Monday, December 30, 2019

The Martian Chronicles, by Ray Bradbury

This wasn't what I expected. As a classic of science-fiction, I thought it would be engineer-heroes conquering the frontier and debating the physics of travelators. But The Martian Chronicles (first published in 1950) is altogether stranger, more whimsical and - by the end - unsettling.

Each chapter is dated and the book covers events between January 1999 and October 2026, as humans attempt to settle on Mars. Some chapters are very short - some merely a couple of pages, one a few paragraphs. But others are long, self-sustained stories so that this feels like a classic "fix-up" novel comprising previously published short stories now loosely connected - as it turns out it is. At first, I thought the depictions of Martians in one story contradicted those in another. And it all seemed achingly okay.

Then I got to "Way Up in the Middle of the Air", first published in the magazine Other Worlds in July 1950 and set in June 2003. As colonisation of Mars hits its stride, in an unnamed part of the southern United States, the whole of the African-American populace decides to emigrate - to the horror of the white people they serve.
"His wife's small sob stopped him. She dabbed at her eyes. 'I kept telling her, "Lucinda," I said, "you stay on and I raise your pay and you get two nights off a week, if you want," but she just looked set! I never seen her so set, and I said, "Don't you love me, Lucinda?" and she said yes, but she had to go because that's the way it was, is all. She cleaned the house and dusted it and put luncheon on the table and then she went to the parlour door and - and stood there with two bundles, one by each foot, and shook my hand and said, "Good-bye, Mrs Teece." And she went out the door. And there was her luncheon on the table, and all of us too upset to even eat it. It's still there now, I know: last time I looked it was getting cold.'

Teece almost struck her. 'God damn it, Mrs Teece. You get the hell home. Standin' there makin' a sight of yourself!'" (p. 182)
There's so much to unpack there! The mix of emotions, that craving for love (and gratitude) by the masters for years of drudging service with only one night off. The threat of violence - not only to the servants but to Teece's wife, who calls her husband "Pa". The vision of life, 53 years in the future from the time the story was written, with no apparent progress in civil rights. I'm surprised to learn this chapter is left out of some later editions as it's the one that really hit me. It's an uncomfortable, troubling story, and I'm still puzzling out exactly why.

The second story that really resonated is "The Martian", set in September 2005 and originally published in Super Science Stories in 1949. An elderly couple have moved to Mars after the death of their young son on Earth - but now he comes back to them. When the family go into town on a shopping trip, the son becomes a young girl - the missing daughter of another grieving family. The elderly couple help steal "their" son back, but the son - really a Martian - can't help morphing into the desires of each member of the pursuing crowd. It's horrible, not least because it's clear the humans know that the Martian isn't really what it seems but are overcome with longing. Even at the end, with the Martian gone, the grieving father still waits on the doorstep - the implication being that he waits for the return of a yet another Martian as his son.

In the last third of the book, we start to re-meet characters from previous stories and pick up on threads and whole lives. These people gaze into The Martian night sky at the green (not, as we'd now think, blue) spec of Earth with mixed feelings. On page 224 we're told that many colonists are considering going "home" to Earth, where's there's an impending war.

That's undercut in the very next story, like the former set in November 2005, when one character comments,
"I don't trust those Earth people,' (p. 227).
They are no longer Earth people but Earth remains their home, in a contradiction that feels nuanced and convincing. There's then a terrible cataclysm, which we get from the perspective of an ordinary guy worried about the effect it will have on the tourist business in "The Off Season" - a delicious bit of sardonic irony.

I didn't like "The Silent Towns," about a man of no apparent great attraction longing for a woman - and then meeting one he doesn't like. It's a careful-what-you-wish-for tale and the bleak Martian setting made it reminiscent of The Twilight Zone in tone, but there's little more to it than a misogynist twist.

"There Will Come Soft Rains" is very much better, the story of an automated house going through its daily routine in caring for its long-departed human family. Much of it is simply listing small, domestic details, but each one adds to the sense of what has been lost.

And that's true of the book as a whole: whimsical stories that add up to something a whole, an epic of  failure and loss. I can see why The Martian Chronicles haunts what has followed in SF, why it's referenced in the Lady Astronaut novels and so on. Its influence is surely felt from the "New New York" (p. 265) that echoes in Russell T Davies' Doctor Who, to Kim Stanley Robinson's Mars trilogy which I now want to revisit after (blimey) at least 20 years.

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