Thursday, April 01, 2021

"The Million-Year Picnic" (1946)

Even though this story by Ray Bradbury appears last in The Martian Chronicles it is the first he published of that whole cycle of stories (in all their various permutations), beating the next by two years. "The Million-Year Picnic" has to count as another very early story of nuclear anxiety, published within about a year of the blasts in Japan. It must be noted with Bradbury that his science fiction can be quite soft. As soft as the dew falling in an Indiana cornfield in June, as he might say (or is it Illinois?). He's too glib about the technology and with little sense of the conditions on Mars and all the impossible time and precision required to get there. In fairness, a lot of scientists in the 1940s were in approximately the same boat about Mars. People had mostly given up on the canals idea but not entirely. For all that, Bradbury has a mood down cold here, mulling the profound sadness of our self-destructive species doing all the wrong things as usual. He tells it by showing the father and husband in a family of five (and a half) quietly shepherding them from where they landed on Mars to a safer place. The year is maybe 2026 and people in this story are able to nab rockets on Earth and head out. The man is taking pains to leave no traces behind them, even destroying the rocket they came in on, as nuclear war has virtually wiped out life on Earth but more people may be coming to Mars on these handy if dangerous rockets. This guy has some insight into human psychology but he has also allied with another family in hopes of starting a new civilization, slightly Noah style. The hubris is almost as astonishing as the finality. One of the best tricks in this story—which I've also seen elsewhere but never done quite this poignantly—is taking the idea of "Martians" and applying it to humans now living on the red planet. It's apt, but still has the power to surprise and affect. This story is before the Martian aborigines Bradbury developed for the cycle later and it benefits from that. "Elegiac" is not a term I toss around often as compliment, certainly in genre literature, but Bradbury was capable of it and could be very good at it. This is not a bad example and bears interest as an early canary in the nuclear era.

The Stories of Ray Bradbury (Everyman's)
Read story online.

Illustration, Alexander Leydenfrost, from Planet Stories, Summer 1946

No comments:

Post a Comment