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.

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