The Martian Chronicles: Summary:2004-05

2004-05 (“The Naming of Names”)—April 2005 (“Usher II”)


Summary: Emigration to Mars continues, and settlers reshape and rename the red planet to their liking, including one William Stendahl, who uses his vast fortune to build an elaborate “haunted house”: a mechanically operated reproduction of the gothic edifice in Edgar Allan Poe’s story, “The Fall of the House of Usher,” populated by robots from such fantastic literature as Alice in Wonderland and L. Frank Baum’s Oz novels. Stendahl is a lover of all literature fantastic and horrific; his library, however, is one of many on Earth that has been purged by government edict, laws making “escapism” and imagination in literature and entertainment illegal. Garrett, a government agent, arrives on Mars to inspect Stendahl’s house; he decrees that it must be torn down. Stendahl has a robotic ape in the house kill Garrett. He works with Pikes, an out-of-work actor—“the man of ten thousand faces”—to prepare a great party at the house for representatives of the Society for the Prevention of Fantasy. During the party, Stendahl discovers that the “Garrett” whom the robotic ape killed was, himself, a robot; the real Garrett arrives, determined to close the new house of Usher. He is even more set on doing so as he sees what appears to be the macabre entertainment of the party guests watching mechanical duplicates of themselves die, meeting ends drawn from the terrifying tales of Poe. Stendahl manages to lure Garrett to the house’s cellar, where he reveals that, in fact, the mechanical duplicates have been watching the real party guests die. Stendahl walls Garrett up as Montresor walls up Fortunato in Poe’s story, “The Cask of Amontillado.” Leaving by helicopter, Stendahl and Pikes initiate the house’s destruction; it cracks and falls into the dark waters surrounding it, as did its literary namesake.


Analysis: Easily the most chilling segment of The Martian Chronicles, “Usher II” seems to be of two minds regarding the role of the imagination in literature and life. Stendahl’s motivation in building Usher II closely tracks with the dystopian society Bradbury envisions in his novel Fahrenheit 451. Bradbury’s story does not approve of censorship. It affirms the life of the imagination as a positive force through its numerous invocations of and allusions to famous characters of fantastic and horrific literature—all of the robots who reside in Usher II are either specific, memorable characters (e.g., Tweedledum and Tweedledee from Lewis Carroll’s Wonderland; Tik-Tok and Ruggedo from L. Frank Baum’s Oz) or easily recognizable “types” of fantastic tales (e.g., the “old witch” who foreshadows Garrett’s death, p. 108, or “a dragon with a furnace in its belly,” p. 111, an easily identified denizen of many stories set in fairy tale kingdoms). Yet Stendahl’s response of revenge against the “tremendously important politicians, bacteriologists, and neurologists” whom he carefully cultivated as friends on Earth (p. 112)—the representatives of the establishment who have repressed the fantastic and the imaginary—is, in fact, murder, however full of poetic justice it might be. Does Bradbury expect readers to approve of Stendahl?


Likely not—the text gives indications that, in Stendahl’s Martian context, he, too, is as guilty as those whom he lures to their deaths. Remember Pop’s lament in “Night Meeting,” that the human settlers of Mars are shutting themselves off from “the different.” They are refusing to engage the planet as it is and are instead, as Spender of the Fourth Expedition feared, trying to turn Mars into another Earth. (The interstitial material preceding this story expressly focuses on this phenomenon: the immigrants give new names to every place on Mars, “names… left like cinders” (p. 102—i.e., names that have destructive power), “mechanical names and… metal names from Earth” (p. 103), names that attempt to remake Mars into a place where “everything was safe and certain” (p. 103). Similarly, the Society for the Prevention of Fantasy has attempted to make all literature and art “safe and certain.” As Stendahl correctly diagnoses their motivation, they are afraid: “afraid of the dark, afraid of the future, afraid of the past, afraid of the present, afraid of themselves and shadows of themselves” (p. 105). They wait to come to Mars until “the rough men had come up and buried the Martians and cleansed the cities and built the towns and repaired the highways and made everything safe” (p. 112, emphasis added). Yet Stendahl, too, in reconstructing the House of Usher, is retreating from the real Mars. He is hiding behind his wealth and, in effect, hiding within his books. He is not letting Mars be “different” any more than the other settlers; he, too, is reshaping it to his liking—with fatal results, not only to his party guests but also to the planet itself. Note how his architect tells him, “You notice, it’s always twilight here, this land, always October, barren, sterile, dead. It took a bit of doing. We killed everything” (p. 104). Stendahl achieves a victory over his enemies, but at the terrible price of dealing death to Mars. 


August 2005 (“The Old Ones”)—September 2005 (“The Martian”)


Summary: The last major wave of human immigration to Mars consists of the elderly, among them Lafe LaFarge and his wife Anna, who are still experiencing grief over the death of their son, Tom, years before. To Lafe’s shock, Tom appears to visit them one night in their new home on Mars. Anna accepts the new arrival unconditionally and uncritically; Lafe comes to understand that “Tom” is actually one of the few remaining indigenous Martians, somehow appearing to him in a form he can accept. Over “Tom’s” reservations, the family goes into town the next evening. In town, “Tom” becomes separated from Lafe and Anna. Lafe discovers “Tom” is now “Lavinia Spaulding,” long-dead daughter of Joe Spaulding. When Lafe convinces “Lavinia” to return to the LaFarge home and be “Tom” again, however, Mr. Spaulding pursues. Through the chase, the Martian assumes the visages of many different people, all being pursued by various humans. At last, the Martian can longer handle the rapid changes, and dies. 


Analysis: The final major wave of new arrivals are “the mummy people” (p. 118), an evocative phrase that suggests these latest human settlers are already dead. It is not a fair generalization about the elderly, of course, but Bradbury is not making a statement about senior citizens. He is using age and the regrets and loss that inevitably accompany it as ciphers or symbols for humans’ inability to accept Mars as it is. At the beginning of the story, “old LaFarge and his wife [come] out of their house” to watch Mars (p. 119), just as Pap in “Night Meeting” suggested people should do, as opposed to isolating themselves inside their home; however, their dialogue, as well as their reaction to “Tom,” shows that they cannot truly embrace Mars as different. Lafe LaFarge cannot heed Anna’s advice that they “should try to forget [Tom] and everything on Earth” (p. 119); or, rather, he can give intellectual assent to it (“You’re right,” p. 119), but he cannot live it. He is trapped in the past. Not for nothing does Bradbury emphasize the LaFarge’s advanced years over and over in the story’s first few pages: “I feel so old” (p. 120); “I’m getting old” (p. 121). The LaFarge’s “oldness,” however, is not really related to their chronological age, but to their inability to accept Mars as a new and different experience. LaFarge feels it would be better if Tom were alive—and when “Tom” does appear, alive, he accepts the illusion over the reality (albeit more slowly than Anna does, and with much urging from “Tom”: “Why can’t you accept me and stop talking?,” p. 122). Thus, even though it is the Martian who worries about being “trapped” if the family goes to town (p. 124), the people who are truly being trapped are the humans. The Martian’s ability to read their minds and create pleasing illusions for them entraps them in the past, when they need to live fully in the present in order to move on into a new future. Lafe reflects, as “Tom” is hunted down at the story’s end, “And here they all are now… wanting the dream for their own, just as we want him to be Tom…” (pp. 129-30). As “Tom” dies, like “melting wax” (p. 130), we grasp that the human inability to accept Mars as it is—the stubborn insistence on remaking this new world in the old world’s image, this refusal of the example set by Benjamin Driscoll in “The Green Morning” in favor of example set by William Stendahl in “Usher II”—is leading (quite literally, in this Martian’s case) to the death of Mars—its second death, really, at the hands of humanity. As Spender feared, the humans are ruining their new planet in the way they ruined their old.


November 2005 (“The Luggage Store,” “The Off Season,” “The Watchers”)


Summary: As Earth continues a seemingly inevitable march toward atomic war, humans begin returning to their home world. One pair who remain behind are Sam and Elma Parkhill. Sam (former member of the Fourth Expedition) is about to realize his long-time ambition of opening the first and only hot dog stand on Mars. When one of the few remaining indigenous Martians visits him, Sam—mistakenly believing a device the Martian produces is a weapon—shoots and kills it. A dozen Martian sand ship descend on Sam’s hot dog stand; he and his wife try to flee in their own sand ship, purchased at auction. The pursuing Martians, however, convince Sam they mean him no harm; they wish only to convey a message. The Martians bequeath Sam half the planet before they leave him. Sam believes his fortune is secure. That night, however, he and other humans watch as, in the skies above, Earth erupts into war. From the surface of the ruined third planet, coded messages of light call the humans home.


Analysis: If “Act I” of The Martian Chronicles ended (in “—And the Moon Still be as Bright”) with a cautious mixture of optimism regarding the human migration to Mars (in the form of Captain Wilder promising Spender that he would respect the planet’s ancient civilization by trying to slow human migration down), “Act II,” which could be said to end with “The Watchers,” gives readers little reason to think even that small amount of optimism was well founded. The rumors of war that have dogged the novel to this point are now fulfilled, as Sam and Elma and their fellow settlers watch, horrified, from the Martian surface. 


The two sections of interstitial material that frame “The Off Season”—“The Luggage Store” and “The Watchers”—establish a contrast between the unnamed proprietor’s luggage shop and Sam Parkhill’s would-be hot dog stand. The proprietor correctly reads the signs of his times: “I’d better get my luggage dusted off. I got a feeling there’ll be a rush sale here any time” (p. 132). Sure enough, at the end of “The Watchers,” the proprietor is saying, “Stayed open late on purpose” (p. 144). A reverse exodus back to Earth has begun—instead of the mass influx of new immigrants Sam had anticipated. 


Sam’s greed encapsulates the human failing that has doomed this initial wave of settlement as surely as the first four expeditions were doomed—little surprise, since Sam belonged to the Fourth Expedition: “If the boys from the Fourth Expedition could see me now,” p. 133). Some of Bradbury’s details explicitly hearken back to the fate of that expedition. For example, Sam has made a path to his hot dog stand lined with “broken glass… from some old Martian buildings in the hills” (p. 133). This detail reminds readers of how Captain Wilder caught Sam (then only called “Parkhill”) “shooting out the crystal windows and blowing the tops off the fragile towers” of a Martian city at the close of “—And the Moon Still Be As Bright” (p. 72). Now, some four years later, Sam Parkhill is still destroying the Martian civilization for selfish ends, as the Martians who accost him tell him. They are speaking of the old sand ship he won at auction, but they could just as easily be speaking of Mars itself: “[Y]ou came and took it, stole it” (p. 137). The repetition of the glass motif in metaphorical ways—“the glassy sea floor” over which sand ships sail (p. 136), the laughter of the Martians being described as sounding like “a thin plate of glass broken” (p. 137)—reinforce for readers how little Sam has changed. He even re-enacts his earlier crime when he thinks the Martians are pursuing him to punish him: “in his frustration, in his rage, he sent six bullets crashing among the crystal towers” (p. 138).  Anger, violence, greed, short-sightedness, fear—the humans who came to Mars brought all these failings with them, and now the first human attempt to settle the red planet is as dead as the planet’s ancient civilization itself. “[W]e came up here to get away from things—politics, the atom bomb, war, pressure groups, prejudice, laws,” the proprietor of the luggage store says. But these things are still with the humans, and they seal humanity’s fate, both on Mars and back on Earth.


December 2005 (“The Silent Towns”)


Summary: Walter Gripp lives alone in an abandoned Earth colony on Mars. He spends many of his days telephoning numbers out of the phone book, hoping someone will answer. One day, a woman named Genevieve Selsor does. Walter and Genevieve arrange to meet. As Walter drives to Genevieve’s town, he imagines how beautiful she will be and daydreams of how happy they will be together. When Walter meets Genevieve, however, he finds her loathsome and unpleasant. After spending as much time with Genevieve as he can stand—and when she confronts him with a wedding dress—Walter drives away, back to his own empty town. Now, when the phone rings, Walter does not answer. 


Analysis: “The Silent Towns” is an odd story, consisting largely of poignant descriptions of Walter’s intense isolation—for example, Walter’s solitary excursion to the Elite Theater, which is “hollow, empty, like a tomb with phantoms crawling gray and black on the vast screen” (p. 147)—but then culminating in a rather coarse, vaguely misogynistic punch line: the “surprise” revelation of Walter’s would-be mate as a fat, dull woman mainly interested in eating chocolates. The story attempts to add a layer of irony when Genevieve tells Walter (as they watch “a fifty-year old film of Clark Gable” over and over in an empty cinema, mirroring Walter’s trip to the movies at the story’s outset), “You’re not quite what I expected, but you’re nice” (p. 153). On the whole, however, neither Walter nor Genevieve emerge as especially well-developed characters. The allusions to the biblical account of Adam and Eve—for instance, Walter’s realization, “Why, I’m all alone” (p. 147; compare Gen. 2:18: “And the Lord God said, It is not good that the man should be alone; I will make him an help meet for him,” KJV); Genevieve’s unfulfilled attempt to get Walter to wed her (“Well, here I am, the only lady on Mars, and here is the only man…”, p. 154), a parody of the establishment of marriage in Gen. 2:24—“Therefore shall a man leave his father and his mother, and shall cleave unto his wife: and they shall be one flesh” (KJV); or even the phonetic similarity of the names “Eve” and “Genevieve,” and Walter’s repeated “naming” of Genevieve (“He whispered. Genevieve,” p. 151) as he drives to meet her, not unlike the first man naming the first woman—cannot add substance to two characters who are, in Walter’s case, unremarkable, and in Genevieve’s, a caricature. To be fair, a hint of real depth to Genevieve emerges when she confesses to Walter that she chose to stay behind on Mars, rather than return to war-ravaged Earth (as so many humans did in “The Watchers”), because “everyone picked on me”; however, she immediately goes on to say that she chose her Martian exile in order to “throw perfume on myself all day and drink ten thousand malts and eat candy without people saying, ‘Oh, that’s full of calories!’” (pp. 153-54). By the end of the story, surely one of the weakest in The Martian Chronicles, readers are more than ready to leave both characters alone.