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!

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