February 2002 (“The Locusts”)—August 2002 (“Night Meeting”)
Summary: The pace of emigration from Earth to Mars intensifies, and settlers begin building homes and towns. These pioneers, however, show little interest in learning about their new home world as an alien world; instead, they go to great extremes to shut the real Mars out, making themselves as comfortable within their new structures as possible, keeping the red planet itself at arms’ length. Tomás Gomez is one of these newcomers. After working in one of the new colonies for nearly two weeks, he is on his way to a party where he intends to celebrate with other human settlers. On his way, he pulls his truck into a—by all appearances—dead Martian town where, to his surprise, he encounters a Martian. The Martian, named Muhe Ca, is just as surprised to see Gomez as Gomez is to see him; and their mutual astonishment only grows when they discover that they are ethereal to each other: they cannot make physical contact, they can see through each other, and—most incredibly of all—they view their setting in completely opposite ways. Where Gomez sees a dead city, Muhe Ca sees a living one, pulsating with Martian revelry and joy in life, a celebration to which he, like Gomez, is on his way. The two conclude that they must be from different points in time; however, they cannot agree whether the dead town represents the Martians’ past or humanity’s future. Unable to reach agreement, the two nevertheless part amicably, each one continuing along the road to a place where laughter and love and life awaits him.
Analysis: The title of the interstitial material, “The Locusts,” cannot help but evoke associations with plagues, especially if Bradbury is creating biblical allusions: readers need think only of the plague of locusts visited upon Egypt in the book of Exodus, or the plague of locusts unleashed against an unrepentant Israel in the book of Joel. The question then arises: is humanity, in fact, proving to be a plague upon Mars? “The [Earth] rockets came like locusts, swarming and settling in blooms of rosy smoke” (p. 78). The question remains an open one; this interlude pictures the human emigration to Mars in a time of transition, a liminal phase. Humans who move to Mars are moving to a threshold: they have left their old world behind physically, but do not seem ready emotionally to embrace their new world. Just as Spender (in “—And the Moon Be Still as Bright”) feared, humans eagerly set about the task of settling Mars by reshaping it to their liking: “they hammered up frame cottages and scuttled over roofs with shingles to blot out the eerie stars, and fit green shades to pull against the night” (p. 78). A wonderful new world of mystery awaits these settlers—but they deem it “eerie” and something to be shut out, a silence fit only to be drowned out in domestic kitchen clamor. These humans do not know what wonders they might encounter were they willing to venture forth into the Martian night, rather than defend themselves against it. (Interestingly, Ray Bradbury’s book for children, Switch On the Night (1955), was written to calm his own child’s fear of the dark by encouraging children to revel in nocturnal riches—a lesson Bradbury’s Martian settlers could well stand to learn!)
For his part, Tomás Gomez does not explicitly articulate this anti-Martian attitude: he emerges as a young man doing his work, not giving too much thought to the larger ramifications of the settlements, simply living in the moment, “feeling good” (p. 79) and eager to celebrate. So perhaps it is the thoughtful words of old Pop at the gas station (in Bradbury’s Martian future, humans bring the internal combustion engine and its fossil fuel with them!) that, even unconsciously, prepare Gomez for the encounter he is about to have. Pop laments the fact that not enough people are like him: he is more than happy to forget Earth: “We’ve got to look at what we’re in here, and how different it is… I came to Mars to retire and I wanted to retire in a place where everything is different” (p. 79). Unlike the vast majority of human settlers, Pop is open to the new experience that is Mars. His openness to the different, even the radically different, may put Gomez in mind of a similar potential within himself—it is, after all, shortly after his conversation with Pop that Gomez begins to muse on “the fancy” of what Time itself smells and sounds and looks and feels like (p. 80). Such thoughts are fanciful, and full of imagination, and border on the “sense of wonder” so dear to science fiction in general and to Bradbury in particular. They are not the thoughts of a settler eager to domesticate an alien world as quickly and completely as possible! So Gomez is a transitional figure, standing at the crossroads of living in the moment and dwelling in eternity.
How he reacts to his meeting with Muhe Ca, then, may inform us as to the fate of humanity’s emigration to Mars. Which direction will it take: a rejection of the alien and the different, or an embrace of it? As a liminal event—a night-time meeting, with the air of a “dream” about it (p. 86), in a city that Gomez sees as dead and Muhe Ca sees as living—the encounter between human and Martian bears all the markers of a critical juncture, despite its relative brevity and casual nature. The distinctions between flesh and phantom, between past and future, melt away in this moment: “They pointed at each other… each finding himself intact, hot, excited, stunned, awed, and the other, ah yes, that other over there, unreal…” (p. 83). And the erasure of these distinctions enables the human and the Martian to see what they share: a desire for life. Gomez is on his way to a party; so his Muhe Ca. What’s more, both men, immediately prior to their meeting, felt as though they were “the last man alive on this world” (p. 85). And, in the end, both can agree with the sentiments Muhe Ca expresses: “What does it matter who is Past or Future… [T]he night is very short” (p. 86). These words echo the theme of carpe diem—“seize the day” (Latin)—so common in western literature. Bradbury’s story is not one that stops, as so many other science fiction tales have, to dwell on the technological or cosmological conditions of this time paradox. It is enough that the human and the Martian stand together at the crossroads, and that both pursue life, rather than death. Both, in their encounter with each other, display an openness to “something different” (p. 81)—and it is this openness, the story suggests, that must prevail over resistance to it if the human experience on Mars is to end any differently than the decaying and dying civilization discovered by those first four expeditions. Bradbury’s message seems clear: for humanity to live and to thrive, it must, as Pop says, forget the past and desire the diverse differences to be found in the future.
October 2002 (“The Shore”)—June 2003 (“Way in the Middle of the Air”)
Summary: Human emigration to Mars continues, but consisting exclusively of American settlers; the rest of the globe is too consumed by war. This fact does mean, however, that Mars can provide a solution to the particularly vexing American problem of racial tension. All blacks from the American South leave Earth for a new and better life on Mars. Most white Southerners react as does Samuel Teece, who both clearly loathes his African-American neighbors and servants and yet does all he can to keep them from leaving: he demands the money owed to him by a man named Belter, for instance, and threatens his young worker Silly with legal action should Silly break the contract he signed (with an “X”) that committed him to two years’ work in Teece’s store. Ultimately, however, Belter’s fellow blacks pay his debt to Teece—as they are doing for all blacks who owe whites money—and Teece’s friends persuade him to release Silly from his contract. The blacks leave in rockets they have been secretly building, leaving behind all physical possessions and a sad legacy of racial hatred directed against them.
Analysis: Deviating from the pattern already established, three short “interludes” precede the next short story in the book. “The Shore” describes the ever-growing waves of emigration from Earth— but consisting of Americans only. The narrator does not imply that such a state of affairs is desirable: the next settlers “should have traveled from other countries with other accents and other ideas” (p. 87). The lack of diversity among humans going to Mars, the text suggests, will lead to problems on the red planet, even as problems on Earth continue: “The rest of [Earth] was buried in war of the thoughts of war” (p. 87). Thus, in “The Musicians”—the third of these interludes—we see a group of young boys behaving in a way one might expect of the stereotypical “ugly American abroad”: they race each other to the dead cities of Mars and enjoy kicking around the Martians’ remains, including their skeletons, before the “Firemen”—“antiseptic warriors” (p. 89), apparently a group of government or military officials who cleanse the Martian ruins with flame—can do their work. (Longtime readers of Bradbury may note resonances with the “Firemen” of his classic dystopian novel, Fahrenheit 451. As Guy Montag and his fellow “firemen” in that novel systematically erased their society’s memory by burning books, so do the “Firemen” of Mars in this novel erase any memory of old Martian society by means of arson.) The third interlude is ironically titled “The Musicians” because the boys use the Martian bones as musical instruments: the bones are referred to as “white xylophones,” and the boys’ desecrating acts are described with such phrases as “a final marimba concert” (p. 89). Spender’s fears that humanity will ruin Mars as it ruined Earth seem to be coming true; the “musicians’” actions, while simply the normal fun and games of childhood in their eyes (“…they imagined, like on Earth, they were scuttering through autumn leaves,” p. 88), is really a gross violation of Martian antiquities. The boys thus represent all the American settlers precisely because they do not appreciate the fact that they are no longer on Earth. They are scattering, not autumn leaves, but the ashes of a once-proud civilization. Bradbury may here be delivering a subtle but strong critique of America, which is a nation founded in part (granted not wholly, but indeed in no small part) upon newcomers’ destruction of older civilizations (as Bradbury has already alluded to in the character of Cheroke). The American immigrants to Mars have not learned the lesson Pop preached and Gomez learned in the “Night Meeting”: they are not content to let Mars be Mars, a place that is different, fundamentally alien. Instead—as the second interlude, “Interim,” illustrates—they insist upon replicating Earth experiences on the red planet: “It was as if, in many ways, a great earthquake had shaken loose the roots and cellars of an Iowa town, and then, in an instant, a whirlwind twister of Oz-like proportions had carried the entire town off to Mars to set it down without a bump” (p. 88). The American settlers are not living a new life on Mars, but are replicating the old one. Of course, as Captain Black and the Third Expedition discovered too late, the expectation that Mars will be exactly like a sleepy Iowa town can prove fatal.
The short story with which these interludes are paired, then, provides an intriguing contrast—a sudden hope that not all of Earth’s past follies will be repeated upon Mars. “Way in the Middle of the Air” is a story that may make many modern readers uncomfortable, with its frequent use of the word “nigger” and some of its characterizations of black characters (neither Belter nor Silly emerge, at least in this writer’s opinion, as particularly well-developed individuals); however, readers can bear in mind that Bradbury wrote this story while America was still racially segregated, and the story is a product of its time. Furthermore, the story does not, of course, condone racial prejudice, even though it is told from a white character’s point of view. Samuel Teece is a thoroughly disagreeable man, even revealed near the story’s end to be a proud member of lynch mobs (“…as they picked a tree, a good strong tree, and rapped on a shanty door!,” p. 100). He is a man who enjoys dominating others, as seen in his attempts to lord Belter’s debt over him and to force Silly to adhere to the terms of his indentured servitude-like contract (apparently signed under duress in the first place, and perhaps not even by Silly—“I didn’t sign it, Mr. Teece… Anyone can make an X,” p. 97). Teece pays lip minimal (if that!) lip service to the idea of an equal society, but he does so in the context of his own racial hatred and its resultant desire for control over these he sees as his inferiors: “I can’t figure why they left now. With things lookin’ up. I mean, every day they got more rights. What they want, anyway?” (p. 96). Teece (along with his wife, who is so distraught over their kitchen servant Lucinda’s departure) cannot accept the fact that the unjust society of the segregated South is coming to an end. As history has proven time and again, however, such resistance is vain. Bradbury creates an evocative image of the black emigrants as a river, a “black tide” flowing through the Southern streets (p. 90), “a very quiet thing, with a great certainty to it; no laughter, no wildness, just a steady, decided, and ceaseless flow” (p. 92). Perhaps Bradbury was inspired by images of the Civil Rights Movement and its determined, non-violent marchers across the American South in the 1950s and 1960s; perhaps he also means to evoke the biblical prophets’ image of justice as a river: “But let justice roll on like a river, righteousness like a never-failing stream!” (Amos 5:24, NIV). The report that the blacks leave all physical possessions behind, and appear to have been taken bodily into the heavens, also has a biblical cast to it: “as if a whole city had walked here with hands full, at which time a great bronze trumpet had sounded… and one and all, the inhabitants of the earth had fled straight up into the blue heavens” (p. 101). This language evokes associations with some Christian ideas of the Rapture and the Second Coming of Christ, giving the story as a whole an apocalyptic feel. Truly, an old world—the world of racial hate—has come to an end; a new world has come—but not to Earth: to Mars. The tide cannot be turned. As Martin Luther King, Jr., said, “The moral arc of the universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” On Mars, readers can presume, these African-Americans will at last be free.