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

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