Thursday, July 26, 2018

"The Day After the Day the Martians Came" (1967)

Frederik Pohl's story has a good point to make. It may seem painfully obvious, and really I want to dismiss it for its obviousness, but a lot of people these days are obviously in need of this obvious point. It's about immigrants and how we—Americans—treat them. In the future, a mission to Mars has discovered Martians! They are on their way back to Earth with specimens. No one knows anything about them yet, such as whether they are intelligent or what their skills are, except what is known of their appearance, which is "like a sad dachshund with elongated seal flippers for limbs." It appears they might be crying. The story takes place in a Florida motel, where journalists are booked two to a room for the chance to see them in person when the Mars crew makes it back. For the most part they are staying up all night in the motel bar, playing poker, and telling jokes. I'm not sure how the bar stays open, but never mind. The jokes, which at first I thought were an obnoxious element of the story, turn out to be pretty much the point of the story. You'll recognize them right away. Here's one: "Why doesn't a Martian swim in the ocean? Because he'd leave a ring around it." Likely we've all heard these witless putdown jokes where the target IDs are interchangeable: polacks, N-words, faggots, etc. Pohl was a son of German immigrants, born in 1919 (so in his late 40s when he wrote this story). It's not hard to imagine how German immigrants were treated, at least until after World War II, when they became white along with the Irish and with Italians not far behind. I'm not sure how this story would have registered in 1967, let alone in this "dangerous visions" context—as tediously relevant, perhaps, a certain attribute of some entertainment that was only incidentally entertaining, like Billy Jack or The Mod Squad setting out to "rap" with teens and young adults about ongoing unprecedented social unrest. I don't remember this particular story from the first time I read the collection but suspect I would have found it a little square. And that's what it is indeed, making a self-obvious point with thundering self-righteousness. But the people who need to understand it can't seem to understand it, while the rest of us yawn. Same as it ever was, amirite?

Dangerous Visions, ed. Harlan Ellison

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