“‘What could I do? Argue with you? It’s simply me against the whole crooked grinding greedy setup on Earth. They’ll be flopping their filthy atom bombs ups here, fighting for bases to have wars. Isn’t it enough they’ve ruined one planet, without ruining another; do they have to foul someone else’s manger? The simple minded windbags. When I got up here I felt I was not only free of their so called culture, I felt I was free of their ethics and their customs. I’m out of their frame of reference, I thought. All I have to do is kill you all off and live my own life.”’
So spoke Jeff Spender to Captain Wilder in Ray Bradbury’s The Martian Chronicles. In this brief passage Spender speaks to the conundrum faced by so many people in so many times, the possession a such a powerful hatred of the ignorant violence perpetuated by our species on our species, and the rest of the planet, that it urges violence in return. The idea that these people are evil for killing innocent people, or allowing them to die despite the overwhelming resources available to help them, and so they ought to be killed in return.
The Martian Chronicles was first published in 1950, comprised of stories written in the years before, years during and after World War Two. WWII is often noted as a just war, something that seems to make it distinct from the many other wars that have been fought in recent history. After all, the Nazis, who were and are vile putrid scum of the earth, were defeated, what’s not to love?
In the direct aftermath however, as evidenced by the 45 years of officially fearing total nuclear annihilation known as the Cold War, and the following 28 years of, well, continuing to fear total nuclear annihilation known as the present, the focus wasn’t squarely on that defeat. It was the case, after all, that while the Nazis were defeated on the battlefield, it was the country of Japan, whose atrocities were not quite so distinct, that was defeated from six miles in the sky by two planes, and two nuclear bombs. In short, while there was much to celebrate, there was a lot to be somber about as well.
The Martian Chronicles is written with this apprehension writ large. People flee the Earth to escape the constant drumbeat of war, the news from Earth is always in regards to the threats against its habitability, and eventually, those threats become reality. Violence on a massive scale is not the only theme however, and Bradbury also reveals a progressive understanding of race relations that is beyond contemporary, at least as far as politics in the United States would suggest. The parallels between the invasion of Earthlings to Mars mirrors, and is pointed out almost explicitly, to the invasion of Europeans to the American continents. This includes the violence against Martian culture, and the near extinction of the Martians due to their exposure to Earth-born disease. It was this travesty that lead Jeff Spender to murder.
In a passage titled June 2003: Way in the Middle of the Air, the population of Black people in the South, having secretly pooled their money, had rocketships built, and are suddenly departing for Mars. A handful of old white men sit on the porch of a hardware store, watching the exodus.
“Between the blazing white banks of the town stores, among the tree silences, a black tide flowed. Like a kind of summer molasses, it poured turgidly forth upon the cinnamon-dusty road. It surged slow, slow, and it was men and women and horses and barking dogs, and it was little boys and girls. And from the mouth of the people partaking of this tide came the sound of a river. A summer-day river going somewhere, murmuring and irrevocable.”
One man sitting on the stoop of the hardware store, Samuel Teece, becomes enraged. He screams at the people going by, he stops a man named Belter and demands that Belter pay him a fifty dollar debt, or stay and work it off, something that would take two months Teece gleefully suggests. A crowd gathers and an old man among them passes a hat, quickly collecting the debt, which Teece tries to refuse, to no avail as Belter leaves the money on the dusty ground at his feet. Teece tries to intervene once more, stopping a young man who worked in his store and demanding he fulfill the terms of his contract to work there for another two years. Another of the old men on the porch offers to take his job, and the young man leaves off, shouting back behind him, “Mr. Teece, Mr. Teece, what you goin’ to do night from now on? What you goin’ to do nights, Mr. Teece?”
The following scene shows that Samuel Teece was a perpetuator of murder by lynching, something known in the town, but without any consequences for Mr. Teece or his fellow murderers. Science fiction authors have a penchant for prescience, in this case it is quite unfortunately the case. Bradbury not only predicted that the relationships between people with varying levels of melanin in their skin would still be fraught with tension in the new millennium, at least in some cases, some places, but that violence by white people against black would continue to go largely unpunished, and even seem to have some semblance of legality behind it. A story further in time has an Earthling shoot a Martian who attempted to hand him a scroll, mistaking it for a weapon. Later he talks to his wife about it.
‘“I’m sorry what happened,” he said. He looked at her, then away. “You know it was purely the circumstances of Fate.”
‘Yes.’ said his wife.
‘I hated like hell to see him take out that weapon.’
‘Well I thought it was one!…’
He doesn’t claim to have been afraid for his life, but it is implied.
This book is not quite so dour as I have made it seem. Though it is dark throughout, there is levity as well. In the early missions a Captain and his men make it to an inhabited Mars, but instead of being greeted with surprise and celebration, they are greeted with bored passiveness, being ultimately referred to a Mr. Iii, who turns out to be the local psychiatrist. In another, after Mars has been all but deserted, a young man desperate for company meets perhaps the last young woman on the planet, and after a few days decides he didn’t mind being alone after all. Another story, not quite funny but interesting and light, has a Martian meet a newly arrived Earthling who seem to be experiencing entirely different periods of time, and they cannot determine who is living in the past, who in the present. There is the story of Benjamin Driscoll, the Johnny Appleseed of Mars by his own description. There is also a passing reference to the world of Farenheit 451, through a man who recreates the House of Usher to the dismay of the local Investigator of Moral Climates.
This book takes place over the years 1999 to 2026. In the end it is only complete annihilation of the Earth, and nearly off it’s inhabitants, that allows the world to move on from the psychosis that has entrapped in a state of perpetual greed and violence for millenia. One family escapes in a rocket hidden from the governments of Earth. As the father, burns away sheafs of paper containing the legal codes of Earth, he talks to his family about why he is doing so, and why the radio transmissions from Earth had stopped.
‘“I’m burning a way of life, just like the way of life is being burned clean of Earth right now. Forgive me if I talk like a politician. I am, after all, a former state governor, and I was honest and they hated me for it. Life on Earth never settled down to doing anything very good. Science ran too far ahead of us too quickly, and the people got lost in a mechanical wilderness, like children making over pretty things, gadgets, helicopters, rockets; emphasizing the wrong items, emphasizing machines instead of how to run the machines. Wars got bigger and bigger and and finally killed Earth. that’s what the silent radio means. That’s what we ran away from.’”
There are eight years between now and 2026, and perhaps the good news is we do not yet have another manger to foul. We have the Earth, and that is all. It is dispiriting, to say the least, to still be fighting to have it recognized that the color of a person’s skin has no more to do with their value than their height, or their shoe size. It is disheartening to have to battle against bigots and cowards, because of they don’t like that some men love men and women love women, or that people are no longer prisoner to the gender stated on their birth certificates. The environment continues to be destroyed by people who claim that it cannot be destroyed. A single person can possess enough wealth to feed the world, wealth built almost exclusively by underpaid labor and criminal working conditions, and be lauded for offering free delivery of knick knacks for a yearly fee. The fact that we are still in as much danger of nuclear war as ever, but that we seem to have simply gotten used to it, is hard to fathom.
Perhaps though, just as The Martian Chronicles has more lightness than it seems on its surface, there is more hope on Earth than it would seem. The artist, recently risen to prominence, Boots Riley said on his most recent album, “They got the TV, we got the truth/They own the judges and we got the proof/We got hella people, they got helicopters/ They got the bombs and we got the/we got the/we got the guillotine…”
Ray Bradbury wrote a cautionary tale, but just because the premises have bore out does not mean the ending will. We may not even need the eight years between now and the end of the book to begin to make the necessary changes. We don’t need to escape to Mars either, we don’t need to run away at all, and we don’t need to kill the people we disagree with. What we need, and what it would seem we have in abundance, is people in the streets, ready to take back to Earth. The work may never stop, but all that means is neither should we.