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Thursday, December 26, 2013

The Martian Chronicles (part 4)

Men have come to Mars like a great wave upon its alien shore. But every wave must eventually recede. The settlers, looking up at the Earth from their porches think on the rumors they have heard about a coming war, and wondering what their families back home are doing. Then they see the speck of light that is Earth flare as if the whole planet has caught fire. Some time later comes the message:

 Here I have to wonder: would news of a war on Earth -- especially a nuclear war -- spur people to return there? Wouldn't it instead lead to more refugees fleeing the destruction on Earth for safety on Mars? Or would, as Bradbury has it, the call of Home draw people back?

Walter Gripp misses the news. He's a prospector with a little shack and a mine up in the Blue Mountains and only comes into town every other week to see if he can find a quiet and intelligent woman to marry. He hasn't found one so far. Walter is something of a sexist, although I daresay many readers in 1950 would have found his attitudes about women quite normal.

Then one day he comes down from the hills to discover "The Silent Towns". All the people have fled. The rockets which once stood in the field on the edge of town are all gone, save for the scorch marks left when they launched.

For a few days he hangs around the empty town, helping himself to whatever he wants; but after a week this begins to pall. He's just about made up his mind to go back to his shack when he hears a phone ring.
It takes a moment for the implications of this to sink in. He's not alone! There's someone else left on Mars! But by the time he gets to the phone, she's hung up. She? Yes, Walter is certain that whoever it is must be a woman.

He waits for her to call again, but once again narrowly misses her. Then he finds a telephone directory and begins dialing numbers. On a hunch, he tries calling up beauty salons -- after all, where else would a woman be spending her time? -- and finally he strikes paydirt.

Her name is Genevieve Selsor and she's taken up residence in the largest beauty parlor in New Texas City. He hops into a car and drives the thousand miles from Marlin Village to New Texas to meet her; the Last Woman on Mars. And he's the Last Man on Mars. And finally, they meet.

She's not what he expected.

Another writer might have made Walter and Geneveive the Adam and Eve of a New World. Bradbury plays it for comedy. The Last Woman on Mars turns out to be the last woman Walter Gripp wants to be with. Their date goes awkwardly, and when Genevieve trots out a bridal gown she's scavenged for the occasion, Walter bolts.

A better, less shallow man might have learned to appreciate her and together they might have grown to love each other. But if he had been a better man, he probably wouldn't have chosen the life of a solitary miner.
He finds another town where he can sleep in the hotel beds and eat food from the restaurant's freezers. And he never, ever answers the phone.

Gripp is wrong about being the Last Man on Mars, though. There is at least one other. Hathaway had been a scientist with the Fourth Expedition to Mars, and he like Gripp, he was out in the back country when the War broke out and missed the last rocket home. Since then, he has spent "The Long Years" with his wife and children in a small house overlooking a neaby empty city.

His house has a laboratory attached, and he occupies himself by tinkering with things. He rigged up lights and devices in the city so that at night it would seem that the city was still alive, and it's sights and sounds would soothe him. And in the evenings he would talk with his family and tell them stories about Earth.

One night he sees the red streak of a rocket's tail in the sky and realizes that after all these years, Earthmen have finally come back. He sets fire to the city to get their attention.

The rocket is commanded by Captain Wilder, Hathaway's commander from Fourth Expedition. Wilder tried to lobby the government to protect Mars from over-exploitation, and for his pains was assigned to an expedition to the Outer Planets in order to get him out of the way. That was twenty years ago. Wilder has been to Jupiter, out to Pluto and now back.

In the 1979 TV miniseries adaptation of The Martian Chronicles, screenwriter Richard Matheson compresses the timeline, so that this story takes place shortly after "The Off Season", which wrecks some of the punch and the mystery of this story and which bugged me at the time, but the compression served the overall narrative of the miniseries in other ways, so I suppose I can give it a pass. This story is also one of the ones adapted by EC Comics and included in the collection Tomorrow Midnight. In it, artist Joe Orlando gave Hathaway and his family medieval dress, giving the story a surreal fairy tale quality.

As Wilder and some of his crew who knew Hathaway from the old days chat with him, the Captain is struck by how little Hathaway's wife has aged. She looks as young as she did twenty years ago. Stranger yet, Hathaway's three children look the same age as well. Wilder has a suspicion and sends one of his men outside the house to check on something.

The crewman confirms Wilder's suspicion. He finds four crosses out back bearing the names of the wife and the children. "Died of an unknown virus. July 2007." Nineteen years ago. "Then, who are these!" the crewman asks. Wilder doesn't know, but tells him to keep the matter quiet for now.

At dinner, Hathaway proposes a toast with wine brought from the rocket. "A toast to all of you; it's good to be with friends again. And to my wife and children, without whom I couldn't have survived alone. It is only through their kindness and caring for me that I've lived on, waiting for your arrival."

But having stayed alive for this moment, now that the moment has arrived, his life goes as well. He suffers a heart attack. With his final words he asks Wilder to say good-bye to Alice and the children for him, but not to let them see his death. "They wouldn't understand. I wouldn't want them to understand!" Hathaway dies. Nunc dimittis.

(In this reading of Martian Chronicles I'm catching bits of religious imagery that I hadn't noticed before. In last week's "The Off Season", the seven scrolls given to Parkhill by the Martians reminded me of the Seven Seals from the Book of Revelation ushering in the Apocalypse. Hathaway's death, just as he sees something long awaited, has parallels as well: Moses on Mount Nebo, and Simeon in the Temple. I don't know how much of this Bradbury intended; Bradbury didn't avoid religion in his stories by any means, but when he did he dealt more with religious themes than with religious symbolism; so it might just be me making peculiar connections. For what it's worth, there it is.)

Wilder goes to comfort Hathaway's widow. He asks how she feels.
"He didn't want us to feel badly. He told us it would happen one day and he didn't want us to cry. So we're not to know what crying is, or being sad." 
Wilder glanced at her hands, the soft warm hands and the fine manicured nails and the tapered wrists. He saw her slender, smooth white neck and intelligent eyes. Finally he said, "Mr. Hathaway did a fine job on you and your children." 
"He would have liked to hear you say that. He was so proud of us. After a while he even forgot that he had made us. At the end he loved and took us as his real wife and children. And, in a way, we are."
Wilder and his men bury Hathaway; but what of his family? Bringing them back to Earth would be useless; turning them off would seem like murder. So they leave the family were there are.

  The story ends with the small house sitting under the cold stars overlooking the dead sea in which every night four figures sit and laugh and chat and tend the unneeded fire.

Which blends smoothly into the next story, perhaps one of Bradbury's best-known short stories, "There Will Come Soft Rains." This is another of Bradbury's stories which I first encountered in the collection Tomorrow Midnight of some of the classic comic book adaptations done by EC Comics. The adaptation was drawn by Wally Wood and opens with a chilling, wide splash panel of the side of a suburban house. But let Bradbury describe it:
Ten-fifteen. The garden sprinklers whirled up in goldeness. The water pelted windowpanes, running down the charred west side where the house had been burned evenly free of its white paint. The entire west face of the house was black, save for five places. Here the silhouette in paint of a man mowing a lawn. Here, as in a photograph, a woman bent to pick flowers. Still farther over, their images burned on wood in one titanic instant, a small boy, hand flung into the air; higher up, the image of a thrown ball, and opposite him a girl, hands raised to catch a ball which never came down. 
The five spots of paint -- the man, the woman, the children, the ball - remained. The rest was a thin charcoaled layer.
He's describing a phenomenon noted after the Hiroshima bombing. The flash from the atomic explosion burned the buildings of the city, leaving shadows of the people standing in front of them seared into the walls. The town is dead; devastated by an atomic blast; but the house remains.

Tick-tock, seven o'clock, time to get up, time to get up, seven o'clock! ..."Today is August 4, 2026."

The house is still alive. It is automated, and like Hathaway's family on distant Mars, it performs its programmed tasks to take care of its family, even after the people have died. The story takes us through a day in the life of that house, from the morning when the gentle voice of the clock tells the family to wake up and the kitchen appliances produces four plates of breakfast, through the other little routines of the day. Coats and galoshes appropriate for the day's weather are produced. The garage door is opened for Dad to pull out the car, then automatically closes. Tiny robots clean up the breakfast dishes.

At noon, a dog appears on the porch, which the front door recognizes and lets in. The dog has somehow escaped the bomb, but is now sickly and emaciated. It frantically searches the house for its family, as the robot mice trail behind, cleaning up the dirt its tracked into the house. At two o'clock, ill and exhausted, the dog dies. By two-fifteen, the house has cleared away the mess.

In the afternoon, card tables and martinis are produced to entertain guests who will never come. After school, the children's room comes alive like the fantastic nursery Bradbury later wrote about in "The Veldt."
At nine o'clock, the beds are prepared. The house asks which poem the family would like to have read before bedtime. Receiving no answer, the house picks one by Sara Teasdale at random, the poem from which the story takes its title, which describes nature going on after mankind has disappeared.

During the night, the wind blows a tree branch through the kitchen window. A bottle of cleaning fluid breaks over the stove and ignites, setting the house on fire.

The house calls out an alarm to rouse the family and activates its protocols to put out the fire. We witness a battle fought as if by two opposing armies: the fire, clever and relentless, and the house determinedly using every tool and device at its disposal. The flames rip through the walls; the appliances go haywire. Finally the house's structure is so weakened that the attic collapses.

The fire is defeated, but the victory is a Pyrrhic one. Only one wall of the house remains. And as the sun rises on the pile of rubble and steam, a voice repeats: "Today is August 3, 2026, today is August 5, 2026, today is..."

Mankind has not completely perished on Earth, as it has in the Teasdale poem, but the end cannot be far.

A rocket lands on Mars carrying young Timothy and his family. They are on a fishing trip, his parents said; a vacation. "How far are we going?" Timothy's brother Robert asks. Their Dad replies, "A million years." Timothy's family have embarked on "The Million-Year Picnic."

As they take their motorboat up the canal away from their rocket, little Michael wants to know if they're going to see any Martians. Dad assures him that they will. "Quite soon, perhaps. Maybe tonight."

Dad is acting funny. He keeps making these grim and world-weary comments about war and things. And he keeps watching the skies, as if afraid someone might be coming after them. And he keeps listening to the radio, for something. An explosion behind them makes him jump before he laughs at the realization that it was their own rocket. He rigged their own rocket to explode. Timothy figures it part of the game, whatever game Dad is playing, but doesn't really understand why.

Dad puts away the radio and announces that the last broadcast station on Earth has gone down. Over the last twenty years of war, civilization on Earth has become more and more ragged as cities were obliterated and the infrastructure collapsed. Now, it seems, the lights have finally gone out.

Dad shifts back to his cheerful, holiday mood. "Mike, pick a city," he says. "Pick the one you like the most. You too, Robert and Tim." There are several empty cities on the canal. Michael wants one with Martians in it, and Dad promises that he'll get them.

The family chooses a large, relatively intact Martian city, and Dad moors their motorboat on one of its piers. "This is where we live from now on."

Now Dad starts to explain. Years ago, seeing how badly things were going on Earth, he managed to hide away a rocket in a secret place against this day, so that when the time was right he could bring his family to Mars; away from the wars and the insanity of Earth; so that they could begin a new life. One of his friends has done the same and will be bringing his wife and daughters; Dad will be hooking up with them once they've gotten themselves established.

"Is this really our city?" Michael asks. "The whole darn planet belongs to us, kids," Dad replies. "The whole darn planet."

In last week's readings, I suggested that the Martians in "The Off Season" might have had a special reason for giving Parkhill the deeds to half of Mars. In Richard Matheson's screenplay for the 1979 TV miniseries adaptation, Captain Wilder visits Parkhill afterwards, and guesses that the Martians knew about the imminent nuclear war and that they were were giving the remnant of humanity permission to stay since Earth too would soon be a dead world. Bradbury does explicitly say this in the book, but I think it's a fair interpretation. In the miniseries Wilder is the one who brings his family on this picnic.

That evening, Dad brings out a stack of papers he brought with him from Earth: "GOVERNMENT BONDS; Business Graph, 1999; Religious Prejudice: An Essay; The Science of Logistics; Problems of the Pan-American Unity; Stock Report for July 3, 1998; The War Digest..." One by one, he burns them, as if performing a ritual.
"I'm burning a way of life, just like that way of life is being burned clean of Earth right now. ... Life on Earth never settled down to doing anything very good. 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. That's what we ran away from."
Bradbury once told an interviewer that he wasn't trying to predict the future in his writings as much as prevent it. Some have accused Bradbury of becoming conservative in his old age, and perhaps he did. But there always has been a strain of the romantic reactionary in his writing that echoes the line by William F. Buckley about the Conservative standing athwart History yelling "Stop!" At the same time, though, the things that dismayed him about Modern Progress are precisely the things that present-day conservatives passionately embrace: militarism, the culture of disposable consumerism and the headlong chase for profit.
  The last thing Dad tosses into the fire is a map of the World. Then announces, "Now I'm going to show you the Martians."

He takes his family back down to the canal.
"I've always wanted to see a Martian," said Michael. "Where are they, Dad? You promised." 
"There they are," said Dad, and he shifted Michael on his shoulder and pointed straight down. 
The Martians were there. Timothy began to shiver. 
The martians were there -- in the canal -- reflected in the water. Timothy and Michael and Robert and Mom and Dad. 
The Martians stared back up at them for a long, long silent time from the rippling water...
We've seen Martians becoming humans. Now the reverse happens; the Humans are now the Martians. We remember the encounter between Tomás and the Martian in "Night Meeting" in which the Martian challenges his perception of which is the Past and with is the Present, which Matheson's adaptation placed near the end to emphasize this thought.
  The book ends with a hopeful note. If the Martians had a wiser and better society, perhaps the New Martians might grow into such a culture too.

Thursday, December 19, 2013

The Martian Chronicles (part 3)

Mars was a distant shore, and the men spread upon it in waves. Each wave was different, and each wave stronger. The first wave carried with it men accustomed to spaces and coldness and being alone, the coyote and cattlemen, with no fat on them, with faces the years had worn the flesh off, with eyes like nailheads. and hands like the material of old gloves, ready to touch anything. Mars could do nothing to them, for they were bred to plains and prairies as open as the Martian fields. They came and made things a little less empty, so that others would find courage to follow. They put panes in hollow windows and lights behind the panes. They were the first men.

 Many have come to Mars fleeing oppression, as we saw last week. But oppression takes many forms. And it is inevitable that once the initial wave of settlers have established themselves and made the planet safe, the bureaucrats will follow.

Stendahl is an eccentric millionaire and something of a troublemaker as far as the Authorities are concerned. He has spent a sizable chunk of his fortune to construct a haunted house on Mars, populated by cybernetic ghouls, ghosts and monsters. He specifically modeled his house after the one in Edgar Allan Poe's "Fall of the House of Usher", so we can call it "Usher II".

Such a thing would not be allowed on Earth. It has been many years since the Great Burning, in which all works of fantastic literature was destroyed, even Stendahl's own secret library. Astute readers will recognize this as the premise of Bradbury's first novel, Farenheit 451.
"They passed a law. Oh, it started very small. In 1950 and '60 it was a grain of sand. They began by controlling books of cartoons and then detective books and, of course, films, one way or another, one group or another, political bias, religious prejudice, union pressures; there was always a minority afraid of something, and a great majority afraid of the dark, afraid of the future, afraid of the past, afraid of the present, afraid of themselves and shadows of themselves."
But in this story, the Public Guardians were not censoring pornography, or violence or heresy, whether religious or political; they have outlawed the imagination; they have banned escapism.
  Bradbury was among the first science fiction writers to escape the ghetto of the pulps and sell his stories to the more prestigious "slick" magazines, and he felt very keenly the literary snobbishness against genre writing. And although the Senate Subcommittee investigation in 1954 into the effects of comic books on juvenile delinquency which led to the creation of the Comics Code Authority was still in the future when Bradbury wrote this story, the attitudes and environment from which the culture of censorship grew was very much evident. I don't know if Bradbury ever read J.R.R. Tolkien's essay, "On Fairy-Stories", but I'm sure that he would have agreed with Tolkien's observation that the class of people most likely to be threatened by escapism are the jailers.

When the Moral Guardians of Earth arrive on Mars, Stendahl builds his haunted house. And plans his revenge.

He holds a housewarming part and invites all the rich, respectable, upstanding citizens, who have newly arrived on the planet, now that Mars has been safely tamed. It is a costume ball -- itself something scandalous and borderline illegal on Earth -- and the entertainment is downright shocking. The guests get to watch robot duplicates of themselves being killed in grotesque and picturesque fashions: strangled by orangutans and sliced by giant pendulums.

Garrett, the policeman from Moral Climates sent to to investigate Stendahl, is revolted. Stendahl offers him another drink to steady his nerve, and invites him into the cellar to show him something. And for the Amontillado. The reader can guess where this is going, but Garrett doesn't; not until Stendahl chains him to a wall and begins bricking him in.

Garrett asks where his robot duplicate is, but Stendahl tells him there isn't one. None of the people gruesomely murdered upstairs were robots; they were the real guests, killed as the robots watched.
"Garrett," called Stendahl softly. Garrett silenced himself. "Garrett," said Stendahl, "do you know why I've done this to you? Because you burned Mr. Poe's books without really reading them. You took other people's advice that they needed burning. Otherwise you'd have realized what I was going to do to you when we came down here a moment ago. Ignorance is fatal, Mr. Garret."
Or you could call it, (heh heh), Poetic Justice.
  Less melodramatic, but no less creepy is the story "The Martian." Old LaFarge and his wife Anna are an elderly couple now living on Mars. In a way, the illusory town created by the Martians in "Mars is Heaven!" has come true, as the Earth colonists have imported lumber and built new communities; as if, Bradbury says in one of the lyrical transitionary passages between the stories, an earthquake had shaken loos the roots and cellars of an Iowa town, and a whirlwind twister of Oz-like proportions had carried it off to Mars.

One dark and stormy night, LaFarge thinks he sees a small boy, standing out in the rain, who looks very much like their son, Tom, who died many years ago, back on Earth. Not quite believing his eyes, LaFarge leaves the door unlatched, just in case.

The next morning he finds Tom coming into the parlor, doing morning chores, just as if he had been always living with them.

LaFarge thinks he must be dreaming. "Tom, how did you get here? You're alive?"

"Shouldn't I be? ... You do want me to be here, don't you?" LaFarge certainly does. "Then why ask questions? Accept me!" The reader will remember the grandmother from "Mars is Heaven!" who asks, "Who are you to question what happens?" And in many ways, "The Martian" is "Mars Is Heaven" turned inside-out.

Anna has already accepted Tom's presence; she has even seemingly forgotten that he had ever died. Perhaps it is better not to ask any questions; but LaFarge does wonder.

When Tom goes out that afternoon, he does not return for a long while. When he does, he explains that he went near the town and almost didn't come back. "I was almost -- trapped. ... I was almost made so I couldn't come back here ever again to see you." LaFarge doesn't understand, but the boy doesn't want to talk about it and so he lets the matter drop.

Shortly afterwards, a neighbor tells him about Normland, the fellow who lives in the tin hut down by the canal. According to rumor, Normland left Earth because he killed a man. Well about a couple hours ago, Normland came running into town claiming that he had seen the man he had killed alive and here on Mars. He begged to be locked up for his own protection, but they wouldn't; so he went back to his tin hut and committed suicide. "The damndest things happen."

That evening, Anna suggests that the family go into town. "Haven't been there in months," she says. Tom, strangely enough, seem apprehensive. He doesn't want to go; but his mother insists.
The old man looked at him steadily, wondering. 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?
In the back of his mind LaFarge has a nagging worry that it's wrong to keep him; but at the same time, Tom's seeming return has brought them so much joy, Anna especially, that LaFarge can't see how they could bear losing him again.
  Coming into the town, Tom seems afraid of the crowds, and he tries to stay close by his parents. Then they become separated in a crowd and suddenly Tom is gone.

LaFarge goes off looking for him. He meets another friend who tells him the news about Joe Spaulding and his wife. They had lost their daughter Lavinia about a month ago, she was presumed drowned; but Lavinia turned up unexpectedly, just that evening.

He hurries to the Spaulding home and sees an eighteen year old girl out on the porch. "I'm not your son anymore," the girl tells him sadly. "I'm sorry, but what can I do? I'm loved, even as you loved me." Tom has been caught. "The thoughts are too strong in this house; it's like being imprisoned. I can't change myself back."

LaFarge insists that he has to come back because Anna needs him. But the Spauldings need their Lavinia too. Is LaFarge being selfish? Yes. But he also understands now a little bit of what is going on. He argues that living as Tom with them alone out in the country will be safer for him than living with the Spauldings surrounded by other people.

Is it the argument that convinces him, or the close proximity to LaFarge's memories and emotional needs? Whichever it is, he is Tom again and with LaFarge flees the house. But they are spotted as they run, and each person who sees Tom sees somebody else: Spaulding sees his daughter, a policeman sees an escaped criminal, a woman sees her lost husband.

Let me jump briefly to a digression. In the 1979 TV miniseries adaptation of The Martian Chronicles, screenwriter Richard Matheson inserted an interesting pause into this story, based on another Bradbury story. Tom takes refuge in the town's chapel, where Father Peregrine is praying. Father Peregrine is a priest who came to Mars hoping to bring the Gospel to the surviving Martian in "The Fire-Balloons", a story not included in the original Chronicles, but added in some later editions. In "The Messiah", a sequel to that story, Father Peregrine at his prayers sees what at first he takes to be a vision of Christ. but is actually the fugitive, taking the form of the Christ of Peregrine's imagination. But when Peregrine envisions Christ, he sees a man dying in agony on a cross -- eternally dying. The tortured apparition pleads with the Father to let him go, that he is not really what he appears to be. Intellectually, Father Peregrine understands, but emotionally he finds it difficult to let go of the physical manifestation of his God. In the end, however, he does.

Before Tom can get to the boat in the canal where Anna and LaFarge wait for him, he is overtaken and surrounded by the crowd. He is like the boggart in Harry Potter, except that instead of becoming what a person fears, he becomes what that person desires; and surrounded by so many people with so many conflicting memories and yearnings he does not know what to do next.
Tom screamed. 
Before their eyes he changed. He was Tom and James and a man named Switchman, another named Butterfield; he was the town mayor and the young girl Judith and the husband William and the wife Clarisse. He was melting wax shaping to their minds. They shouted, they pressed forward, pleading. He screamed, threw out his hands, his face dissolving to each demand. 
"Tom!" cried LaFarge. "Alice!" another. "William!" They snatched his wrists, whirled him about, until with one last shriek of horror he fell.
Overwhelmed and overloaded, he dies. Anna and her husband return home alone.
  There are still a few Martians left. Tom was one, although he is never explicitly identified as such in "The Martian", apart from the story's title. Another one appears to Sam Parkhill in "The Off Season".

Parkhill was one of the men of the Fourth Expedition, commanded by Captain Wilder. He was kind of a boor and a jerk in that story. At the end of it, Wilder, forced by duty to kill Spender, catches Parkhill taking pot-shots at the windows of a Martian city and knocks his teeth out.

Since then, Parkhill has done pretty well for himself. Wilder, keeping his promise to Spender, had tried to lobby the government to protect the Martian cities and preserve the remains of the Martian civilization; and for his pains his superiors kicked him upstairs and assigned him to a deep space expedition to Jupiter which will keep him out of everybody's hair for decades.

Parkhill, though, was smart. He left the service, saved up his money, and now he is about to open the first fast-food restaurant on Mars: a hot-dog stand, located on the main highway connecting an important mining operation that has just opened up with the nearest town. They're expecting thousands of new workers to be coming to Mars, and Parkhill expects to hit it big. "Best hot dogs on two worlds!" His wife is less confident. There have been rumors lately about political tensions back on Earth and maybe a big war coming.

As he is preparing for his grand opening, a Martian shows up in his shop. This is the second time today the Martain has appeared. "I thought I told you I don't want you near here!" Sam yells.

The Martian insists that he means Parkhill no harm, but that he is here for an important reason. "We Martians are telepathic. ...We are in contact with one of your towns across the dead sea. Have you listened on your radio?"

Actually, Sam hasn't. His radio's busted. But he doesn't like these Martian showing up, and maybe is a little frightened of them. He tries threatening the Martian off with a gun. The Martian responds by drawing out a bronze tube.

The reader who has seen The Day the Earth Stood Still can guess what happens next. The copper tube isn't a weapon; but Parkhill shoots first just in case. The Martian collapses in a pile of bones and silvery robes. Sam killed him.

His wife examines the tube. It contains some kind of message, written in Martian pictographs. Parkhill insists that he thought it was a weapon and that he was fully within his rights to Stand His Ground. Still, he decides to bury the remains out back where no one will find them.

Then his wife spots something coming across the ancient seabed: Martian sand ships. Parkhill didn't know there were any of them left; he bought one of the few the government hadn't confiscated and has it in a shed in the back. But the ships are coming towards his hot dog stand and they're not looking for a Chicago-style chili-dog.

Parkhill try to flee the Martians in his own sand ship, but the Martians are gaining on him. One appears on his ship, quietly entreating him to listen. He shoots the Martian. He shoots at the ancient crystalline cities they pass, which shatter in a shower of broken glass and quartz. He shoots at the pursuing ships which likewise disintegrate. But there are more ships which overtake his and he finally finds himself surrounded by grim, robed figures in alien masks.

Yet the Martians have no desire to harm him. "Ready your stand ... Prepare the viands, prepare the foods, prepare the strange wines, for tonight is indeed a great night!"

The Martians have a gift for him; a silver scroll, and six more, each granting claim to thousands of miles of Martian territory. Seven scrolls. Where have I heard that before? Parkhill misses the reference too; all he knows is that he now owns half of Mars. Half of Mars!

"Tonight is the night" the Martian says, "You must be ready ... We leave you. Prepare. The land is yours."
And the Martians go; just like that.

Parkhill is delighted. This can only mean one thing: thousands of rockets coming, bearing thousands of workers, thousands of settlers, thousands of tourists. He'll be rich! But his wife draws his attention to the Earth, rising over the evening Martian hills. As they watch, the blue-green speck flares in brilliance, as if the entire planet had caught fire.

The Atomic War long feared has broken out on Earth. There won't be any rockets coming anymore.
Why did the Martians do this? By itself, the story reads like an episode of the Twilight Zone where a big blowhard becomes the butt of a cosmic joke and Rod Serling stands smirking to one side; but in the greater context of the overall narrative, I think the Martians had another reason, which we'll get to next week. For now, we have Sam Parkhill sitting in an empty hot dog stand, the owner of half a planet's worth of worthless real estate.

NEXT:  The Exiles Called Back Home, The Silent Cities, The Long Years and the Return of Wally Wood. Pack your basket for the Million-Year Picnic!

Thursday, December 12, 2013

The Martian Chronicles (part 2)

After several failed expeditions, man has finally reached Mars. Now come the settlers.
They came because they were afraid or unafraid, because they were happy or unhappy, because they felt like Pilgrims or they did not feel like Pilgrims. There was a reason for each man. They were leaving bad wives or bad jobs or bad towns; they were coming to find something or leave something or get something, to dig up something or bury something or leave something alone. They were coming with small dreams or big dreams or none at all.
And as they arrive, as Spender predicted, they set about trying to remake Mars in their own image.

Benjamin Driscoll in "The Green Morning" arrives at a Martian mining colony looking for work, but almost is sent back home. Nearly the moment he set foot on the planet, he fainted. "The air's pretty thin," the doctor who revives him explains. "Some can't take it."

But Driscoll is determined. He wants to make a life for himself on Mars, and if the air is a problem, then he'll do something about the air. There are no trees on Mars as far as he can see, and he reasons that if there were more plant life, if would produce more oxygen and make the planet more liveable.

He acquires a motorcycle and as many seeds as he can find and takes on the task of planting trees across the valley, like a latter-day Johnny Appleseed. It's a thankless task, and seemingly doomed to failure. But the Planet Mars has wonders and surprises in store for Driscoll beyond his wildest hopes.

"Everything's crazy up here,"says the old man Tomás Gomez meets at a filling station in "Night Meeting", "the soil, the air, the canals, the natives (I never saw any yet, but I hear they're around), the clocks. ... Even time is crazy up here."

Tomás finds out just how crazy that night when he parks his truck near an ancient ruined town to rest. He encounters a Martian, coming down the ancient highway. Cautiously, they greet each other; at first having difficulty understanding one another. But when Tomás offers the Martian a cup of coffee, the cup passes through the Martian's hand like mist.

Tomás can see the stars through the Martian's body; and the Martian can see through Tomás.

The Martian must be a ghost. After all, Tomás knows that all the Martians died in the plague. No, the Martian insists that he is alive and that Tomás must be the ghost. "I'm on my way to a festival now at the canal," the Martian says. "Don't you see the city there?"

"Why, that city's been dead thousands of years," Tomás says. Where the Martain sees clean streets and festival lights, beautiful women and canals flowing with wine, Tomás sees only dust and ruins; where Tomás sees rocket ships and the town built by the colonists, the Martian sees an empty plain.

There can be only one explaination. "It has to do with Time," the Martian says. "Yes. You are a figment of the Past."

"No, you are from the Past," Tomás insists. But can he really be sure?
"Let us agree to disagree," said the Martian. What does it matter who is Past or Future, if we are both alive, for what follows will follow, tomorrow or in ten thousand years. How do you know that those temples are not the temples of your own civilzation one hundred centuries from now, tumbled and broken? You do not know. Then don't ask. But the night is very short. There go the festival fires in the sky, and the birds."
They part as friends, not knowing if they will ever meet again, or even if the whole encounter was nothing more than a dream.

This story sets up a counter-theme to Spender's view of the Martian civilization as older and wiser than ours, alien and unfathomable. Tomás and his Martian meet as equals and they have a great deal in common. Bradbury plays some more with this theme of Earthmen and Martians exchanging places elsewhere.

Although I tend to associate Bradbury with small Midwestern towns, he moved with his family to Southern California when he was a teen and he also developed a love for the Hispanic people and culture. Last week we read Spender worrying that the Earth men on Mars will act just like a bunch of clueless American tourists in Mexico. Tomás is one of several Latino characters who appear in various stories of his.

"Way in the Middle of the Air" is another oddity in the book. It's not set on Mars, it's not about Martians. It's about race relations.

In a small southern town the news spreads like wildfire: "The niggers ... them leaving, pulling out, going away." Somehow, all the blacks have managed to pool their resources to build their own rockets in secret and are all going to Mars, every last one of them.

Sam Teece, owner of the local hardware store is outraged. "Could they do that? Ain't there a law?" he demands as he and his friends watch the exodus of black folk passing by his shop. "Telephone the governor, call out the militia ... They should have given notice!"

He rails against the blacks and mocks them, predicting that their rockets will blow up and kill them all.
"I can't figure why they left now. With things lookin' up. I mean, every day they got more rights. What they want, anyway? Here's the poll tax gone, and more and more states passin' anti-lynchin; bills, and all kinds of equal rights. What more they want? They make almost as good money as a white man, but there they go."
They meet his verbal abuse with quiet dignity, deferential but determined. When he sees a man who owes him fifty dollars, he tries to force the man to stay. Several other black folk pass around a hat to pay off his debt.

He tries to hold his stockboy, Silly, on the grounds of a "contract" Silly supposedly signed to work for him. The kid begs to be released from the agreement and suggest that one of the other gentlemen hanging around the porch of the hardware shop could take over his job.

Teece is outraged. "You meanin' to say you think a white man should take your place, boy?"

Teece's friends have said very little during all this. They're not necessarily any less bigoted that Teece is, but they recognize that he's just being petty and spiteful. The oldest one, Grandpa, offers to take Silly's place. The others seem embarassed by Teece, and urge him to let the boy go. "What's the use? ... Cut it out, Teece ... Let him go."

Teece relents. He mocks the blacks and their rockets. "You got one named Swing Low and another named Sweet Chariot? ... You got one named Roll Dem Bones? ... And another called Over Jordon?"

"We got names for the ships, Mr. Teece," Silly replies simply. But as he climbs into his family's car to drive off to the rockets, he has one parting shot for his former boss:

"Mr. Teece, Mr. Teece, what you goin' to do nights from now on? What you going to do nights, Mr. Teece?"

It takes Teece a minute or two for him to realize what he meant. No more lynching.
It was a good question. He sickened and was empty. Yes, what will we do nights? he thought. Now they're gone, what? He was absolutely empty and numb.
The fact is that Teece needs the blacks -- firmly kept in their place -- so he can have someone to whom he feels superior. That's why he doesn't want to give Silly's job to anyone else. He wouldn't be able to bully a white man.

Teece gets out his pistol and into his car to kill the uppity kid, but he is too late. They have all escaped, hopefully for a new and better life on another world.

Bradbury wrote another story titled "The Other Foot". Although it isn't included in the original printing of The Martian Chronicles, it could be considered a sequel to this story. In it, Mars is settled largely by blacks.

One day a rocket arrives with white refugees from Earth looking for a place to live. As the title says, now the shoe is on the other foot, and some of the people consider treating the newcomers with the same racism and discrimination that their own ancestors endured in the 20th Century. But here Bradbury is an optimist, and they decide to break the pattern of racism.

NEXT: Edgar Allen Poe's Revenge, an Elderly Couple's Dream Come True, and the First Hot Dog Stand on Mars

Thursday, December 5, 2013

The Martian Chronicles (part 1)

The funny thing is, Ray Bradbury didn't consider himself a science fiction writer.
"First of all, I don't write science fiction. I've only done one science fiction book and that's Fahrenheit 451, based on reality. ... Science fiction is a depiction of the real. Fantasy is a depiction of the unreal. So Martian Chronicles is not science fiction, it's fantasy."
There's something to what he said; but Bradbury, growing up in Waukegan Illinois in the 1920s, reading Edgar Rice Burroughs, and later writing for the types of magazines he had devoured as a boy, drew upon the images and devices of science fiction for many of his tales of wonder.

The Martian Chronicles is one of his best-known works. Published in 1950, it strings together several of his previously-published short stories set on the Red Planet into an overall narrative of humans coming to explore Mars, then settle it, and eventually withdraw to set the stage for a new phase of life.

The book opens with a vignette about a rocket launch. Bradbury places these scenes throughout the book; short, often lyrical interludes that serve to bridge the stories which make up the meat of the narrative. But we don't see the rocket launch from Mission Control, through the eyes of steely-eyed missile men with mathematically-calibrated crew-cuts. No, we see the impact on a small Ohio town adjacent to the launch site, where icicles hang from the roofs and children play with sleds and housewives lumber down the sidewalk in their winter coats. Then a wave of heat from the rocket's launch passes over the town, briefly turning the Ohio winter into summer.

Ohio? Who launches space expeditions from Ohio? I suppose I'm one to talk; my own home town in the Enchanted Land-O-Cheese boasts a modest aerospace and rocketry museum with the goal of someday being the nucleus of a commercial rocket site. But this is vintage Bradbury. The small Midwestern town in which he grew up is never far from his thoughts, and the Waukegan of his youth reappears in various guises throughout the book.

If Bradbury were a science fiction writer, rather than a writer influenced by science fiction, he probably would have described the first rocket to Mars; how it was built, the men who piloted it, their voyage across the depths of interplanetary space. That's what the Belgian cartoonist Hergé did with his Tintin adventure Explorers on the Moon. But having done that, he never sent Tintin into space again. He'd already told that story; a second Moon voyage for Tintin, or even a new one to Mars, would have just been repeating himself.
The Martian Chronicles isn't about how we get to Mars; it's about what happens to us when we get there; how we change it, and how it changes us, sometimes without us even going there.

Which is why we see the story of the first Men on Mars from the point of view of the Martians.

"Ylla", the first full story, is probably the most exotic of the collection. We see a Martian couple, with their cinnamon-brown skin and their gold coin eyes in their heliotropic house on the shores of the fossil sea. They have wine trees in their yard and they cook over pools of silver lava. But although the externals of their live are strange, the essentials are achingly familiar. Mrs. K. may clean the house by scattering magnetic dust to pick up the dirt, and Mr. K. may relax by passing his fingertips over the raised musical hieroglyphics on a fine metal sheet, but it's still the wife doing the housework and the husband reading the paper. More importantly, Mr. and Mrs. K. have grown apart as their marriage has settled into a dull complacency.

Then Mrs. K. begins having dreams. Strange, waking dreams about a man with unnaturally blue eyes and the preposterous name of Nathaniel York. He claims to come from the third planet -- absurd, her husband says; everyone knows that planet has too much oxygen to support life. But the Martians are telepathic, and Mrs. K. has been picking up thoughts from the human explorers on the rocket heading to Mars.

This is something that reminded me of a bit from A.E. van Vogt's Voyage of the Space Beagle. In the "War of Nerves" story, the Beagle encountered a race of telepathic aliens, and Korita, the ship's historian, suggested that universal telepathy might make a race settled and complacent, overly-stable. The contact with the alien thoughts of the strange earthmen disturbs their ordered society. And on a smaller scale, that is what happens here.

Mrs. K. becomes fascinated by the thoughts coming from the exotic stranger from another world. It's a theme not uncommon in pulp science fiction; the Alien Female becomes attracted to the Handsome Earthman. But usually the Space Babe is an Alien Princess, not a bored and lonely housewife.

Mrs. K.'s husband becomes increasingly jealous as he hears his wife singing songs from another world -- love songs -- and catches her gazing out at the night sky. And so on the evening the rocket ship from Earth lands, he takes matters into his own hands. He arranges a pretext to force his wife to stay at home that day, and in the evening announces that he's going to go out hunting for a bit.

Bradbury does not explicitly tell us what Mr. K. does when he goes out. He does not need to. When he returns, his wife is trying to remember the strange alien song she had been singing, but it's gone; and she cannot explain why she feels a need to cry.

The First Expedition never reports back to Earth.

By contrast, the second tale, "The Earth Men," plays out as a dark comedy. It is markedly different in tone from the other stories in the volume, which I suspect is a big part of the reason why it was omitted from the TV miniseries based on the novel. It doesn't quite fit with the other tales.

The Second Expedition lands on Mars and is surprised that none of the natives take any notice of them; in fact, the natives seem annoyed. Captain Williams tries to get the locals to pay attention to this historic first meeting between the two worlds, but the Martians pass them off from one bureaucrat to another.

It takes a while for Williams and his crew to figure out what's going on. The Martians, they have learned are telepathic. But what happens when a telepath hallucinates? The Martians Williams meets simply assume that he is insane and that his non-Martian physical appearance and his rocket ship are delusions which have taken the form of telepathic illusions. Unfortunately, Williams does not figure this out until he and his men are shut up in a mental institution, along with other lunatics who think they're from the Third Planet.

He tries to persuade the psychiatrist treating them that they are not insane, that they are truly from Earth. The doctor allows Williams to give him a tour of the rocket ship, but the physical solidity of the rocket only convinces Mr. Xxx that Williams is such an advanced psychotic that the only cure is euthanasia. When the rocket fails to vanish when Mr. Xxx shoots Willliams and his crewmen, he can only conclude that he has now also been contaminated by the delusion and that he too is insane. And that there is only one cure...

I first encountered the story of "The Third Expedition" in Tomorrow Midnight, a collection of Bradbury stories that had been adapted by EC Comics, under it's original title "Mars Is Heaven!" EC published several very good adaptations of Bradbury tales. He caught them plagiarizing the first one they did, but instead of suing them, he came to an agreement to allow them to continue. EC got the prestige of having Bradbury's name associated with their comics, and Bradbury got some of his best stories illustrated by some of the best comic book artists in the business. "Mars Is Heaven!" was illustrated by Wally Wood, one of the comics legends of the 1950s and a man who could draw some incredible rockets.

Two expeditions sent to Mars had mysteriously failed. Now a third one lands and finds something completely unexpected. They find Waukegan, Illinois. Well, not by that name, but they find a small Midwestern town, right out of a Norman Rockwell painting, with Victorian houses, porch swings, geraniums on the windowsill and a piano somewhere playing "Beautiful Dreamer." In fact, it looks exactly like the small town Captain Black, the leader of the expedition grew up in back in the 1920s.

Is it a case of parallel evolution? Did Williams or York from the previous expeditions build this town? Is this a colony established by a secretive group who developed space flight during the McKinley Administration? Or has Black and his crew traveled backwards in time and they actually are in Green Bluff Illinois in the year 1926? Black and his crew raise every theory they can think of, but none of them make sense.

Then one of the men sees his grandparents. Grandparents who have been dead for thirty years.

"Who are we to question what happens?" the grandma says as she offers the explorers iced tea in her parlor. ""Here we are. What's life anyway?" She lets Captain Black fell her wrist. "Solid, ain't it?" She is definitely not a ghost.

More people have come out into the town square, families and friends, long departed, of the rocket's crew. The crew has been trapped in the rocket for many long months during their voyage, and they rush out to greet them. Black has a mutiny on his hands, but before he can order his men back to the ship he meets someone from his own past: his brother Edward. Edward is just as young as he was when he died at the age of twenty-six. "Mom's waiting ... And Dad too."

Black's family welcome him warmly. They embrace him, and take him home. They spend a wonderful evening together. He goes to bed that night in his old room in his old bed, just as he and Edward did when they were little.

Lying in bed, unable to sleep for all the wonderful things that had happened, a funny thought occurs to him. What if...

What if there were Martians, and the martians watched their rocket approach with fear and hatred; and wanted to destroy the Earthmen, but could not withstand their guns and atomic weapons? What if the Martians used telepathy and hypnosis to make it appear that there was an ordinary Midwestern town here and create the illusion of all their beloved family members still alive? What better way to lull the invading Earthmen into lowering their guard?

Black suddenly decides that he really needs to return to his rocket.

But by then, it's too late. And Earth loses contact with the Third Expedition.

After three unsuccessful missions to Mars, the final one seems almost anticlimactic. In "--And The Moon Be Still As Bright" the Fourth Expedition lands on an empty world. The martians are all gone.
Their cities are there, gleaming spires of exquisite architecture, but they are all lifeless. The Martians the expedition's survey crew finds are all dead; wiped out by a virulent plague. The most recent corpses they find have been dead no more than ten days. The entire Martian civilization has been wiped out... by chicken pox.
It's hard to imagine that Bradbury wasn't thinking of the way European diseases laid waste to the Native American population in our history; and undoubtedly he had War of the Worlds in the back of his mind as well.

Obviously, at least one of the previous expeditions made it to Mars after all. "Chances are, a few of the Martians, if they were smart, Escaped to the mountains," one of the scouts says. "But there aren't enough, I'll lay you money, to be a native problem."

The men have been keyed up for landing for months, and several of them want to celebrate their safe arrival, but one of the men, Spender, feels deeply moved by the beautiful, stately, ancient civilization that now lies extinct due to a stupid accident, a child's disease, a disease that doesn't even kill children on Earth!

He watches with disfavor as his comrades party. One of them, Biggs, gets drunk and tosses his empty bottle a nearby canal. Spender loses his temper and punches Biggs, knocking him into the canal.

Captain Wilder, the expedition leader, reprimands Spender; but empathizes with how he feels. He tries to calm Spender, but Spender frets that mankind will end up ripping Mars apart, trying to change it to suit themselves.
"We won't ruin Mars," said the captian. "It's too big and too good." 
"You think not? We Earth Men have a talent for ruining big, beautiful things. The only reason we didn't set up hot-dog stands in the midst of the Egyptian temple of Karnak is because it was out of the way and served no large commercial purpose."
The party continues in a somewhat more subdued manner. Spender is moved to remember a poem by Lord Byron, from which the story's title comes, which he thinks fits the Martian city and how the Martians, if any survive, must feel. At Wilder's urging, he recites the poem.

Then Biggs ruins the moment by hurling.

Spender walks away from the camp and into the dead Martian city.

He is missing for over a week and none of the search parties Wilder sends out find him. Then one day he shows up again. "I'm the last Martian," he tells Biggs, coming across him alone by the canal. Then he shoots him.

Coming into the camp, Spender meets four more of his comrades. "I've been finding out things," he says. "What would you say if I said I'd found a Martian prowling around?"
"Let me ask you a question. How would you feel if you were a Martian and people came to your land and started tearing it up?" 
"I know exactly how I'd feel," said Cheroke. "I've got some Cherokee blood in me. My grandfather told me lots of things about Oklahoma Territory. If there's a Martian around, I'm all for him."
Spender goes on to tell a story about finding a Martian in the dead city and learning his language, and how one day the Martian appeared to him and said "Give me your boots."

"And I gave him my boots and he said, 'Give me your uniform and all the rest of your apparel.' And I gave him all of that, and then he said, 'Give me your gun,' and I gave him my gun. Then he said, 'Now come along and watch what happens.' And the Martian walked down into the camp and he's here now." 
"I don't see any Martian," said Cheroke. 
"I'm sorry." 
Spender took out his gun. It hummed softly.
He kills three of the men, and offers Cheroke the chance to come with him. Cheroke refuses. "You're crazy!"
Spender kills him as well.

The enormity of what he has done shakes him. He gathers up some supplies and leaves the camp to return to the dead Martian city.

Wilder and the others come for him soon. They find his position and surround him. After some initial gunfire, Wilder comes out under a flag of truce. The two men sit down to talk.

"Why did you do it?" Wilder asks.
"Because I've seen what these Martians had was just as good as anything we'll hope to have. They've stopped where we should have stopped a hundred years ago. I've walked in their cities and I know these people and I'd be glad to call them my ancestors. ...
"Do you remember what happened to Mexico when Cortez and his very fine good friends arrived from Spain? A whole civilization destroyed by greedy, righteous bigots. History will never forgive Cortez."
He intended to kill off the entire expedition, but he lost his nerve. He's recovered it now. His plan is to kill off the rest. That should delay the next expedition at least a few years. And when the next one comes, he'll be ready to meet them and kill them too. And then the next, and the next, until Earth finally decides it's not worthwhile trying to colonize Mars.

He goes on to rhapsodize on what he's learned, about how the Martians had figured out how to live in a balance with each other and with their world; how to combine their science and their religion into a harmonious whole.

Wilder does understand. But he also has a duty to his men and his mission. Spender offers him too the chance to stay with him, but Wilder declines. Wilder offers him one last chance to surrender quietly. Spender also declines.

"One last thing," Spender says. "If you do win, do me a favor. See what can be done to restrict tearing this planet apart, at least for fifty years, until the archaeologists have had a decent chance, will you?"

In the end, Spender is killed, shot by Wilder, in part to give him a clean death before his vengeful men blew Spender's brains out.

Or is he dead? The TV adaptation of the book brought up an interesting thought which I missed when I first read it as a kid. Was it really Spender, or was it a Martian posing as Spender? Looking back at the story, you can read it either way.

But whoever he is, the Last Martian is no more. Mars now belongs to Men.

NEXT:  The coming of the Settlers; a Night Meeting; the Revenge of Edgar Poe and more!

Thursday, November 28, 2013

The Two Christmases

Some years back I wrote a piece for Alex's previous blog, Dead to My Flesh, about the Holiday Season and why having a War on Christmas makes little sense if you don't know which one you're shooting at.    Since the Divine Ms Sarah, (or as I like to think of her, the Lina Lamont of the Republican Party), has just come out with a book opening her own salvo in that War, I think now's a good time to recycle my take on The Two Christmases:

* * * * *

For a while back when I lived in Darkest Iowa, I shared a duplex apartment with my wacky brother Steeve and my friend Scott. One year, Scott asked me to draw some Christmas cards for him to send to his Internet friends. This was around 1990, back in the caveman days. We didn't actually have Internet access ourselves, but Scott had borrowed a friend's university account and spent a lot of his free time on a computer bulletin board based out of the University of Iowa. For a while, both Scott and I were forum moderators at that site, (despite the fact that neither of us were students at U of I and in fact I was an alumnus of Iowa State).

I drew three different designs for him. One was a parody of Clement Moore's "A Visit from St. Nicholas" featuring the bulletin board's Sysop. One was a fairly bland one with a picture of a computer made out of snow. The third one bore the message "Have a Happy and Blessed Christmas Season."

"You can't say that," Scott said.

"Why not?"

"Because a lot of the people on my list are wiccans and atheists and agnostics. They'd be offended!"

Personally, I didn't see why they should. The message wasn't making any kind of religious statement; it just extended good wishes. My own attitude was, to paraphrase Bette Midler, if they can't take a blessing, screw `em. But since I was doing the cards for Scott in the first place, I acceded to his wishes and changed the message to a non-controversial "Greason's Seetings."

I think about Scott and his cards when I hear about the "War on Christmas". I suppose my experience should put me on the side of the Righteous Warriors out to protect Baby Jesus from the Evil Secularists. Somehow, though, I can't get that worked up about it. If a cashier wishes me a "Happy Holidays", she's expressing a hope that nice things happen; the same as if she had said "Merry Christmas," "Groovy Kwanzaa", "Swingin' Solstice" or "May the Great Bird of the Galaxy roost on your planet." I don't have to celebrate any of those things to recognize and appreciate nice intentions. In the same way, I don't have to consider it an affront to God if somebody says "gesundheit" when I sneeze instead of "God bless you." Take it in the spirit in which it's given.

At one time I used to get all bent out of shape about the Secularization of Christmas. I particularly detested the deification of Santa Claus. When I was in junior high and full of adolescent anger and self-righteousness, I wrote an abrasive, curmudgeonly piece on the subject which upon saner reflection I threw away. A thirteen-year-old curmudgeon is not a pretty thing. My views towards Ol' Saint Nick have mellowed since then as I have come to accept what I call The Two Christmases.

There are two holidays celebrated on December 25th. One, of course, is the Feast of the Nativity, when Christians celebrate the birth of Jesus. Then there's the other holiday, the Feast of Jingle Bells and Jolly Fat Men in Red Suits and Reindeer with Luminous Noses. Both holidays happen to have the same name, but they're different.

I celebrate both; and I don't see why the two need to be mutually exclusive.

Where the Christmas Warriors get it wrong is where they assume that the holiday has to be either one or the other. To a certain extent, I can sympathize with their point. I worship Christ, the holiday's namesake; and it does bother me when the earthly Babel sounds of the secular festivities drown out the song which the blessed angels sing. The Puritans felt this way and so they banned Christmas all together when they ruled England under Cromwell. Which is a funny way to honor a man who loved parties and who used feasts in his parables to represent the Kingdom of Heaven.

Christmas, as it is celebrated today, has a rich and varied tradition; sacred and secular, spiritual and commercial, tacky and sublime. There's a lot of Christmas stuff that I deeply love, despite having no connection to the Nativity story and only a tenuous connection, if that, to my religious convictions: family get-togethers, the giving of gifts, Vince Guaraldi`s piano music for "A Charlie Brown Christmas", just about any adaptation of A Christmas Carol, Thurl Ravenscroft singing "You're a Mean One, Mr. Grinch".

When I was little, our family had a devotional booklet that we used every Christmas called The Talking Christmas Tree. Instead of setting up the Christmas tree and decorating it all at once, we'd put it together bit by bit. The first night we'd just put up the tree. The second night we'd add the lights. Then little by little we'd add more to the tree and we'd have a devotion talking about how each addition could symbolize something about God.

Now I know that most of those decorations, and the tree itself, can be traced back to pagan sources, which is why the Puritans had such a problem with the holiday. But part of the joy of Christmas comes not from purging the religious holiday of all secular dross, but rather of finding things in the holiday bramble that enrich and illuminate the spiritual aspects.

(According to one story, Martin Luther put up the first Christmas tree. Walking home one winter, he was so struck by the beauty of stars shining though the evergreens that he brought a tree home and put lighted candles in its branches so his family could see. And right after that, Philip Melanchthon invented fire insurance. This story is almost certainly untrue; other scholars trace the decorating of trees back to pre-Christian times; still, it's a good story).

It works both ways. Just as Christians can enrich their celebrations with aspects of the secular holiday, so too can Christian elements filter out into to world at large. Usually these elements are diluted: sentimental crèche scenes, platitudes of "Peace on Earth", Madonna and Child postage stamps; but God's Word does not return empty; not even when it's been wrapped in tinsel.

If we limit Christmas to only Christ - which I do believe is the most important part - then we also exclude those who aren't Christian from the holiday; we become in effect dogs in the manger. If we actually wind up driving people away from that manger, then we ain't doing Baby Jesus any favors.

"Happy Holidays" is a blessing, and ultimately all blessings come from God. The proper response isn't "That's Merry Christmas, you PC secularist!" but rather "Thank you; and a Merry Christmas to you too!"

Thursday, November 21, 2013

Welcome to the Red Planet

The planet Mars has always had a peculiar attraction to the human imagination and has been closely associated with science fiction for about as long as there has been science fiction. Venus is closer and brighter in Earth's night sky, but ruddy Mars, with its war-like associations gets all the attention. Personally, I blame Schiaparelli.

 The Italian astronomer Giovanni Schiaparelli made a series of telescopic observations of Mars during the Great Opposition of 1877, when Mars and Earth came closest to each other in their orbits. Among the most notable features of the planet's surface on the maps he drew from his observations were a network of lines, which he called "canali", meaning "channels." He figured that they were natural geological features of the planet, but when his works were translated into English his "canali" were interpreted as "canals", implying artificial waterways built by extra-terrestrial intelligences.

The American astronomer Percival Lowell was fascinated by Mars and in 1894 used his family fortune to build an observatory near Flagstaff Arizona for the purpose of studying the planet. He firmly believed that the Canals of Mars were evidence of intelligent life on Mars, and popularized the idea of Martian Civilizations and that Mars was an older, dying planet -- ideas which the new field of Science Fiction embraced enthusiastically.

Although other novels featuring the Red Planet had been written before, they fade in importance before H.G. Wells's 1898 novel The War of the Worlds.  We've looked at this book before, but let me repeat a couple significant points. The main theme of the novel is about imperialism; Wells imagines what it would be like if alien invaders did to England what Europeans had been doing to the rest of the world. Wells followed Lowell's interpretation of the Nebular Hypothesis that the Martians would have and older, probably dying civilization, and took it farther, imagining what evolutionary changes would have occurred in such a race.

War of the Worlds was so popular that in the same year it spawned an unauthorized sequel called Edison's Conquest of Mars, in which the noted Wizard of Menlo Park builds a spaceship of his own so that the Americans teach the Martians something about payback. The author clearly missed the point Wells was trying to make about imperialism.

Other notable Martian romances of that period include A Honeymoon In Space (1900),  and Gullivar of Mars (1905), whose hero travels to Mars on a flying carpet.

Novels such as these were the inspiration for Edgar Rice Burroughs's A Princess of Mars, which firmly established the Planetary Romance genre.

In the 1920s, Hugo Gernsback began publishing science fiction magazines with two guiding principles: that each story be grounded in science and that each writer be paid as little as possible. (Sometimes the science was pretty tenuous, but then his writers would say so were Hugo's paychecks). Stories about space exploration frequently involved Mars; one of the closest planets to Earth, the one science knew the most about, and the one which, according to Percival Lowell, showed evidence of alien life.

By this time, astronomy had largely discredited the canals of Mars. The lines Schiaparelli saw were the result of flawed equipment and the lines Powell saw were the result of wishful thinking. But they remained firmly fixed in the popular imagination for decades to come.

Probably the best story from this period was Stanley G. Weinbaum's "A Martian Odyssey", published in 1934. It describes a space explorer who has crash landed on Mars making his way on foot to his expedition's base camp, and is notable for the imaginative martian fauna he encounters and for the friendship that develops between him and the native martian who accompanies him on his journey. Some critics consider the martian Tweel to be the first fictional alien to meet the challenge of later Astounding editor John W. Campbell: "Write me a creature who thinks as well as a man, or better than a man, but not like a man."

The Northwest Smith stories by C.L. Moore written between 1933 and 1936 were also set on Mars but mixed a bit of noir -- and a bit of Lovecraft as well -- into the setting.

About the same time, a couple of stuffy Oxford professors who had a taste for fantastic literature decided there weren't enough books of the type they liked and so agreed that they would each write a science fiction story. J.R.R. Tolkien would write a story of time travel, and his friend C.S. Lewis would write about space travel. Tolkien never finished his story about psychic time travelers witnessing the destruction of Númenor, but Lewis's Wellsian pastiche became Out of the Silent Planet (1938). Lewis was influenced by H.G. Wells in his story, most notably by The First Men in the Moon, and although the story makes deprecating comments about Wells's novels, Lewis acknowledges in a preface his debt to them.

Lewis felt self-conscious about how he hand-waved the science in his tale. He included the canals in the story, but made them so freakin' huge -- as they'd have to be to be visible from Earth -- that the protagonist spends much of the story inside one and never identifies it as such until he leaves the planet and sees them from a distance.

The year 1938 brought Wells and Mars to the public attention in another way when Orson Welles produced an updated radio adaptation of The War of the Worlds that was so plausible in it's simulated news flashes that it convinced a great many people that Martians really had landed in Grover's Corners New Jersey.

In the 1940s - 1950s, Robert Heinlein wrote several novels set on or involving Mars. Heinlein never tried to shoehorn all these stories into a consistent universe -- not exactly -- but his martians all had points in common. They had three legs, they had a culture largely incomprehensible to humans, and they frequently had powers and abilities that made them terrifying when they were angered. Fortunately, for the most part humans were beneath their notice, so they rarely got that angered. They feature prominently in Red Planet (1949) and Double Star (1956) and are the source of the mystic religion/philosophy taught by Michael Valentine Smith in Stranger in a Strange Land (1961).

Ray Bradbury, who as a young boy growing up in growing up in Waukegan Illinois devoured Edgar Rice Burroughs, wrote several stories set on Mars, most of which were collected in 1950 as The Martian Chronicles. The book describes the first human landings on Mars, the enigmatic contacts with the native martians, how men settle across Mars like a tide across the dead martian deserts, and then recedes again.

By the 1950s, Mars had spread from the pulp magazines into popular culture, appearing in science fiction movies. One of the most interesting was Robinson Crusoe on Mars (1964), a science fiction re-working of the DeFoe classic and featuring a truly creepy performance by Adam West. No, seriously. Arguably the worst was Santa Claus Conquers the Martians (1964) which, if you look at it the right way could be seen as a prophetic allegory about the Fall of the Soviet Empire... nah, it's still bad. Then there was Abbott and Costello Go to Mars (1953), except that the boys never actually get to Mars; they land in New Orleans during Mardi Gras and just think it's Mars. They do go to Venus though.

Science fiction stories involving Mars also appeared on television as well, most notably on The Twilight Zone and The Outer Limits. Isaac Asimov at one point tried pitching an idea for a television space opera. Athough his brainy action hero "Lucky" Starr never made it to the small screen, Asimov adapted his idea into a series of novels starting with David Starr, Space Ranger (1952). The first novel was set in a commercial farming community on Mars and one of the characters, a martian-born human named Bigman, became Lucky's sidekick. Asimov was a little embarrassed about writing trashy space opera, and wrote the series under the pseudonym "Paul French", although by the time he started introducing positronic robots following the Three Laws of Robotics into the series, no one was really fooled.

In 1962, the Mariner space probes gave us our first really good look at the planet Mars, and much of what we thought was true turned out to be false. There were no canals; there were no gleaming cities; there were no oviparous princesses on six-legged thoats.

Something of the romance went out of Mars with the Mariner space probe, but it remains the most likely next step after the Moon if mankind is ever going to go out into space; (Venus, alas, is completely hostile; Mariner was even less kind to her). So it remains an important setting in science fiction.

And who is to say that we can't go retro? In 1998 a very good role-playing game written by Frank Chadwick was published titled Space: 1889, which hearkened back to the era of Edison's Conquest of Mars, describing a world in which the Great Powers of the 19th Century have established colonies on Mars and Venus. Alan Moore's comic The League of Extra-Ordinary Gentlemen had one issue set on the Mars of the 19th Century featuring John Carter, Gullivar and C.S. Lewis's sorns forcing Wells's tentacled martians to flee to Earth.

Percival Lowell's dreams may not have been real, but they haven't yet died.

NEXT WEEK: Who would have guessed it? Next time we're going to Mars! We begin a look at Ray Bradbury's ode to the Red Planet, The Martian Chronicles. Get ready for Rocket Summer!

Thursday, November 14, 2013

The Skylark of Space part 6: The Battle for Osnome

Concluding our look at Edward E. "Doc" Smith's seminal space opera, The Skylark of Space.

Dick Seaton and his partner Martin Crane have rescued Seaton's fiancée, Dorothy Vaneman, and another girl, Margaret Spencer, who had been abducted by Seaton's scientific rival Marc C. DuQuense. Now the lot of them are in a remote section of the galaxy, trying to find enough copper to fuel Seaton's spaceship, the Skylark.

This search has landed them right in the middle of a millennia-old conflict between the Kondalians and the Mardonalians on the planet Osnome. Imprisoned by the jerk of a ruler of Mardonale, Seaton manages to escape with the help of Dunark, the crown prince of Kondal. Now the Skylark, badly damaged in the fight, is on its way to the palace of Dunark's father.

The Skylark arrives in Kondal and is greeted by Dunark's father Roban, the Karfedix of Kondal. Dunark introduces Seaton and Crane as "Karfedix of Knowledge" and "Karfedix of Wealth" respectively.

Dunark's father is puzzled. The word "Karfedix" means roughly "emperor." "Knowledge and wealth are not -- cannot be -- ruled over. Are you sure that you have translated their titles correctly?"
"No translation is possible. Crane has no title, and was not at all willing for me to apply any title to him. Seaton's title, one of learnedness, has no equivalent in our language. ... Their government is not a government at all, but stark madness, the rulers being chosen by the people themselves, who change their minds and their rulers every year or two. And everyone being equal before the law, does just about as he pleases..." 
"Incredible!" exclaimed Roban. "How, then, is anything done?" 
"I do not know. I simply do not understand it at all. They do not seem to care, as a nation, whether anything worth while gets done or not, as long as each man has what he calls his liberty."
But Dunark insists that despite the earthmen's incomprehensible values and sense of ethics (not to mention Seaton's inexplicable truce with his enemy DuQuense and their bizarre insistence of wearing clothing), "...their sense of honor is, at bottom, as sound as ours, and as strong." And the fact that Nalboon tried to kill them puts the earthmen firmly on Kondal's side.

After the formal reception is over, Margaret takes Crane aside. "What did Dunark mean calling you Karfedix of Wealth?" He had originally been introduced to her as Marty Crane, an inventor friend of Dick's; when she agreed to marry him she had no idea he was M. Reynolds Crane, the billionaire industrialist. He takes her in his arms. "Is that all that was bothering you?"

As Dorothy had guessed earlier, if Margaret had known about Martin's wealth, she would have been too intimidated to talk to him. But now that the two have gotten to know each other, and fallen in love, and agreed to marry, the unfortunate situation of Crane's fortune is not longer an impediment.

Dorothy also wants to speak privately with Dick. Being located in the middle of a dense star cluster, the planet Osnome never experiences night. She tells Dick that the continual daylight and lack of darkness is starting to freak her out and making it difficult for her to sleep. She cuddles up to him and pleads, "I never thought I was a clinging-vine type, I'm I'm getting to be. I'm simply scared to death to go to bed."

Seaton, the classic clueless male, misses the point. "We'll fix the chariot and snap back to Earth in a hurry."
She pushed him into his room, followed him inside, closed the door, and put both hands on his shoulders. 
"Dick Seaton," she said blushing hotly, "You're not as dumb as I thought you were -- you're dumber! But if you won't say it, even after such a sob-story as that, I will. No law says that a marriage has to be performed on Earth to be legal."
Despite all the alien nudity they encounter, this is the closest we're going to get to a bedroom scene in this story. Be that as it may, Dick agrees to talk to Dunark about arranging a wedding ceremony; and at Dorothy's suggestion, talking to Martin about making the wedding a double one. Seaton handles this with his usual lack of tact, but both Martin and Margaret are agreeable. "The sooner the better," Margaret says blushing.

Dunark's father is delighted at the opportunity to host their double wedding.
"Marriage between such highly-evolved persons as are you four is demanded by the First Cause, whose servants we all are. Aside from that, it is an unheard-of honor for any ruler to have even one other karfedix married under his roof, and you are granting me the honor of two! I thank you, and assure you that we will do our best to make the occasion memorable."
The Osnomian religion is a curious blending of theology and Darwinism. They believe in a supreme being, which they call the First Cause, and of the existence of "an immortal and unknowable life-principle, or soul." But they also regard the "survival of the fittest" not just as a natural law, but as a Divine Commandment. Although weaker in physical strength than humans due to the planet's weaker gravity, the natives of Osnome are otherwise physically perfect, thanks to millennia of selective breeding. There is a dark side to their Divinely-mandated Darwinistic culture: the feeble-minded and the feeble-bodied are executed; and the punishments for "vice" are particularly draconian. This vast difference in cultures is one of the reasons Dunark has difficulty understanding Seaton's culture, despite having all the memories in Seaton's brain imprinted on his own.

There are three levels of marriage on Osnome. Couples are initially given a two-year trial marriage, but may at any time opt for a full marriage. Couples of the highest evolutionary development and mental character -- and Kondal's Chief Prelate and Commander of the Army assure Seaton and his friends that they are such -- are permitted the third level of marriage which is bound not just until death, but all eternity. As part of the marriage ceremony, the couples are given brain scans to ensure their compatibility.

Dick wonders if the Kondalian wedding will be considered valid on Earth. "Is there any precedent in law that says a man can make a promise that will be binding on his immortal soul for all the rest of eternity?"
"I rather doubt it," Martin replies. "I'm sure there will be, however, when our attorneys close the case."

For the ceremony, the girls wear dazzling gowns made of iridescent Onsomian fabrics -- the Onsomians generally don't wear clothing, but will wear robes of state on formal occasions -- and ornamented with the brilliant jewels that the Onsomians love. Dunark sheepishly admits that he gave them the smallest diamonds he could find; by terrestrial standards they are still gaudy and ostentatious. Each one of the two couples receive a special jewel, called a faidon; a beautiful, light-emitting adamantite crystal; to symbolize their eternal bond of love
The guys, lacking formal wear of their own, dress in tennis whites. "Only Dunark will know that whites are not our most formal dress." Given the tropical Kondalian climate and the exotic lighting from Osnomes multitude of suns, tennis togs prove to be a perfect choice.

While the wedding preparations are being made, Seaton and Dunark are also working on building a new version of the Skylark as well as new ships for the Kondalian navy. Seaton gives Dunark several pounds of salt from the Skylark's stores -- they have plenty to spare -- as well as some of the nuggets of X metal they found on the planet of the Carboniferous Era monsters -- Seaton knows where he can get more.

The Kondalians make the new Skylark to Seaton's specifications out of arenak, the transparent, nigh-invulnerable metal they use to armor their battleships. The salt Dick gave to Dunark is a necessary catalyst in the process of making arenak. (Smith, the chemist, must have liked catalysts). While the new ship is being built, Dunark also has his people manufacturing the copper bars they'll need to power it. Smith devotes as much loving description to the construction of the new Skylark as he does to the wedding.

While testing out the new Skylark, a karlon, one of the huge sky-leviathans that roam the planet, appears near the site. Seaton and Crane try capturing the beast for scientific study using the Skylark's attractor beams. They "hook" it, and the monster takes the Skylark on the aerial equivalent of a Nantucket sleigh-ride, zooming from the upper atmosphere to the depths of the ocean, to burrowing into the muck of a swamp. Unable to tire the beast, or even of driving it away, Dick reluctantly finishes it off with an explosive shell.

Dunark has also been concerned about a possible Mardonalian attack. While a prisoner of Nalboon, he overheard discussion about some kind of secret weapon. Seaton suggests that Dunark take the first batch of copper bars, fly over to Mardonale and raid the palace, but Dunark is offended by the idea. Under the Kondalian Code, he is obligated to supply Seaton's ship first and only then see to his own needs. Dick apologizes. He doesn't understand why this matter of honor is so important to Dunark any more than Dunark understands Seaton's need to wear pants, but he knows that it is important and respects that.

Suddenly, the Mardonalians fleet attacks. Dunark scrambles his air fleet and Seaton and Crane join him in the Skylark with DuQuesne manning the guns. The Mardonalians have several tricks in store for the Kondalian defenders, including sonic attacks and heat-based attacks. Perhaps most deadly, they have a beam to create high voltage currents in the metal of the ships, which electrocutes or stuns most of the crew of Dunark's flagship. "It's a good thing for all of us that you have those fancy handles on your levers," DuQuesne comments.

After a furious battle, the Kondalian Navy, led by the Skylark, soundly defeats the Mardonalian attack. Afterwards, the Karfedix Roban honors Seaton and Crane for their service to Konal. Even DuQuense is given a reward to recognize his part in the battle.

After the victory celebrations are over, the Skylark heads back for home. The trip is uneventful. Thanks to object-compass Seaton still has fixed on Earth, they have no fear of getting lost. When they finally get within sight of home, DuQuense brings up the question of what will be done with him.

"I'd like to have you in a square ring with four-ounce gloves," Seaton says. "You've been of altogether too much real help on this trip for either of us to enjoy seeing you hanged. At the same time, you're altogether too much of a scoundrel for us to let you go free..."

DuQuense is unimpressed. He tells Seaton that thanks to the wealth he's acquired on the trip -- Roban's gift to him amounted to a fortune in precious jewels and a sealed container holding a half-pound of metallic radium -- he no longer has any need to associate with World Steel. Unless it is in his interest to do so.
"I may find it desirable at some future time to obtain a monopoly of X. If so, you and Crane, and possibly a few others, would die. No matter what happens or does not happen, however, this whole thing is over, as far as I'm concerned. Done with. Fini."
Seaton laughs at this. He's confident that he can handle anything DuQuense might throw at him. But then he becomes more serious.

"But listen, DuQuesne," Seaton said slowly, every word sharp, clear, and glacially cold. "That goes for Crane and me, personally. Nobody else. I could be arrested for what I think of you as a man; and if anything you ever do touches either Dorothy or Margaret in any way I'll kill you like I would a snake -- or rather, I'll take you apart like I would any other piece of scientific apparatus."
DuQuense takes the point. Shortly afterwards, as the Skylark has entered the atmosphere and is flying somewhere over the Panama Canal, the airlock cycles and DuQuesne slips out wearing a Kondalian parachute and carrying his fortune; much as Long John Silver escaped at the end of Treasure Island. Dorothy declares that he's earned his liberty. Margaret disagrees, but is simply glad to have seen the last of him.

Soon the Skylark lands at Crane field, where Martin's faithful servant Shiro is waiting for them. Dick and Dorothy embrace. They are home at last.

Thursday, November 7, 2013

The Skylark of Space part 5: When In Rome, Be a Roman Candle

In our last thrilling installment of E.E. "Doc" Smith's The Skylark of Space, scientist Dick Seaton and his buddy, millionaire industrialist and inventor Martin Crane, have rescued Seaton's fiancée, Dorothy Vaneman, who had been abducted by Seaton's rival, Marc C. DuQuesne, and another damsel in distress, Margaret Spenser. Now all they have to do is get back to Earth.

This won't be easy, because the desparate chase after DuQuesne has left the Skylark several light centuries away from home. Seaton and his crew are now trying to find a planet where they can acquire enough copper to power their ship for the return trip.

The Skylark has entered a dense clusters of stars and identified a promising planet. The planet's climate is warm, and it's gravity less than half on Earths, but it has a breathable atmosphere. More importantly, the sample of sea water they test shows the presence of ammoniacal copper sulfate -- a sign that this planet has significant copper deposits.

While scouting the planet, they come across an aerial battle between a group of armored aircraft and an equal number of flying leviathans. "They must be animals," Crane says. "I do not believe that any engineer, anywhere, would design machines like that." The creatures have immense wings and dozens of tentacles and are covered with a kind of transparent armor which seems impervious to the attacks of the airships.

Impulsively, Seaton intervenes in the battle by literally blowing one of the critters out of the sky with one of the explosive shells he's devised tipped with his X metal. He then lands the Skylark near the crippled flagship that had been fighting the monsters to meet with the natives.

The natives of this world are a lot like the Red Martians of Edgar Rice Burroughs's Barsoom: They look exactly like idealized, perfectly-formed humans except for their exotic skin color; (like Mr. Spock, their skin in green; no doubt because of copper in their biochemistry); they are not as strong as humans due to their planet's lower gravity; their technology is more advanced than earth's in some respects -- enough to make them exotic and interesting -- but behind earth in other ways -- to give the earthmen an edge beyond mere punching and leaping as John Carter does. They also have a warlike and rather Darwinian culture. Oh, and they don't wear clothing, save for ornaments and utilitarian harnesses.

The scene in which Seaton establishes First Contact with the leader of the natives, a guy named Nalboon who turns out to be the ruler of one of the major superpowers of the planet, plays out like every "White Explorer Meets Chief of Jungle Tribe" scene -- which is probably why when I first read the novel as a kid I kept on envisioning Nalboon's people living in grass huts -- albeit with a few interesting subversions. Seaton startles them by pulling some sleight-of-hand with a cigarette and matches, but they are only moderately impressed by a display of signal rockets.

Later in private, Dick comments on this:
"I don't get these folks at all. ... They've got next century's machines, but never heard of sleight-of-hand. Class Nine rockets are old stuff, but matches scare them. Funny."
It's not terribly plausible, but Martin lampshades the situation:

"It's surprising enough that their physical shape is the same as ours. ... It would be altogether too much to expect that all the details of development would be parallel."
Nalboon offers Seaton the gift of several prisoners from his ship. Dorothy isn't happy about bringing them aboard the Skylark, but Crane surmises that if they don't accept these slaves, the slaves might be executed anyway -- a guess which turns out to be accurate. Besides, as Dick observes, "when in Rome, you've got to be a Roman candle."

Nalboon's surviving battlecraft escort the Skylark to his capital city, an impressive metropolis of tall buildings with wide green plazas. The buildings vary in their layout, but all are have identical heights; a subtle point suggesting the totalitarian nature of their government. Or maybe I'm over-thinking this.

The Skylark crew are treated to a lavish banquet by Nalboon. Seaton and DuQuesne check out the food first; they have strong reason to suspect that much of it will be poisonous to humans. "These probably won't poison us too much," DuQuesne says selecting a few of the safest dishes. "That is, if we don't eat much now and don't eat any of it again too soon." Their doubts are confirmed when a bowl of blue crystals is set out intended to season the food and Seaton recognizes the crystals as copper sulfate.

Anticipating this problem, and remembering how impressed the natives had been with his sleight-of-hand, Dick has hidden various eating utensils and such about his person, which he now produces. Nalboon is interested in the pepper-shaker and finds the pepper quite tasty; but the salt startles him even more than the matches did. Nalboon summons an officer to examine the salt crystals, and then through signs requests the whole shaker. Seaton consents; they have plenty of salt in the Skylark's stores so it's not big deal to him; but evidently it is to Nalboon.

A heavily-armed honor guard escorts Seaton and his company to private rooms to spend the night. Seaton is liking the set-up less and less, but at the moment sees little to do but play along. The slaves Nalboon gave them with are still with them; and Dorothy insists that the female ones sleep in the quarters with her and Margaret and the males stay with the boys.

The leader of the prisoners, a tall man wearing a thick metal belt collects some of the stuff from Seaton's pockets. When Dick has gone to sleep, the man opens up concealed pockets in his belt and removes a set of tools and electronic components. As Seaton's party sleeps, he begins constructing an elaborate device.
Seaton spends a hot, uncomfortable night. Well, night is not exactly the right word. Located as it is in the middle of a dense star cluster, the planet always has several suns in the sky at any time and so there is not actual night. He meets with the others to discuss their situation. Dorothy has made friends with the female prisoners and picked up a little bit of their language. She is able to relay the message that the man with the belt wants Seaton's help to get something which is being held by Nalboon's people. It's something extremely important. Seaton agrees.

Seaton is able to bull his way past the guards outside their sleeping quarters to the room where the somthing is being kept. There's an altercation there in which Dick gives another guard a forceful shove which, thanks to the lower gravity, proves fatal. More armed guards show up and Seaton pulls the pistol he had hidden under his shirt. Another of his explosive rounds obliterates the reinforcements, as well as that wing of the palace. The prisoner with the metal belt recovers more electrical components from the guarded room and they all withdraw back to the sleeping quarters.

The prisoner connects the new components to the apparatus he had built the previous night; a device of a complexity that impresses even DuQuense. The device has several headsets which he motions that Seaton and his party should put on. They all agree, except for DuQuense: "Go ahead; let them make zombies of you. Nobody wires me up to a machine I can't understand."

His caution, although prudent, turns out to be unnecessary. The device is an electronic educator, designed to download knowledge of the native language from the man with the belt to the earth-folk. It's an experimental design and the prisoner happened to have the necessary parts hidden in his his belt. Because you never can tell when something like that might come in handy. It works almost perfectly; but an unexpected short in the apparatus winds up copying all of the prisoner's memories into Seaton's brain and vice-versa.

Now much becomes clear. The name of the planet is Osnome; and they are currently in the nation of Mardonale. Their new friend is Dunark, prince of the rival nation of Kondal, who along with his entourage had been captured by Nalboon's forces. For something like six thousand years now the two nations have been at war. Nalboon had been in the process of executing Dunark and his people in an elaborate ritual when his sky vessel had been attacked by the karlono, the armored sky leviathens. Rather than feeling gratitude for Seaton's rescue, Nalboon has decided that Seaton is a pushover and plans to kill him. Salt is a rare substance on Osnome, and it is also a vital ingredient in the production of arenak, a transparent nearly invulnerable metal which the Osnomians use to armor their warships.

This puts Seaton in something of an ethical dilemma. Nalboon intends to use the technology on board the Skylark, and it's unlimited (by Osnomian standards) supply of salt to obliterate Kondal. But if he aids the Kondalians, they will do the same to Mardonale.
"So ethically, perhaps we should leave you all here and try to blast our own way to the Skylark. Then go on about our own business." 
"That is your right." 
"But I couldn't do it. And if I did, Dottie would skin me alive and rub salt in, every day from now on ... and Nalboon and his crowd are the scum of the universe ... Maybe I'm prejudiced by having your whole mind in mine, but I think I'd have to come to the same decision if I had Nalboons's whole mind in there as well."
Another point which he does not mention is that the presence of the Skylark has already upset the balance of power on Osnome; Nalboon's people have already learned quite a bit just from their cursory examination of the Skylark, and the salt shaker Seaton gave Nalboon contains more salt than is know to exist on the whole planet -- enough to give Mardonale a tremendous advantage in the Osnomian arms race.

In any case, at the moment the ethical concerns of taking sides in a millenia-old conflict take a back seat to the immediate concerns of escaping from Mardonale. Seaton leads a break for freedom, overpowering the guards and seizing their weapons. With the explosive-tipped X cartridges in Seaton's pistol, they are able to blast their way back to the Skylark, taking Durnak and his followers with them.

But the explosive force of the X shells does not just wipe out their opposition; it also damages the Skylark. Her thick quartz windows have been shattered; her frame dented and warped, and much of her plating ripped away. They'll be able to fly it out of Mardonale, but the Skylark will require some major repairs before it can go back into space. For better or worse, Seaton and his friends will have to throw in their lot with Durnak.

As they head out, Dick and Martin have a discussion about the subject.
"Do you think we can really trust thes Konalians, any more than we should have trusted the Mardonalians? It might be better for us to stay in the Skylark instead of going to the palace at all." 
"Yes to the first; no to the second," Seaton replied. "I went off half-cocked last time, I admit; but I've got his whole mind inside my skull, so I know him a lot better than I know you. They've got some mighty funny ideas, and they're bloodthirsty and hard as tungsten carbide; but, basically, they're just as decent as we are. 
"As for staying in here, what good would that do? Steel is as soft as mush to the stuff they've got. And we can't go anywhere, anyway. No copper -- we're down to the plating in spots. And we couldn't if we were full of copper. The old bus is a wreck; she's got to be completely rebuilt. But you don't have to worry this time, Mart. I know they're friends of ours."
The die is cast.

NEXT:  Honored guests of Kondal; a Royal Wedding; Karlono Hunting; and the Final Battle for Osnome!