Tag Archives: The Martian Chronicles

Ray Bradbury

If you could study the mind of any lifelong, dedicated reader, I bet you would find an early encounter with the stories of Ray Bradbury way back there in the intellectual DNA. Mention his name to a member of that happy clan and you’ll see a little spark in the eyes that suggests memories of winter landscapes briefly turned to summer by a rocket launch, stained glass windows with colors that reveal alternate universes, mechanized houses kept spotlessly clean for occupants who will never return, and foghorns visited by lonely dinosaurs. Ray Bradbury, who just died at 91, was a magician, and anyone who encountered him at the right age was forever marked.

I couldn’t imagine my crucial reading years without him. Talk about happy accidents! I came to his work by way of Francois Truffaut’s bungled film version of Fahrenheit 451, which was shown on television quite often while I was a boy obsessed with monsters and science fiction. (I can only imagine what Bradbury, a lifelong technophobe who despised TV, would have made of that connection.) After reading the novel I came across the story collection The October Country, and fell into Bradbury’s alternate universe, an idealized but not entirely benign small-town Midwest where the colors were a little brighter and the shadows a little darker. I snapped up other titles in short order: The Golden Apples of the Sun, The Martian Chronicles, The Illustrated Man, S Is For Space. Though the novels Dandelion Wine and Something Wicked This Way Comes have their admirers, I always  thought Bradbury (like Hemingway, a key influence) worked best in short forms. The magic was most effective in concentrated doses.

Bradbury lived a long happy life, with no shortage of admirers (some of whom probably startled him a bit), and he kept writing up to the end. Thanks to early praise from literary heavyweights, he spent his career outside the “Sci-Fi Guy” corral that penned in so many other writers. Bradbury himself preferred to call his work fantasy, but that didn’t keep him out of The Science Fiction Hall of Fame, and he was one of the first writers honored by The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction in its series of tribute issues.   

Appropriately for a writer, Bradbury penned his own best epitaph, in the 2005 collection Bradbury Speaks:

In my later years I have looked in the mirror each day and found a happy person staring back. Occasionally I wonder why I can be so happy. The answer is that every day of my life I’ve worked only for myself and for the joy that comes from writing and creating. The image in my mirror is not optimistic, but the result of optimal behavior.

ADDENDUM: President Obama pays tribute to Ray Bradbury.

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A paranoia palimpsest

During a YouTube safari in search of Icarus Montgolfier Wright, the 1962 short film based on Ray Bradbury’s poem of the same name, I found that another Bradbury piece, the post-apocalyptic vignette “There Will Come Soft Rains” from The Martian Chronicles, is a big favorite with animators.

For my money, the most striking is this 1984 production from Uzbekfilm:

In addition to being a pretty decent visualization, that Uzbekfilm production offers what you might call a paranoia palimpsest.

Bradbury’s story was written in the late Forties, when the Cold War’s chill was settling in and the postwar dread of nuclear war was in full noxious flower. A wave of novels and films about the aftermath of nuclear war was building: Arch Oboler’s Five would be released in 1951, a year after The Martian Chronicles was published, to be followed by (among many others) Pat Frank’s Alas, Babylon, Neville Shute’s On the Beach, Walter Miller’s A Canticle for Leibowitz, the 1951 nuclear warning film The Day the Earth Stood Still, the original Godzilla, and innumerable B-movies in which attractive actors and actresses would contend with rubber-suited mutants spawned by radiation.

Leave it to Ray Bradbury to find a unique angle on the post-apocalyptic theme, one that combines a lampoon of Fifties consumerism (the robot kitchen that wakes everyone up, feeds them and gets them out the door) with the gradually dawning realization that all human life has been wiped out. Bradbury characteristically links it all to poetry — in this case, Sara Teasdale’s 1920 work of the same name:

There will come soft rains and the smell of the ground,
And swallows circling with their shimmering sound;

And frogs in the pool singing at night,
And wild plum trees in tremulous white;

Robins will wear their feathery fire,
Whistling their whims on a low fence-wire;

And not one will know of the war, not one
Will care at last when it is done.

Not one would mind, neither bird nor tree,
If mankind perished utterly;

And Spring herself when she woke at dawn
Would scarcely know that we were gone.

“Would scarcely know that we were gone.” A perfect line for a story in which humanity is defined by its self-inflicted absence.

Flash forward to the early Eighties. Ronald Reagan is openly joking about nuking the Soviet Union, fantasies of space-based defense against missiles are floating in the air, and members of Reagan’s administration are offering daffy scenarios about how to survive nuclear devastation. In response, Jonathan Schell’s 1982 essay The Fate of the Earth essentially starts the nuclear freeze movement, and the television film The Day After counters Reagan’s happy talk with a gut-wrenching depiction of how a nuclear war would look from the civilian perspective.

Where Teasdale’s poem (and Bradbury’s Fifties era use of it) imagined mankind disappearing without causing much of a fuss, the Uzbekfilm production imagines much harsher consequences in keeping with its release in 1984 from the pre-perestroika Soviet Union. There’s even a glimpse of nuclear winter, a term Carl Sagan and others used as often as possible, though there is still some debate about such an effect. But the fears of the Fifties overlap with the fears of the Eighties quite comfortably.

Along with the Soviet film, I came across this undated student production, which compresses the story considerably but still gets the point across :

And this 2006 live-action production from Chris Rowe:

And I don’t want to leave out this short film based on “The Pedestrian,” which Bradbury wrote after being accosted by police while taking an evening stroll:

Meanwhile, I have yet to find Icarus Montgolfier Wright. Anybody know where I can score a copy?

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