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!

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