THE MARTIAN CHRONICLES by Ray Bradbury

For some reason, I have a strong attraction to the novel that’s not quite a novel.  No offense is meant to the regular kind, but I get especially giddy when I read something described as “kind of a novel, kind of a collection of short stories, etc.”  It just seems to me that writers are often liberated by going this route.  The sustained narrative, for all of its virtues, can be something of a brick tied around the ankle.

However, in this book Ray Bradbury may have taken things to the extreme!  The Martian Chronicles is a work that is so scattered it’s hard to argue with critic Robert Plank’s judgement that it “is not a book.”  Famously inspired by Sherwood Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio, Bradbury would later use the French term “pensees” to describe The Martian Chronicles.  He was probably thinking of the philosopher Blaise Pascal’s famous work with that word as its title.  The word means “thoughts” and Bradbury seems to have thought of the chronicles as just that.  It provided a loose framework he could use when he had certain feelings and ideas he wanted to explore.  While the book was first published in 1950, several of the tales had already appeared in pulp magazines.  In fact, the work’s origins go back even further, to an uncollected story in Bradbury’s 1939 self-published “zine” Futuria Fantasia.  Several other Martian tales were never collected in any edition of the book.  Some appear in other books by Bradbury, most notably The Illustrated Man.  A good number remain unpublished.  Bradbury would fiddle incessantly with the book version, adding and subtracting stories, changing the chronology, until 1997.  Even this final version did not have the feel of a “deathbed edition.”  It seemed more like Bradbury simply felt he’d finally fiddled enough.

While all of this can drive even the casual scholar to tears, it might also convey a false impression of disconnectedness.  The Martian Chronicles may not be a book, in the traditional sense of the word, but it is a unified work.  What holds it together is Bradbury’s clear-eyed but glowing faith in humanity and its potential. To return to the Pascal term, it is my understanding that the philosopher’s work was largely a defense of the Christian religion.  It is quite telling that Bradbury would use a word with religious connotations to describe the chronicles.  Essentially, this book is a defense of the human race, and an expression of faith in it.  It is crucial to understand, however that Bradbury’s faith is in humanity; it is emphatically not in human civilization.

A participant in a group discussion I led about The Martian Chronicles stated that she felt Bradbury was, more than anything else, a moralist.  I think that is completely accurate, and it is what lies behind Bradbury’s lack of interest in civilization.  Civilization, and all its accomplishments, is built by humanity.  It must serve humanity.  The moment the situation reverses itself, civilization becomes an empty shell and humanity is imperiled.  To that end, Bradbury made The Martian Chronicles a post-apocalyptic work.  In pieces like “The Taxpayer” and “There Will Come Soft Rains,” he depicts human constructs speeding towards oblivion.  Yet he does so with a kind of serene calm.  These constructs are not the human spirit.  As long as intelligent life survives, that spirit will endure and, one day, rebuild.  I used the term “intelligent life” in the last sentence because Bradbury’s definition of “humanity” is a broad one.  “The Long Years” shows the transformation of artificial life into true humanity.  Nothing miraculous happens.  It is simply the power of love and the ability to connect.  The native Martians, while they make a limited number of appearances, are as “human” as those who come from earth.  They help remind clergymen of the true essence of Christianity in “The Fire Balloons,” a story notable for the touching sincerity of its religious belief and its subtle critique of dogmatism.  On a darker note, in “The Off Season,” the Martians regally gloat over the foolishness of the decimated human race that had once imperiously displaced them.

The sharpness present in “The Off Season” is part of why The Martian Chronicles is such a masterful work.  Bradbury’s exaltation of humanity is all well and good, but any intelligent person should know there is plenty in humanity not worth celebrating.  Bradbury knew this too, confronted it head on, and emerged with his faith all the stronger for the challenge.  A major clue that Bradbury’s vision is not as sweet as it might seem at first, comes in “-And The Moon Be Still As Bright.”  The astronaut Spender finds himself horrified at the thought of colonizing Mars, and ruining it as Earth has been ruined.  Spender’s speeches come pretty close to authorial voice, as he rails against artificial civilization and its menacing of eternal human values.  Bradbury is stringing us along, however.  There is a major catch and, through Spender’s descent, we see the dangers of ideology over humanity.  While he is largely (and seductively) correct, Spender puts his beliefs above the humanity he shares with his fellow astronauts.  This is close to what he condemns others for.  Humanistic views are useless if they are used to destroy actual humans.  Thus, Spender misses the entire point of his faith.

Humans missing the point are all over The Martian Chronicles.  Sometimes this is depicted with incredible poignancy, as in “Way In The Middle Of The Air.”  Bradbury removed this piece from the 1997 edition.  In my view, that was a grievous error.  In the story, southern African-Americans emigrate en masse to Mars, escaping centuries of racist oppression.  The reaction of their white tormentors as they face up far too late to what the artificial construct of prejudice has cost them, is a remarkable evocation of societal catastrophe.  Yet it also has a satirical edge to it.  A colleague of mine pointed out that it is a wonderfully accurate jab at the old lie of the racist establishment that the inferior black race needed their masters to protect them.

Satire takes center stage in the amazing “Usher II.”  This is probably my favorite part of the chronicles.  All lovers and practitioners of fantasy, horror, and science fiction get used to living with condescension and even contempt.  Bradbury’s story of a horror fan’s revenge against the society that has tried to abolish the dreams that give him so much pleasure, is balm to the soul of anyone who has ever had to endure sneers when they talk about how much they love vampire movies.  However, as usual Bradbury’s gleeful fun has more to it than meets the eye.  Daydreams and fantasies are part of the human experience.  To denigrate and deny them is yet another false barrier, erected by those with a lust for control, to keep us from finding meaning in ourselves as human beings.

Yet despite all this, Bradbury would clearly rather be with the people he likes least than with no people at all.  Perhaps the ultimate key to The Martian Chronicles is the very short story “The Musicians,” which depicts earth children using dead Martians as toys, and their resting place as a playground.  Bradbury’s disapproval is palpable.  But it is also gentle.  The boys are innocent, as most people always are, whatever their failings.  The boys, and by extension all of us, deserve a great deal of scorn.  Yet most of us do not deserve hatred.  What Spender, and so many others miss, is that ultimately we only have ourselves.  We might as well embrace that fact, with as much joy and love as we can muster, because nothing can change it.  Bradbury stubbornly insists, in the face of all naysayers, on celebrating humanity and declaring it more important than any of the wonders the universe has to offer.  That is why, despite all the disasters, he leaves humanity alive, battered and bereft, but with everything it needs to start all over again.

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SAVED by Edward Bond

I have been intrigued by the plays of Edward Bond ever since reading a reference to his work in, of all places, the introduction to the book publication of Nick Dear’s script for a 1995 adaptation of Jane Austen’s Persuasion.  Dear referenced Bond’s Lear, which fascinated me since Shakespeare’s King Lear is my favorite literary work.  Later, I read a further description of Lear in an edition of the Shakespeare play.  Some years after that, I found a copy of Bond’s Lear and read it.  My review of it can be found elsewhere on this blog.  The play struck me as powerful, startlingly creative, and profoundly moral.  I started reading interviews and comments of Bond’s online and have been impressed with his views on art and society.  In fact, his description of how he first discovered literature and the theater, and what that meant to him as a working-class boy, moved me so much I put it on this blog and labelled it my Credo. Despite all this, I was not particularly drawn to Saved, arguably Bond’s signature work.  The story of how it helped end British theater censorship, with the aid of none other than Laurence Olivier, was fascinating.  However, the descriptions of the play itself made it sound like a starkly realistic work.  I am not a fan of realism.  Lear was absurdist and surreal, and even included mythical aspects.  From what I’ve read, much of Bond’s work is in this vein.  As a result, I was more interested (and am still very interested) in plays like Early Morning.  As often happens however, events led me to some reading experiences I did not expect. One day I was browsing in the Bruised Apple, world’s greatest bookstore, in Peekskill, NY.  This is where I found my copy of Lear.  I checked to see if they had any Bond plays.  They had one copy of Saved.  I figured I should probably read it, even if it wasn’t my cup of tea.  Now I have, and I don’t regret it one bit.

My problem with realism is that it usually has an obsession with outward, social events.  To me, this doesn’t seem particularly realistic.  We live inside our heads as much as we live in the physical world.  Much of Joyce’s work strikes me as far more realistic than what usually passes for that term.  Also, a great deal of realism often seems to be little more than melodrama with the best bits left out.  I have profound respect for honest melodrama but, for crying out loud, fess up!  I should have known that Bond would not fall for these traps.  Saved is realistic in ways that most plays could only dream of.  Bond’s goal is to candidly depict people who genuinely have little awareness of any options they might have in life.  The brutal but compassionate depiction of these frustrated, marginalized, undereducated people is something that Bond drew from his own early life, and it is shattering.  It is also, aesthetically speaking, something few authors would be able to achieve.  There is not one line in this play that sounds like an author speaking for someone.  Readers should be aware that this is not pleasant.  Many lines in Saved are harsh and ugly, but they are in no way present for anything as crass as shock value.  They are present because they are crucial to Bond’s important artistic goals.

Mention should be made of the infamous stoning scene.  The central reason Saved was almost banned was Bond’s inclusion of a scene in which an infant is stoned to death.  Obviously, this is revolting in the extreme.  In his preface, Bond flicks aside concern over the scene, raising the specter of the violence all around us that few seem to worry about.  I usually do not have much patience for this line of thinking, and Bond’s comments are clearly provocative to some degree.  Still, in the context of the play, Bond has a point that cannot be dismissed lightly.  How can we let ourselves off the hook so easily?  What is it about certain acts of violence that activate our outrage, when an ocean of cruelty and terror flows by us unnoticed?  Such selective morality is never going to create the world most of us want to live in.

The effect of this hypocrisy and inaction is poignantly depicted in the person of Len, Bond’s protagonist.  Len wants to do the right thing.  For the most part, he does do the right thing.  The tragedy of the play is that there is little for Len to cling to in his world.  He has little support, intellectual or societal, for his inherent decency.  As such, he gropes around, led by an instinct which can only take him so far.  This made me think of the almost ritualized attack on that old African proverb that one hears from politicians.  Generally, the speech goes something like this: “They say it takes a village to raise a child.  Well, I say it takes a family!”  This is not the place to comment on the gargantuan stupidity of statements like these, but Saved shows us that it does indeed take a family to raise a child.  It also takes a village.  And a state.  And a school, a church, a government, a continent, a world, a civilization.  While perfection is impossible, anyone who thinks they can ignore any one of these is turning their back on the soft skull of some infant, somewhere.  I have read that audiences have been known to flee the theater during performances of some of Bond’s plays, including Saved.  They may flatter themselves that they are running from a provocateur.  I say they are running from a large, and notably clear mirror.