Thursday, January 14, 2021

"Mars Is Heaven!" (1948)

Ray Bradbury's Martian Chronicles is characterized by Wikipedia as a "fixup" novel, a term new to me for a novel made out of revising and stitching together previously published (and formally unrelated) short stories. Hey, William Faulkner and Go Down, Moses! Why not? Well, one reason might be so that there is a single standard version. The one I read in the Everyman's collection has a different last paragraph from the one I found online. The latter may be from The Martian Chronicles although there the story is called "The Third Expedition." The change to the finish is small but significant, throwing a different slant on the ambiguities of the story. But never mind, the basic nut of it, a surreal insidiously unsettling concept, remains just as effective. It's excellent by sections and can be claimed equally for science fiction or horror (and works in comics form too). It's fine as a stand-alone—even better, I think, with the Everyman's ending. The idea of traveling to Mars and finding the 20th-century Midwest is bodacious, especially for Bradbury, who practically owned that time and place as his very own hobbyhorse. What saved him always is that he was so good at setting the extremes of his contrasts. He reminds me in many ways of Charles Schulz's Peanuts comic strip, which also bore overweening sweetness with some very sharp edges, particularly in the early years. Bradbury's usual big bath in nostalgia is somehow even more cunning in this story. He can verge on treacle when he waxes poetic about boyhood, summers, playing ball, and swimming, but the deeper he goes into it here the stranger it becomes. This crew of 16 puts down on Mars in the year 2000 and encounters—an idyllic small town, with lovely green lawns and shade trees and houses with porches and sunshine pouring over everything. This town is a little antiquated, with origins in the mid-19th century. And then, from within these houses, the astronauts begin to discover cherished relatives. Grandparents, brothers and sisters, Moms and Dads, aunts and uncles. Have they gone mad?

When these long dead and still sorely missed relatives speak, the story becomes even stranger. They know they died on Earth. They know they are on another planet. They are strangely defensive and call it a second chance. The captain of the ship maintains his poise perhaps the longest, desperately sorting through the possibilities. Perhaps, the captain speculates, the crew never left Earth and somehow didn't know it. Perhaps much earlier, secret missions to Mars have populated the planet this way. Perhaps they entered a time rift in space. None of his ideas really make sense. The captain maintains his poise until he sees his brother, who died years ago, an untimely death. He was 26 and still looks the same. He takes the captain to their old home (all the astronauts are finding houses they know) and there his parents are. And here is exactly where our perceptions begin to diverge from his, the last rational man. We still know this is all too good to be true—something is deeply wrong about it. Bradbury subtly stokes our doubts. It is positively alarming when we see the captain enter his own insensible ecstasies of nostalgia. Later, in bed in his old bedroom, he returns to doubt and considers a theoretical scenario that is as close as this story comes to explaining itself, involving native Martians with telepathic powers and no good intentions (or, from their view, defending themselves, fighting back to nip colonialism in the bud). This part of the story is a bit clunky and mechanical but also has one of the best scare effects involving his brother. But from there the story retreats to further ambiguities and veers dangerously close to incoherence, which is not helped by the alternate endings. But I love the way Bradbury so boldly transports his beloved Midwest and plonks it down on the red planet, Mars. It plays to all his greatest strengths and arguably is one of his best.

The Stories of Ray Bradbury (Everyman's)
Read slightly different version online.

Comic book panel, Wally Wood, from Weird Science (EC) #18, 1950

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