I’m a big fan of Ray Bradbury. The man was an expert storyteller, but also a visual and rhythmic genius to boot. His colourful imagery blooms with bright vocabulary and flowing sentences that drift upon a stream of ideas unbound by the norms of grammar and syntax. His prose is poetry, in a word. I even chose a passage from Something Wicked This Way Comes to be read at my wedding, despite the fact it’s a horror.
Why love the woman who is your wife? Her nose breathes the air of a world that I know; therefore I love that nose. Her ears hear music I might sing half the night through; therefore I love her ears. Her eyes delight in seasons of the land; and so I love those eyes. Her tongue knows quince, peach, chokeberry, mint and lime; I love to hear it speaking. Because her flesh knows heat, cold, affliction, I know fire, snow, and pain. Shared and once again shared experience. Billions of prickling textures. Cut one sense away, cut part of life away. Cut two senses; life halves itself on the instant. We love what we know, we love what we are. Common cause, common cause, common cause of mouth, eye, ear, tongue, hand, nose, flesh, heart, and soul.
That’s a father trying to imagine how to describe love to two pre-teen boys, so that they can understand it. It’s lovely.
However, I’d not heard of The Martian Chronicles until it came up in conversation on Twitter with my pal Jon. It was excuse enough to impulsively order it, and I can’t say I’ve been disappointed.
Though with only a broadly linear narrative, the collection of short stories tells of man’s short-lived colonisation of Mars, beginning in the year 1999. That gives you some indication of when this was written – 1950 – and in turn offers the salt to be pinched over the playfully naïve science in this science fiction.
Mars has “thin air”, apparently – but that’s about the only impediment to the human explorers from Earth as they land, jump out of their rocket and attempt to make first contact. The Martian it is not.
The initial tales are almost Kafkaesque in their absurdity, with the Martian inhabitants completely uninterested in the prospect of interplanetary visitors, or even murderously irritated by their arrival. But the natives are portrayed in several lights throughout the book, from nonchalant bores all the way to glowing orbs of sinless fire, via face-morphing psychic loss-fillers.
Though the short story format leaves little space for character development, the theme of human self-destruction and deluded folly underpin most if not all of the tales. Written in the age of the atom, when science seemed boundless and our tendency for violence was still so keenly evident after WW2, the ending feels thematically inevitable.
Unfortunately, the demise of mankind is handled with rather more subtlety than Bradbury’s vision of the future for black folk. I know it was written in a different time, but the story about the “niggers” leaving en masse in a diaspora to Mars is so othering and steeped in cliché you can’t help feel uncomfortable. He describes a “black river” flowing out of town, thereby melting the entire black population into one homogenous entity. Those that are called forth by the white southerners are all terribly sorry for leaving their posts, and unwilling to violently revolt against their masters when instructed to stay. It is obedient dissent.
It is astonishing to think that Bradbury, so bristling with imagination, could not envision in 1950 the prospect of a civil rights movement. All he could fathom blacks achieving by the year 2000 was to escape their slavery by emigrating to Mars – without rockets, they were doomed to servitude forever.
It’s fucking weird. But I’m sure most literature written today will be completely bonkers and backward in 60 years’ time.
All in all, the collection is at times funny in the characters’ frustaration, intriguing in the ideas of psychic projection, and beautiful in Bradbury’s unique turn of phrase. Even so, I am over the moon with how far science fiction has come in the last six decades.