization that we find there, that it will change us, and Spender says we'll ruin it. Notice, there's broad agreement that we need to learn, that we tend to ruin things, and that we've made a bit of a mess of Earth. That much is not in doubt.
This basic question is in many ways the question that lies out there, waiting to be answered, as the rest of the book unfolds. Will we learn from the beauty and grandeur of Mars, or will we ruin it as we have ruined Earth? Again, I think we find the post-atomic skepticism that all our progress hasn't changed our basic nature, that we simply have bigger and more destructive weapons with which to wreak havoc. We'll have to see how Bradbury's history unfolds to see how he answers his own question.
Most of the crew heads into the nearby Martian city, and there Spender quotes the Lord Byron poem that the phrase "and the moon be still as bright" comes from, while Biggs pukes in the street. This is the last straw for Spender, and he simply walks off into the darkness. We don't see him again until he comes back for his killing spree. Claiming to be the 'last Martian,' he kills several men of the expedition, starting with Biggs.
This spree sets in motion the final act of the story, as Wilder and the others hunt Spender in the Martian hills. Under a white flag of truce, Wilder and Spender have a nice long chat, so that Spender can air grievances (and so Bradbury can tell the reader what he thinks of the world:). Two notable quotes emerge here, as Spender says "do they have to foul someone else's manger," speaking of Biggs' vomiting in the city, like desecrating a holy place.
Also, as Spender tries to summarize the Martian philosophy of life, he says "science is no more than an investigation of a miracle we can never explain, and art is an interpretation of that miracle." That reads, to me, like Bradbury giving his own take on the relationship of religion, science and art. This balance, this harmony, which Spender says the Martians found, is something that Earth culture lacks, and it is why we ruin things.
In the end, Spender will not surrender and is shot, though Bradbury suggests that Captain Wilder is more than a little sympathetic to Spender's position even if he can't support the killings that Spender committed. When Wilder knocks Parkhill's teeth out for shooting out windows in the city at the end of the story, we see both Wilder's sympathy and at least a small indication that Spender's concern is justified. The Earth men have no respect for the ruins they have found, or for the culture that built them.
So what will happen? Will we learn from Mars, or will we ruin it? Let's read on and find out...
Next week, we'll look at "The Settlers," "The Green Morning," "The Locusts" and "Night Meeting."
"A Summer with Ray Bradbury" - The Taxpayer & The Third Expedition
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."
"A Summer with Ray Bradbury" - The Summer Night & The Earth Men
THE SUMMER NIGHT
In the second short vignette, the telepathy element of Ylla gets more play here, as Bradbury pictures an unseen connection between the people of Mars and the approaching rocket with the second expedition on it. Bits of music, poetry and more come unbidden into the minds of various Martians - including a fragment of Lord Byron, who is referenced again in the title for the story that recounts the fourth expedition - and a sense of unease spreads across the planet.
The exchange near the end of "The Summer Night" between nameless Martians raises it above mere filler between actual stories. The exchange goes as follows:'
'Something terrible will happen in the morning.'
I think, beyond describing the apprehension of Mars as a rocket with earth men approaches for the second time, the exchange summarizes the feel of the post-atomic age in which Bradbury wrote. All around the world, people went about their days, filled with normal routines and the appearance that all was as it had ever been, when in truth, the atomic genie was out of the bottle and was never going back in.
Again, I think its a stroke of genius that Bradbury has turned the tables so that Mars, not Earth, is the planet dealing with this looming fear, though when the second expedition lands, the tables will be turned again...
THE EARTH MEN
Even as "Ylla" juxtaposed a feel of innocence & beauty with the sinister killing at the end, so "The Earth Men" juxtaposes the lighthearted, even comic feel of Captain Williams' plight with the sinister finale. That is one of the things Bradbury was best at, setting you at ease in some way before swooping in at the end with some dark conclusion.
"The Earth Men" continues the telepathy angle, suggesting that in a world proficient with telepathy, mental illness might often present with delusions that involve that telepathic, hallucinatory power. The result is Captain Williams' sad and exasperating attempt to get someone, anyone, to believe that he really is from Earth.
When he and his crew (note the total size of the second expedition is 4, rather than the 2 sent the first time) are locked up in an asylum overnight, they think they have finally been welcomed to Mars, and it is a powerful scene that goes first from delight at their accomplishment being realized to despair as they understand at last why no one takes them seriously.
Perhaps the story serves as something of a warning about the danger of never questioning your own presuppositions. Mr. Xxx executes Captain Williams, even given the evidence the Captain presents that he really has come from outer space, and then, when the rocket doesn't disappear with Williams' death, Mr Xxx would rather doubt his own sanity then that he'd been mistaken.
Two details to observe. One is that we learn during a speech from Mr. Xxx as he is marveling at the details of Captain Williams' hallucination that Martians have six fingers, a fact we can add to the other things we've gleaned about what makes their appearances different. Also, we meet a Martian early on who calls the planet Mars Tyrr. Tyrr seems a fitting choice for Bradbury to have Martians themselves use for the planet Mars, since after all, Mars is the name of the Roman god of war, and Tyr is the name of a norse god often considered a god of war.
So now we have had two expeditions land, both exterminated without any serious interchange between cultures. One was slaughtered by a jealous husband, and the other couldn't find anyone to listen to them or believe their story. Now, unfortunately, with these two failed attempts marring the attempt to make friendly contact, it looks all too likely like Earth and Mars are on a collision course for something much less pleasant than the friendly exchange sought by these expeditions...
Next week, we'll look at "The Taxpayer" and "The Third Expedition."
"A Summer with Ray Bradbury" - Rocket Summer & Ylla
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."
"A Summer with Ray Bradbury" - Intro & Epigraph
Ray Bradbury was born in 1920 and died just recently, in 2012. He's probably best known for Fahrenheit 451, which as I've said elsewhere, I see as a great idea but a so-so novel. I believe Bradbury is a phenomenal short story writer, though, which is one reason why I like The Martian Chronicles so much. As you'll see, it is much more of a short story collection than a novel.
The story of the publication of The Martian Chronicles, which I heard from Bradbury 'himself' when I listened to it on tape many years ago & Bradbury introduced the book & told the story, is that he was in New York trying to sell a bunch of his stories to various publishers. The consistent message they kept giving him was that they wanted novels, not short stories. He was dejected about that until he got the idea to tie the stories together in order to tell, in a way, a short 'history' (set in the future, of course) of the first contact and ongoing interaction of Earth and Mars.
He did this primarily by writing short vignettes to place between already existing stories (think here, maybe, of how Steinbeck puts his little social vignettes between longer chapters that tell the story of the Joads in The Grapes of Wrath), and in this way he created a timeline and loose connection for stories not originally written to go together. It was enough. The book was bought and published as a novel in 1950, and I consider it, along with Isaac Asimov's Foundation trilogy from about the same time, to be a keystone in the rise of modern sci-fi literature.
The rest, as they say, is history. Bradbury went on to be one of the most prolific and respected sci-fi writers of the second half of the 20th Century. And so, I invite you to join me this summer to read and explore and discuss The Martian Chronicles. It's strange, it's funny, it's imaginative, it's poignant, but most of all, it is a fascinating study of early sci-fi, of our post-atomic fears that gripped the world in 1950, and of a remarkable young writer stretching his wings as he learns to fly.
When you open up your copy of The Martian Chronicles, or the copy you borrow from the library, one of the first things you'll notice is the epigraph. The epigraph reads as follows:
It is good to renew one's wonder, said the Philosopher. Space travel has again made children of us all.
I can't tell you just how much I love this epigraph. I find it entirely appropriate, for clearly, it works beautifully on two levels. Bradbury could be saying, much like Gene Roddenberry's/Star Trek's famous "Space, the final frontier," that the dawn of the Space Age has renewed in man the sense of exploration perhaps lost when we had spanned the globe and our cartography of earth was, at least on the surface, mostly complete.
And yet, I think just as likely, he is speaking of the gift of wonder that comes from stories about space, not just space itself. Fiction, like space, provides unexplored vistas and opportunities galore to renew our wonder. We need only pick up the book and open it to get lost inside.
It is good to renew one's wonder, to become childlike once more, whether through the beauty and grandeur of the universe, or through the creativity and imagination of a fictional world. That's why to me, my favorite books are so much more than books. They are portals somewhere magical. Maybe The Martian Chronicles will become such a portal for you. Maybe not. Open it up, and let's see.
Next week, we'll look at "Rocket Summer" and "Ylla."
A Summer with Ray Bradbury's "The Martian Chronicles"
I mentioned a few posts ago that I was hoping to do a summer 'book club' of sorts, using Ray Bradbury's SciFi classic, The Martian Chronicles. Since The Martian Chronicles is really a collection of short stories even more than a novel, it lends itself to being read in chunks pretty well.
What I'd like to do here is outline the schedule for the posts, so if you want to read along each week, you know what the post will cover. My plan is to post once each weekend, from Memorial Day weekend to Labor Day weekend. In the list below, I've given the date for the Friday of the weekend in question, as well as the portion of the book that week's post will cover. (The posts may not always come on Friday, in fact, my guess is they usually won't, but this seems the simplest way of giving the schedule.)
5/23 - Intro to Ray Bradbury & The Martian Chronicles
I hope you'll pick up a copy of this classic work and join me for some summer reading. Feel free to participate each week with your own comments, questions and insights in the comments.
Next week, I'll post a little bit about Bradbury, about the significance of The Martian Chronicles and about the epigraph to the book, which I dearly love.
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