First Encounters of the Vintage SciFi Kind

Page Two

The Martian Chronicles, by Ray Bradbury.  The cover shows a very vague alien figure with a featureless V shaped head and a long yellow tunic with long sleeves and squared shoulders.

Behind this figure is what looks like a set of glass doors looking out onto a bright yellow mist.

Ray Bradbury. The Martian Chronicles. New York: Bantam, 1979 (originally published 1949).

Rating: 5 out of 5 times the smart house cycles through its daily routine, completely oblivious to the world around it.

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The spoiler-free nutshell:

The individual stories stand well on their own, but also work well as connected steps in the saga of human colonization on Mars. There are some lovely, eerily beautiful stories; many sad ones; and some really chilling ones.

The whole thing makes you a little more optimistic about the way things actually are in the early 21st century…though the last stories take place in 2026, so there’s still time to screw things up [Edit: can’t decide whether to laugh uncontrollably or cry like Salem the Cat]. 

Quick! Think of LOL-kittens!

Cartoon animation of a grey kitten snuggling and patting a white kitten's head.  There's a fluttering heart over their heads and the white kitten's tail is wagging.

SPOILERS AHEAD.

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But seriously, it’s brilliantly ironic that the humans came to Mars to escape the coming war of all wars, inadvertently wiped out the Martian race (with chicken pox, of all things), and then felt compelled to return to Earth when the war began…so that by the end, both planetary civilizations were destroyed. 

I do love that final, possibly-hopeful yet really bittersweet image in the last story — “The Million-Year Picnic” — of the only remaining human family gazing at their reflections in a river, where the father finally responds to his son’s request to see some Martians: “We are the Martians.” 

The one thing I really didn’t like was that even though the Chronicles begin about 50 years in the future (from Bradbury’s point of view), he still portrays race relations from a 40s standpoint, at least in the South. As though he couldn’t even imagine things being different in the next millennium.

Then again, maybe the tone fits with the overall picture of a deteriorating human society. Maybe it wouldn’t have made sense to show any kind of positive change in a world that’s heading for self-destruction, let alone an America where a government agency has outlawed works of imagination and fantasy, burning books that deviate too far from the gritty realism of the present world (see “Usher II”).  

Some of my favorite stories:

“Ylla”

There’s the gorgeously imagined house with its constant streams of water on the floors, the openness… the idea of singing books that you read by strumming the (I think) raised characters on each page… And I liked Ylla herself, with her contemplative moods and the way her feelings developed toward the strange figure in her dreams.

“The Third Expedition” — one of the creepy ones. 

You can tell the place is not as it seems from the start, of course, but you get drawn in enough that you almost start to believe that somehow, some of Earth’s deceased really do reincarnate, or exist as spirits, on Mars. Except you remember how the previous expeditions ended…and you know how skilled the Martians are at telepathic suggestion… 

And soon the tone starts to shift (like one of those movie scenes where you still hear the carnival music, but it’s starting to sound a little warped, or there’s an ominous undertone) as Captain Black, alone with his supposed brother at night, suddenly thinks What if…? And his imagined scenario makes perfect sense… And then it’s too late.

“The Night Meeting”

I love the philosophical/mystical tone, and the unanswered question – is the human looking at a vision of an ancient and extinct Martian civilization, or is the Martian looking at an ancient and extinct human civilization? 

And the unexpected sense of hope, or at least peace, you get because these two persons have met at all, and shared this conversation. Maybe it’s a cushion before the blows you’ll feel in the following chapters. Or maybe the story is telling us, whatever happens next, not to despair too much, because things will eventually — though it be very eventually — get better again.  

“Usher II” — one of the really chilling ones. 

That twist when he reveals that Whoops, I lied, it was the real guests whom you saw killed one by one, not the robots! And then his re-enactment of the final scene in Poe’s “The Cask of Amontillado”… 

Scream Face emoji.  The top half of the face is blue, the eyes are blank white, and it has two hands pressed against its cheeks.

“There Will Come Soft Rains”

We read this in one of my high-school English classes, and the overall sense of sad irony – the house’s cheerful AI units endlessly cycling through their daily routine despite the nuclear wasteland around them – is what I remembered most.

Of course we discussed how fitting the Sara Teasdale poem was to the story’s overall theme, but it’s only now that I realize the irony of it being Mrs. McClellan’s favorite poem. 

It’s as if she knew for so long how things were going to end that by that time she was just waiting for it, had resigned herself to it. And maybe she was comforted by the idea of Nature taking over…like she was thinking, At least the planet will be in good hands…

Clipart of a grey flying saucer with a blue glass dome in the center and a blue beam of light underneath.  There are three lights on the underside of the saucer.  They are red, yellow, and green.

Read any good old-school SFF lately, Bookwyrms? Any favorites you love so much you want to hand them out on street corners? Which ones have the most optimistic view of the future (preferably a future in which both human AND non-human Nature survive)?

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Credits:

Flying Saucer clipart from tenor.

Kitten GIF also from tenor.

Scream Face emoji from iemoji.

12 comments

    • Fair enough! By the time I remembered, I figured it was better to plan for next year instead of rushing to find a book for this one. In the meantime, I can re-read your previous SF posts! I forgot that you said The Illustrated Man inspired Elton John’s “Rocket Man”!

  1. I love Andre Norton! I read almost all of her books when I was a teenager. She was writing SF during the 1940s and 50s when almost no other women were writing it (hence the nom de plume). They were “pulp novels” then, and some of the conventions that you mention were common to SF stories/novellas of the era.

  2. It’s been a while since I read some science fiction. I think the last one I read was one by Asimov and it involved the dying of the universe. It was beautifully done. Ah, it was called The Last Question. It’s a short read, but a great one. I highly recommend it!

    • Ooh, I haven’t heard of many universe-level apocalypse stories other than The Restaurant at the End of the Universe 😉, but I bought an indie book called Parasites, by Matthew Samuels, early in 2020. It’s about two teens living in the universal end-times, and I’ve been meaning to get to it.

      Thank you for the rec! 😃

  3. “During my last visit to Half Price Books. . . ” Wow, remember when we could go places and do things? LOL. Well, at least we have time for reading and some recommendations. Thank you!

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