All’s Fair in Love and War (or, Men on Mars and the Beauty of Poetical Fiction)

I just wanted to write a long title with a subtitle, to sound, you know, AWESOME! Speaking of awesome, Ray Bradbury is a masterful genius of the written word. Love, love, love. Aaaaannddd, there’s your emotional gushing for Valentine’s Day. Now, on to the review:

I never thought reading science fiction would make me want to read poetry, but then, Ray Bradbury didn’t exactly write a technical sci-fi story, did he? The Martian Chronicles, is in fact a chronological series of short stories that were pieced together and polished up. It works, though. And this book becomes so much more than a story about colonizing Mars, because the poetry is so evident. This book is a treatise on the human condition, the drive to expand exploration and civilization, even beyond our own atmosphere, and it was written before man went to the moon! There is longing, homesickness, faith, doubt, new beginnings and old problems. At the heart is humanity, desiring to escape the problems of Earth, but only succeeding in escaping its gravity. The people are still bound to their home world. I’m going to proceed to inundate this post with quotations, because what else do you do with poetry? There are certain lines that jump out and grab the reader; some able to stand alone, and some deriving their power from context, but either way, they have power.

In the very first part, there are a few lines that capture the feeling of excitement that the first manned mission to another world should elicit: “Rocket summer. The words passed among the people in the open, airing houses.” Bradbury repeats the phrase “rocket summer” several times in this short section, like a mantra, building the tension and emphasizing the importance of the event. The witnesses are excited and curious, as this is something new, dangerous and momentous.

Next is a story about a Martian couple, in which the wife is somehow made aware–telepathically–of the coming of the First Expedition rocket. This sets off a chain of events with her husband: she shares the secret, her husband is upset, they quarrel, he devises a plan to stop the inevitable arrival of the Earth men. It is a story about anticipation, tension, and waiting, and it is described like this: “It was like those days when you heard a thunderstorm coming and there was the waiting silence and then the faintest pressure of the atmosphere as the climate blew over the land in shifts and shadows and vapors. And the change pressed at your ears and you were suspended in the waiting time of the coming storm.” And it was a storm, awful and unexpected, that eventually came. But the First Expedition never got far, nor did the Second or Third, but they left traces that opened the doorway, unknown, for the Fourth.

When the Fourth Expedition arrives, they find that humans have already left their mark on the planet. There are places long dead, but there are recent casualties, too. The vast majority of the Martian population has been struck down by something, and it shocks a few of the crew when they find out what can destroy such a glorious civilization. The explanation is twofold: “Part of it dies slowly, in its own time, before our age, with dignity. But the rest! Does the rest of Mars die of a disease with a fine name or a terrifying name or a majestic name? No, in the name of all that’s holy, it has to be chicken pox, a child’s disease, a disease that doesn’t even kill children on Earth! It’s not right and it’s not fair.” This is where the Martian world leaves its mark on an Earth man, and transforms him. He identifies himself with the lost civilization. He rails, “It can’t be a dirty, silly thing like chicken pox. It doesn’t fit the architecture; it doesn’t fit this entire world!” It makes a lot of sense for this one man to feel so strongly though. This race is only recently gone, but it feels like an eternity because he missed it in its full life. He is an archaeologist, an interpreter of dead civilizations, and reclaimer of lost knowledge, and a reconstructer of old ways. The ancient, the buried, the half-forgotten are his siren song and he finds he cannot resist the call. He turns on his fellow crewmen and chooses to forsake Earth in favor of Mars. His fear is that “No matter how we touch Mars, we’ll never touch it. And then we’ll get mad at it, and you know what we’ll do? We’ll rip it up, rip the skin off, and change it to fit ourselves… We Earth Men have a talent for ruining big, beautiful things.” This section is my favorite part, probably because the dissenting archaeologist quotes Byron, as well, with a recitation of the poem “So We’ll Go No More A’ Roving.” It is beautiful and haunting, and also serves to show the effect the Earth men will eventually have on Mars.

I’ll leave this discussion with two more summary quotes.

“The men of Earth came to Mars. They came because they were afraid or unafraid, because they were happy or unhappy, because they felt like Pilgrims or did not feel like Pilgrims. There was a reason for each man.”

And,

“Mars was a distant shore, and the men spread upon it in waves. Each wave different, and each wave stronger.”

If I ever become a high school English teacher, I’m teaching this book. I did not get enough powerful, make you think about the world around you, literature when I went through school (until college) and that’s a terrible shame. This is such an excellent collection of seamless stories, all pointing out both the damning and redeeming qualities of humanity. I highly recommend reading it. Go get a copy now!

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