Intro

This is the blog and homepage of Mark R. Kelly, the founder of Locus Online in 1997 (for which I won a Hugo Award in 2002 — see the icon at right) and of an index to science fiction awards in 2000 that became sfadb.com in 2012. I’m retired from my day job of 30 years, from 1982 to 2012, as an aerospace software engineer, supporting the Space Shuttle and the International Space Station.

Posts here are mostly about my reading, of science fiction and of books about science, history, philosophy, and religion; and comments to articles in newspapers and comments that I link to. Movie reviews and reports and pics from travels are posted on Facebook.

More on my About page, including a photo of the Hugo Winners the year I was among them.

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David Brooks on Myths vs. Parables

New York Times columnist David Brooks runs hot and cold with me; ostensibly a conservative, he’s too inclined to dismiss new ideas in favor of sanctified values, for my taste, yet he does read widely and responds to many new ideas.

Here’s his take on the notion of myth vs. parable, and how it’s reflected in our current culture.

NYT: The Fourth Great Awakening.

There are certain melodies that waft through history. One is the cultural contrast between Athens and Jerusalem. This contrast has many meanings, but the most germane one for our day is the contrast between the competitive virtues and the compassionate virtues.

These two sets of virtues get communicated in different literary forms. The competitive virtues of Athens are usually narrated in myth while the compassionate virtues of Jerusalem often get narrated in parable.

Myths tend to celebrate grandeur and heroic superiority; parables tend to puncture the pretensions of superiority and celebrate humility and service to others.

All of a sudden, we are surrounded by myth. As parable-based religion has receded from the public square, heroic myth, and the competitive virtues it celebrates, has rushed in to fill the space.

I’ll just mention three forms that are immensely popular today. The first is mythic movies: “Avengers,” “X-Men,” “Star Wars,” “Transformers,” “Justice League” and the rest. The Marvel Cinematic Universe and DC Extended Universe franchises alone have grossed about $20 billion at the box office worldwide.

I regularly run into people (men, mostly) who are deeply immersed in these mythic worlds, who can entertain you with long disquisitions on the merits of different characters, the moral lessons of each film, whether “Black Panther,” say, is an accurate rendition of injustice today.

And he goes on about video games, and sporting events like the World Cup. The essay ends:

There are many virtues to the mythic worldview — to stand heroically for justice, to be loyal to friends and fierce against foes. But history does offer some sobering lessons about societies that relied too heavily on the competitive virtues.

They tend to give short shrift to relationships, which depend on the fragile, intimate bonds of vulnerability, trust, compassion and selfless love. They tend to see life as an eternal competition between warring tribes. They tend to see the line between good and evil as running between groups, not, as in parable, down the middle of every human heart.

We’re spiritual creatures; our lives are shaped by the moral landscapes and ideals we inherit and absorb. I’d say our politics and our society are coming to resemble the competitive mythic ethos that is suddenly all around.

For what it’s worth, Steven Pinker’s recent pair of books, The Better Angels of Our Nature and Enlightenment Now, identify the abandonment of what Brooks calls the mythic worldview with the advance into a modern world of enlightenment, peace, and the decline of violence.

And this theme echoes the post recently about superhero movies.

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My First Web Page

The subject of old websites came up on a Facebook thread yesterday, particularly pages created on various platforms that are now extinct, like sff.net or compuserve.com. Long before I created this blog, first in Blogger and then in WordPress, I created a homepage on Compuserve.com, then along with AOL.com the hotbed of online interaction. It’s nowhere on the web itself that I can find — not via Wayback Machine or any such place — but I found my local copy, on my harddrive, and uploaded it here. Let’s see if the link works…

Yup. Note that I was learning html at the time and playing around with table tags and table cell coloring. Thus the entire page has no links to graphics or anything; the coloring is all done via table cell color tags. Moreover, the colors are mixes of three basic settings, for each of R,G,B: either 00, FF, or 69.

This page links to several samples of the short fiction review column I was writing for Locus Magazine at the time. I did the column from 1988 to 2001. Looking back at them….they’re not bad.

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Link and Comments: About Superhero Movies

From Sunday’s NYT.

Mark Bowden, Why Are We Obsessed With Superhero Movies?

The issue for me is why these types of stories are so popular, recently – and how these are primitive fantasies, the very opposite type of story as the exploratory, outward looking visions of science fiction.

If heroes are idealized humans, then today’s reflect an exaggerated Cult of Self. They are unique, supremely talented beings who transcend laws, even those of nature. Hollywood has always cherished mavericks, but these are, literally, cartoons — computer-generated.

They celebrate exceptionalism and vigilantism. The old American ideal of succeeding through cleverness, virtue and grit is absent, as is the notion of ordinary folk banding together to overcome a threat — think of “It’s a Wonderful Life” or the original “The Magnificent Seven” or any of a dozen World War II-era films. Gone is respect for the rule of law and the importance of tradition and community. Institutions and human knowledge are useless. Religion is irrelevant. Governments are corrupt and/or inept, when not downright evil. The empowered individual is all.

The superhero is an alien or outcast who possesses unique powers acquired either at birth or through some accident or gift. You can imagine the avid consumers of such films electing a president who boasts “I alone” can solve the nation’s problems, and who delights in tagging his domestic and foreign opponents with villainous, comic book monikers — “Crooked Hillary,” “Rocket Man.”

Normal humans are mere bystanders, when they are not being crushed or vaporized. The average person is powerless and depends for survival on the good will of the gods. (It may be worth noting that in real life, the only way for a human to acquire anything like a superpower is to buy a gun, which may shed new light on America’s firearms fetish.)

There’s a connection here between the left/right divide, and a couple recent David Brooks columns, that I will explore further.

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Added Lines in Angels in America

I posted this on Facebook, June 9th, but need to capture it here:

We saw Angels in America part 1, Millennium Approaches, on Friday June 1st, and part 2, Perestroika, on Friday June 8th, at the Berkeley Repertory Theatre. In between those dates I reread both plays, copies I’d bought in 1993 and 1994 when they were first published, after seeing the Broadway production in 1993. Watching Perestroika this past Friday, I thought I heard several lines that seemed unfamiliar; did I glaze through them when reading the play two days before? One passage that I thought especially striking was at the end of the key scene late in the play as Prior leaves Heaven, renouncing his role as a prophet, as he accuses the angels of not seeing what’s to come, but only seeing what they fear. A striking line. I got home and checked my copy of the play. Lines not there. A bit of research: Kushner revised the plays a bit, and his final 2010 revisions were published in a 2013 combined edition. Which has those lines:

“PRIOR:
You haven’t seen what’s to come. You’ve only seen what you’re afraid is coming. Until it arrives — please don’t be offended but… all you can see is fear.

I’m leaving Heaven to you now. I’ll take my illness with me, and. And I’ll take my death with me, too.

The earth’s my home, and I want to go home.”

Fun facts: among actors who played roles in earlier productions: Daniel Craig, Zachary Quinto, Cynthia Nixon, F. Murray Abraham, and Cherry Jones — not to mention Meryl Streep, Al Pacino, et al, in the 2003 HBO TV production — as detailed here: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Angels_in_America:_Perestroika

https://www.facebook.com/berkeleyrep/

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Asimov: THE WINDS OF CHANGE

THE WINDS OF CHANGE AND OTHER STORIES, published in 1983, is the 11th of 14 collections of SF and fantasy stories from the ‘main sequence’ of Asimov’s collections: the set of his collections that don’t overlap, that don’t consists of remixes of stories from earlier books, that don’t consist of mystery or other non-fantastic stories, and aren’t small press or limited-edition volumes (which overlap the main sequence in most cases anyway).

To clarify and stipulate: I’m missing one of the 14, the 1988 volume AZAZEL, fantasy stories about a pocket demon, which is why it’s not shown in the photo here. I’m missing at least one large remix, a 1985 Tor volume called THE EDGE OF TOMORROW. Other remixes are the ones shown flat in the photo. I’m not including the three early FOUNDATION books, since they are commonly thought of as novels (even though their contents were originally published as magazine stories); yet I’m including I, ROBOT, as a story-cycle that’s always been published as a collection.

As with the collections of Ray Bradbury, the early volumes contain the author’s strongest work, peaking in Asimov’s case with NIGHTFALL AND OTHER STORIES in 1969. The later books, especially THE BICENTENNIAL MAN, have the occasional stand-out story, but for the most part consist of lesser works written on request, often to address a given theme, while Asimov was preoccupied with writing novels or nonfiction books. The final two collections, GOLD and MAGIC, published after Asimov’s death in 1992, are SF and fantasy respectfully, all the stories not already collected; but there were so few of them in the last decade of his life that each book is filled out with a generous allotment of essays.

The last collection before Asimov’s death in 1992 was this one, THE WINDS OF CHANGE, consisting mostly of stories first published from 1976 to 1982, with two others from the 1950s that for whatever reason were missed in earlier collections. Those two, and a couple three of the later stories, are especially interesting.

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A few of the lesser ones first, interesting mostly because Asimov provides short introductions to the stories that reveal why they were written, and you can see how Asimov responded to an assigned task. Asked for a story about dependence on computers, he wrote “A Perfect Fit” (1981), about an attempted computer fraudster punished with a psychologically instilled inhibition against using computers, rendering him unable to function in his modern world. It’s essentially a rewrite of Knight’s “The Country of the Kind” or Silverberg’s “To See the Invisible Man.” Inspired by his membership in a Gilbert & Sullivan society, Asimov wrote “Fair Exchange?” (1978), a time travel paradox story about retrieving the lost music from the early operetta “Thespis.” Asked for a story by a fashion magazine (!), Asimov produced “For the Birds” (1980), in which a fashion designer visits a space station and realizes that exercise in zero-G shouldn’t involve wings, but rather fins like dolphins. Asked for a four-part story for newspaper syndication, Asimov wrote, in 1979, “It Is Coming,” in which Multivac – Asimov’s cavern-sized mainframe that runs the world, from his early robot stories – is summoned to decipher the message from an approaching alien object, with a payoff about contact not between alien races, but between computers.

Given the title “The Last Shuttle,” we have a story (1981) about a much-advanced space shuttle, 170 years in the future and operating with anti-grav, ferrying away the last of the entire population of humanity, in order to leave Earth to return to wilderness. Hmm, would that really happen? Asimov can be glib at times and carry you along with persuasive arguments and counterarguments that hide the implausibility of the key premise. In “Nothing for Nothing” (1979, inspired by the idea of cave paintings) alien explorers to Earth 15,000 years ago find cave paintings of the era so remarkable they carry out an ‘exchange,’ in a curious variation of Trek’s prime directive; but really, why is idea of representational art so novel to them? And in “To Tell at a Glance” (full version original to this book) a tour guide on one of a dozen worlds in Lunar Orbit must detect which of five visitors from other worlds is possibly a saboteur from Earth. The key slip-up depends on the architecture of the worlds – toroidal space stations – and what the phrase “the other side of the world” means in that context. But would someone from Earth, hearing that phrase, automatically look *down*? Really?

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On to the better, or at least more interesting for one reason or another, stories.

“Belief” is a 30-page story from 1953 Astounding, and concerns Roger Toomey, a physicist who discovers he can literally levitate, as he demonstrates to his wife. He hesitates to reveal his talent to others, because as a physicist he can’t conceive how such a thing could be possible. So what does he do? He writes letters to prominent physicists at other universities, asking for their speculation on how levitation might theoretically work. His own department head learns of these letters and admonishes him. He meets with a psychiatrist for an interesting discussion of what Toomey’s *real* problem is: getting scientists to study something they don’t want to.

The story ends as Toomey attends a seminar by a fellow physicist who didn’t respond to his letter, and demonstrates levitating before his eyes, forcing him to accept the phenomenon rather that admit he might be insane.

Now, the story is contrived in that Toomey could have avoided all his troubles by demonstrating his talent to his department head and other associates in the first place. But key to this story is that Asimov mentions, in his intro to the story, that Astounding editor John Campbell – notorious for his interest in the 1950s and ‘60s in various pseudo-scientific phenomena, beginning with Dianetics (later Scientology) – forced some changes to the story that Asimov didn’t entirely approve of. Hmm. How to get scientists to study something they don’t want to. (Asimov mentions he didn’t have the original ms. of the story to use for this book.) One can see Campbell skewing the story to make that point. Trouble is, as with the Dean Drive and Campbell’s other hobbyhorses, all it takes to interest the scientist is a presentation of unambiguous evidence of a new phenomenon, and that never happens with perpetual motion machines or the like, just as this story is prolonged by the needless withholding of such evidence. There’s not really a problem here.

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A newer story, from 1976, is “Good Taste” (1976), set on the same orbiting Worlds used in the later story “To Tell at a Glance,” though with much more flare. Set on Gammer (a corruption of Gamma), the family of Chawker Minor welcomes him back from a year-long ‘Grand Tour’ of other worlds, a youthful practice tolerated if not approved of. The parents are Elder Chawker and Lady Chawker, the older brother is Chawker Major, and everyone in Gammer lives off ‘Prime,’ a culture of fungus, which is flavored through elaborate artificial flavors with names like Frisking Lamb, Sour-Mind, and Mountain-Tang. Minor’s older brother Major is quite skilled at this, and intends winning an annual taste competition, but Minor has some ideas of his own as a result of his tour, and enters the Finals against his brother.

The payoff recalls an Arthur C. Clarke story about artificial foods vs. their real counterparts, but what’s notable here is the amount of inventiveness in the depiction of this in-grown world and how outside worlds are held in disapproval. “Elder thinks that all rights and wrongs were written down by the makers of Gammer and that it’s all in a book of which there is only one copy and we have it, so that all the Other Worlds are wrong forever.” There’s more imaginative social speculation in this story than in the entire rest of the book.

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“Ideas Die Hard” is a 1957 story from Galaxy magazine, edited by Horace L. Gold, whom Asimov notes was an “acerbic individual” notorious for cruel rejections; Asimov eventually stopped submitting to him. The set up of the story is that three earlier unmanned probes sent to see the Moon’s far side have failed before reaching it, so now two astronauts are being sent on the latest probe. As they travel Davis, a contrarian, challenges Oldbury for proof that the Earth is really round, that it’s really billions of years old, and so on, or whether any evidence one might cite could have been fabricated somehow. (It recalls the Bradbury story about the astronaut who begins to doubt the existence of reality outside the ship.) Which makes it astonishing that when the probe rounds the Moon the two astronauts see – scaffolding. The Moon is a fake, a construct. There’s a surprise ending beyond that, that recalls the famous debut episode of Twilight Zone. Thus the story never truly addresses the epistemological issue: how do we know what we know, accept or challenge convention truth. The unintentional irony of the story is that it never answers its initial question.

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“The Last Answer” was written for the 50th anniversary issue of Analog (formerly Astounding) in 1980, in honor of editor John Campbell and Asimov’s early career there. The title sounds like a cheeky riposte to Asimov’s famous story “The Last Question,” and both deal with god issues. In this story atheistic physicist Murray Templeton dies of a heart attack and is amazed to find himself still conscious, apparently drawn into ‘heaven’ and speaking with an entity who might as well be God. This entity describes what it wants from Templeton, and how Templeton will have all eternity to fulfill that purpose. Templeton argues and draws the entity into an admission of what all eternal entities must want. As with so many Asimovian dialogues, it’s persuasive from point to point, but at the end you might suspect you’ve merely been argued into a corner.

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“The Winds of Change” (1982) is something of stunt, even a tour-de-force, in that except for a few paragraphs at the beginning and a few at the end, it consists of a long monologue by one Jonas Dinsmore, a mediocre college professor, directed at his department chairman and a rival, more talented, professor. Dinsmore knows he’s not liked, but while the three of them sit in a lounge awaiting some forthcoming message, he indulges himself by imagining how he might change things to his own advantage. Not by changing himself, or by changing them, or by changing the science they are all devoted to – but by changing the world around them. To turn the tables.

Furthermore, he claims, he’s concocted a means of time travel to make a change in the past to effect such a change in society. He’s researched their pasts and knows their early involvements in free thought movements.

The story’s not about how he managed time travel; it’s about what possible change he could have made to disadvantage the talent and expertise of his colleagues, their interest in science and free thought.

(Spoiler!) The message arrives, via agents of the Legion of Decency (!), who first arrest the chairman and rival professor “in the name of God and the Congregation for the crime of deviltry and witchcraft.” And then acknowledges Dinsmore as the new president of the university.

Dinsmore has his victory. Except that — final line — “In the grip of the Moral Majority, he must remember, no one was ever truly safe.”

And so scientists become victims of a theocracy. The story reflects Asimov’s concern about movements like the Moral Majority (what the Christian evangelical movement was called at the time), expressed in many of his essays of the time, along with his concern about the various forms of science-denial that plague us today, but have always been present throughout American history.

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Skiffy Flix: Forbidden Planet

This 1956 film is still regarded as an important early science fiction films, and one of the best of the 1950s, even if it shows its age 60 years on. It influenced both Star Trek and Lost in Space, and in turn our notions of what adventures in outer space might consist of.

(“Skiffy flix” is my derisively affectionate term for bad science fiction movies, which is most science fiction movies, and certainly by most standards all science fiction movies before 2001: A Space Odyssey in 1968. Yet the older ones, especially those from the 1950s, retain a fascination for me, for reasons discussed in thes posts — they are not to be taken as serious science fiction, but they reveal things about what was *thought* to be science fiction, or what filmmakers *thought* the universe was like, or how filmmakers deliberate misrepresented that universe in order to appeal to what general audiences *wanted* the universe to be like.

“Skiffy” is a deliberately derisive pronunciation of “sci-fi,” which is a much-loathed abbreviation for “science fiction”; it was coined in the 1950s in analogy with “hi-fi” (that is, high fidelity record players) and its association with the crude science fiction movies of the time made it anathema to writers (and readers) of the usually far more sophisticated SF novels and stories. And “flix” of course is Hollywood headline abbreviation for “flicks,” that is, movies.)

In these movie review posts beginning in 2018, I’m adopting the format of my Star Trek episode reviews: rather than a narrative review or analysis, this is a set of bullet points, annotations as it were, as I step my way through the film, with just enough plot synopsis to put the comments in context. And as with those Trek posts, my comments align along several themes: how the story and premise make sense on their own terms; how they reflect accurate or inaccurate conceptions of the universe; and how they reflect cultural values at the time, which we may or may not sympathize with today. And how film and TV SF differs, in scope and ambition, from the literary variety.

  • This film predates the original Star Trek series by a decade – or a bit less considering when Trek’s first pilot was being drafted and sold. The basic conception is very similar. In the film, we follow an interstellar spaceship, here mundanely named the C57D, on a mission to Altair IV to check on the status of a scientific expedition sent there 20 years before. (Sounds a lot like certain Trek episodes!)
  • The spacecraft C57D, appropriate for its time (the 1950s saw the peak of UFO/flying saucer sightings) is shaped like a flying saucer – round, with a thin wide center disk, and round bubble top and bottom.
  • Typical of most science fiction in any medium, the film under-estimates the rate of future technological progress. At the very beginning, a narrator intones, “In the final decade of the 21st Century, men and women in rocket ships landed on the moon. By 2200 A.D., they had reached the other planets of our solar system.” As it turned out, men (no women) landed on the moon in 1969, and it’s only lack of will – not technological know-how – that prevents anyone in 2018 from designing ships to reach other planets in much less than another 200 years.
  • The narrator goes on to say that, “almost at once” after 2200 A.D. “hyperdrive” was discovered by which the speed of light was “greatly surpassed,” and thus “mankind began the conquest and colonization of deep space.” The film does not indicate how soon after this event in 2200 A.D. our story is set.
  • (The best set of quotes from the film I’ve found is here: https://en.wikiquote.org/wiki/Forbidden_Planet )
  • Still, we are told that this “United Planets Cruiser C57D” is “now more than a year out from Earth Base” on a mission to Altair.
    • As occasionally in Trek, one spots the unexamined assumption that, despite however long hyperdrive has been available, and planets of other stars have been settled upon, this year-long mission to Altair is setting off *from Earth.* Aren’t there other places it might have set off from, in an interstellar neighborhood made accessible by decades or more of hyperdrive?
    • For that matter, is it plausible that this ship full of several dozen men should be sent on a *year-long* mission just to check out what happened to an earlier expedition? (Does this have precedence in the sea voyages and colonization efforts of the Europeans over several centuries?)
    • And we are told that the earlier expedition was sent out 20 years ago! Why has it taken 19 years to send the follow-up?
  • The opening scenes reveal several design and plot points stolen by both Star Trek and Lost in Space.
    • Trek of course adopted the idea of a starship running various missions.
    • Lost in Space adopted, or stole, several very specific design points: the navigation sphere in the middle of the control room of the ship, with a model of the ship in the center; the “D.C. Station” pads that the crewmen stand on as the ship decelerates out of hyperdrive (LIS had tubes in which the crew, in the very first episode, were suspended to be shielded from the shock of the launch); and of course the flying saucer structure of the craft, complete with three legs with steps; and the ‘tractor’ (in LIS called the Chariot). As well as the idea of a robot, and the plot point in which an invisible creature leaves heavy footprints.
    • In a minor Trek, or Trek TNG, allusion, there’s even a line here about having to “reverse polarity.”
  • The plot gets underway as the ship from Earth, captained by Leslie Nielsen (familiar as a comedic actor in later decades in Airplane and many others) as Commander Adams, with Warren Stevens (familiar from Trek) as Doc Ostrow, lands on the planet, despite a voice message from Walter Pidgeon as Dr. Morbius warning them away, because not only do they need no help, but because Morbius cannot guarantee their safety if they land. (Sounds familiar.)
    • The special effects are good, but not great; you can see the model of the spaceship wobble as it descends the surface of the planet.
    • This is the place to mention the story’s debt to Shakespeare’s “The Tempest,” which I will not further explore.
  • A landcar approaches – seen via a plume of dust coming in from a distance – and arrives, piloted by what the crewmen realize is a robot. This is the famous Robby the Robot, who had a later life in other movies and TV shows. Robby speaks and invites the captain and his men to visit Dr. Morbius.
  • Who lives in a palatial structure of 1950s Moderne design, complete with fountains and abstract art objects.
  • Morbius explains that he lives here all alone, that the rest of the crew of his ship died of some “planetary force,” which vaporized their ship, the Bellerophon, as they lifted off to return to Earth (leaving Morbius behind).
  • But after lunch we see Morbius is not all alone – he has a daughter, a young woman named Altaira (how unimaginatively cliché) (played by Anne Francis), who without explanation is wearing a very skimpy dress. Apparently Morbius didn’t think to count her as another person, as he’d said he was on the planet all alone.
  • Here is where the film goes off the rails, by any standards I would think; perhaps these scenes merely reflect how sexual innuendo was handled in the 1950s. We are told that Altaira has been raised in isolation, and has never seen other people aside from her father.
    • And yet, she has no trouble complimenting the three men from the Earth ship as prime specimens. How does she know? And she’s not in the least bit shy, despite apparently not having seen any other human beings than her father in her entire life.
    • (Perhaps Altaira has been exposed to videos of Earth people, perhaps in movies? If so it’s not mentioned.)
    • And then follows several scenes of excruciatingly embarrassing dialogue as one crewman and later the commander tries to make small talk with her and get to know her. She is innocent and misunderstanding, or pretending to be so, even as she keeps showing up in one after another skimpy dress, in later scenes; or the scripters are playing the situation for laughs.
    • Several of these scenes are just badly directed. When the first crewman to chat her up corners her by the coffee machine, what are Morbius and the others doing? We don’t know. Morbius seems to be unconcerned about the culture shock of his daughter meeting new people; Adams unconcerned about one of his crewmen’s obvious intentions at attracting her attention.
      • As an aside, Walter Pidgeon’s acting has all the warmth of a documentary film narrator. He has a sonorous voice, but otherwise is leaden.
    • And for no particular reason we see that Altaira has several ‘friends’ outside in the garden: a couple tame deer and even a tame tiger. These are cited later as evidence the local aliens once reached Earth, but why should Altaira have some magic charm over them? A later implication is that she possesses some essential innocence, that becomes lost when her sexual feelings for one of the men wakens; but do young innocent women normally have magical charming effects on large animals?
    • For that matter, it’s easy to wonder if there isn’t some subconscious motivation on Morbius’ part, that he should let his daughter dress so.
    • Later Commander Adams intervenes when his crewman is ‘teaching’ Altaira how to kiss, and incredibly Adams gets angry at *her* for leading the crewman on, never mind how they’ve been told how isolated she’s been and have heard how naïve her responses are.
  • The next scene involves Adams’ need to get instructions from Earth about what to do, given that Morbius has no interest in being rescued or leaving the planet. Yet contacting Earth seems to require a huge construction project to build a “klystron transmitter” that involves cannibalizing parts of the ship. Perhaps Adams should have been given authority to make decisions on his own, if the technology to phone home is that difficult to deploy.
  • A running comic relief character is Cookie, the ship’s chef, who’s always wiping his hands on his apron. At one point he corners Robby (how is it he has the authority to tell this alien robot where to go and what to do?) and asks for some “real stuff,” you know. No Robby doesn’t know. Cookie produces a bottle of booze. Robby can reproduce any substance, it seems (how handy; but then, robots and aliens routinely have supernatural powers in movie and TV sf) – by pouring a sample into his ingestion port! — and promises 60 gallons of the stuff.
  • And then the plot begins. One night something unseen breaks into the ship and sabotages some components. Adams and Ostrow confront Morbius the next morning about what that might have been. Morbius, without answering their question, tells them about the Krell, the ancient race that inhabited this planet, who reached vast heights of intellect and ethics – before vanishing in a single night.
  • And Morbius takes them on a tour: first of his lab, a large room full of modernesque screens and gauges, and a “plastic educator” or teaching machine that Morbius says he used though it almost killed him, but still doubled his IQ. [Despite which he uses the phrase “almost literally to the power of infinity” which is problematic on three grounds.]
  • Morbius then leads them onto a shuttle car that shoots down an endless tube. We then see them, from high overhead, walk across a bridgeway over a vast vertical shaft – a vision copied by Irwin Allen in another of his 1960s series, Time Tunnel, in its initial episode – and tells them there are 7800 levels and dozens of similar shafts, all atomic reactors.
    • These apparently vast sets and enormous machines are the sense-of-wonder highlight of the film, a reasonably sophisticated vision of alien technology and knowledge that suggests how far advanced it might be over anything human.
  • Adams argues with Morbius about who should control access to this vast store of knowledge left by Krell. Morbius insists only he is capable of deciding what knowledge to release, presumably because of his now vast IQ.
  • Back at the ship, the crewmen construct a force field around the ship – another gizmo stolen by Lost in Space. Yet that night something invisible breaks through it, leaving large deep footprints in the soft soil as it walks, enters the ship (bending the steps, though they are unbent later), and we hear a scream as a crewman is murdered.
    • A crewman constructs a model of the foot that made the footprints, a shape that defies evolution. But what has this to do with – as we find out — the monster from the Id?
  • The crewmen arm themselves as radar detects the creature returning – and they realize now that it’s invisible. They fire their blasters (common SF gizmos of the pulp era, later adapted into LIS lasers and Trek’s phasers), and the splash of the blasters makes the creature visible, a fiery outline of a monster with a gaping, screaming mouth. It grabs men who get too close and tosses them aside. (The invisible monster that becomes visible is seen again in Jonny Quest, in a quite similar depiction.)
  • The monster abruptly vanishes – because, we see, Alta was having a nightmare and wakes Morbius from his sleep. Hmm.
  • Adams tells the crew to prepare to depart; he and Ostrow head to Morbius’, planning to use that machine for a brain boost. As Adams comforts Alta (as in Trek, the Captain has gotten the girl), Ostrow sneaks off to use the brain booster, and returns, shaken. He reveals that the great underground machines enabled the Krell the materialize anything they could imagine – even, he says as he dies, the “monsters from the Id.”
  • Adams confronts Morbius, having figured out what’s really going on. (In these final scenes, Leslie Nielsen and Walter Pidgeon do some genuine acting, or at least have a chance to raise their voices.) The machines respond not only to conscious commands, but also motivations by the subconscious – the Id! (An old-fashioned term, Morbius says, trying to brush the theory aside.) And the monster is him, Morbius — he was the one who destroyed the Bellerophon, in anger at being abandoned, and he’s the one attacking the Adams’ now, as his daughter threatens to leave him for Adams.
  • The monster now approaches Morbius’ residence, tearing it apart; the humans flee into the Krell chambers below, as the monster approaches, melting a door. Morbius, collapsing in grief, instructs Adams to set a self-destruct device, and dies.
  • And at the end we see the ship fleeing the planet, with both Robby and Altaira safely aboard. They see the planet explode behind them. Adams comforts Altaira: “About a million years from now the human race would have crawled up to where the Krell stood in their great moment of triumph and tragedy. And your father’s name will shine again like a beacon in galaxy. It’s true. It will remind us that we are, after all, not God.” The end.
  • One can quibble about the revelation of this surprise ending. How is it Ostrow, with a quick, unskilled brain boost, perceives what the great Morbius hadn’t? Why did the monster vanish when Morbius woke up, then reappear? Because he was arguing with Adams? And so on.
  • On the other hand, what gives this film most of its points is that it’s not *just* a monster movie in which the great white captain saves the nubile young woman; there’s a reason for the monster to exist, one that indicts human (and Krell) ambition and scientific hubris. And in that, the story is pop sci-fi that submits to homespun verities about how “there are some things man was not meant to know” and the dangers of scientists “playing god.” There’s an underlay of significance here, but not one to be respected; in this, it’s a flavor of what’s been called anti-science fiction, like all the thrillers in which the scientific discovery gets out of control and must be vanquished; the story ends with restoring order, not in any discovery or advance.
  • Thus also the offhand piety. Early in the film, a crewman notes that “The Lord sure makes some beautiful worlds.” And the final lines underscore the lesson that scientists must refrain from godlike ambition. Thus the audience is assured that their supernatural order is safe and secure; nothing has changed.
  • And this is why – that this, and The Day the Earth Stood Still, represent the best SF films could offer in the 1950s – SF films and TV have always been far more inhibited than the best SF literature, which truly does seek to overturn verities, make discoveries, change the world, and discover new ones.
Posted in Movies, Skiffy Flix | Leave a comment

Links and Comments: Formal and Intuitive Religion

Two items. First, the latest survey showing the rise of the “nones,” the younger generation for whom formal religion is losing its attraction. In Nearly Every Country, Young People Are Way Less Religious Than Adults.

The pattern holds throughout most of the world, and especially in countries with the highest GDPs and standards of living. (The post linked above has links to larger versions of these graphs.)

Though the US is the big outlier here, as shown in the second graph:

The second item, from this blog, concerns what the “nones” are doing instead.

These nones tend to believe in the soul, divine energy, mystical realities, ghosts, fate and myriad other superstitions that traditionally fell under the umbrella of religion. They also tend to eschew formal social gatherings and regular group activities. Young nones, in other words, are adopting one of the least helpful aspects of organized religion (magical thinking) while abandoning one of the most beneficial (social bonding).

Of course this is consistent with the understanding in recent decades of mental biases that predispose humans to perceive agency in non-living things; to imagine that objects have essences; to generalize from anecdotes; to think in terms of black and white; to underestimate the prevalence of coincidence. These biases will never go away, because they work well enough for purposes of human survival rather than accurate understanding of the real world. They can only be overcome by education about how the real, physical world actually works, as discovered by broad exposure to that world (rather than confinement to a particular ideology) and to the conclusions found through systematic, challenged and confirmed, investigation of that world (i.e. science). Without such education, the default of humanity is magical thinking.

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Link and Comment: Adam Frank on the Earth’s Biosphere

Today’s NYT has an op-ed by Adam Frank, Earth Will Survive. We May Not., which keys off the theme of his new book, LIGHT OF THE STARS: ALIEN WORLDS AND THE FATE OF THE EARTH, just released this past Tuesday.

I’ve only just sampled the book, but what I’ve read, and this essay, present the kind of shift of perspective that I look for, and value science fiction for providing — in this case the recognition that the Earth’s biosphere isn’t about *us*, humanity. That biosphere has changed many times over the past tens and hundreds of millions of years — shaped by life. We are merely the latest form of life to be changing that biosphere, via what we call climate change.

The biosphere is a cosmic power in its own right. It’s a planetary force that channels vast energies flowing from the sun and transforms them into ceaseless rounds of blind evolutionary innovation. That power gives Earth and its biosphere a long-term resilience we must now fully imagine if we are to come to terms with the climate change we are driving.

We speak of “saving” the Earth as if it were a little bunny in need of help. We show images of gaunt polar bears on melting ice floes to elicit guilt and environmental action. But those images and stories blind us to the reality of this remarkable moment in Earth’s history.

Our planet does not need our saving. The biosphere has endured cataclysms far worse than us — and after millions of years thrived again. Even the Earth’s five fearsome mass extinctions became opportunities for the biosphere’s creativity, driving new rounds of evolutionary experiments. That, after all, is how we big-brained mammals ended up dominating the Earth rather than our dinosaur predecessors. As the great biologist Lynn Margulis once put it, “Gaia is a tough bitch.” In the long term, the biosphere will handle pretty much anything we throw at it, including climate change.

What Earth’s history does make clear, however, is that if we don’t take the right kind of action soon the biosphere will simply move on without us, creating new versions of itself in the changing climate we’re generating now. So we must be honest. The problem is not saving the Earth or life writ large, but saving our cherished civilization. From that perspective the nature of our choices changes significantly.

It’s not about saving the Earth; it’s about preserving an Earth that humanity can thrive, or at least survive, on.

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This recalls a Robert Silverberg story, “The Wind and the Rain,” which I blogged about here, with this quote from the story:

The planet cleanses itself. That is the important thing to remember, at moments when we become too pleased with ourselves. The healing process is a natural and inevitable one. The action of the wind and the rain, the ebbing and flowing of the tides, the vigorous rivers flushing out the choked and stinking lakes—these are all natural rhythms, all healthy manifestations of universal harmony.

Posted in Cosmology, Evolution, Species Reset | Leave a comment

Lines from Angels in America: The World Only Spins Forward

Just a few about what the angels are, what they want, and in what sense the play is about angels and their relationship with America.

Part One: Millennium Approaches

Joe, a Mormon lawyer living in New York, has this take on America of 1985 (as Reagan is president), talking to his wife Harper, p26:

Things are starting to change in the world. For the good. America has rediscovered itself. Its sacred position among nations. And people aren’t ashamed of that like they used to be. This is a great thing. The truth restored. Law restored. That’s what President Reagan’s done, Harper. He says, “Truth exists and can be spoken proudly.” And the country responds to him. We become better. More good. I need to be a part of that, I need something to lift me up. …

Later he speaks to (arch-villain) Roy Cohn, p54:

Those who love God with a open heart unclouded by secrets and struggles are cheerful; God’s easy simple love for them shows in how strong and happy they are. … I wanted to be one of the elect, one of the Blessed. You feel you ought to be, that the blemishes are yours by choice, which of course they aren’t.

Because Joe has secrets and struggles: like Roy Cohn, he’s a closet gay.

Prior Walter, a 30ish gay man in New York with AIDS, hears a voice, a premonition of the angel, which says, p62:

Soon I will return, I will reveal myself to you; I am glorious, glorious; my heart, my countenance and my message. You must prepare. A marvelous work and a wonder we undertake, an edifice awry we sink plumb and straighten, a great Lie we abolish, a great error correct, with the rule, sword and broom of Truth!

In the very next scene a lawyer associate of Cohn’s rhapsodizes about the Republican agenda (sounding exactly like Republicans today), p63:

We have a new agenda and finally a real leader. They got back the Senate but we have the courts. By the nineties the Supreme Court will be block-solid Republican appointees, and the Federal bench—Republican judges like land mines, everywhere, everywhere they turn. … It’s really the end of Liberalism. The end of New Deal Socialism. The end of ipso facto secular humanism. The dawning of a genuinely American political personality. Modeled on Ronald Wilson Reagan.

In long monologue Louis, Prior’s Jewish boyfriend (who has left Prior, unable to handle the disease), ponders democracy in America, which he supposes is less about tolerance than power, and how race is really just a political question. P92:

Racists just try to use race here as a tool in a political struggle. It’s not really about race. Like the spiritualists try to use that stuff, are you enlightened, are you centered, channeled, whatever, this reaching out for a spiritual past in a country where no indigenous spirits exist—only the Indians, I mean Native American spirits and we killed them off so now, there are no gods here, no ghosts and spirits in America, there are no angels in America, no spiritual past, no racial past, there’s only the political…

(This is the only explicit reference in the play to the play’s title.)

At the end of the first play, the angel arrives, dropping through the ceiling of Prior’s room, p119:

Greetings, Prophet;
The Great Work begins:
The Messenger has arrived.

The second play, Perestroika, opens with an ancient Russian Bolshevik, sermonizes about doom and the potential for change. He concludes,

Then we dare not, we cannot, we MUST NOT move ahead!

Later, Joe the Mormon lawyer, defends his worldview to Louis, p34-35:

Since you believe the world is perfectable you find it always unsatisfying. But you must reconcile yourself to its unperfectability by being thoroughly in the world but not of it. It’s the end of a nineteenth-century socialist romanticist conflation of government and society, law and Justice, idea and action, irreconcilables which only meet at some remote horizon, like parallels converging in infinity. The rhythm of history is conservative. Change is geologically slow. You must accept that.

The Angel finally explains to Prior what’s going on, p49ff:

ANGEL:
In creating You, Our Father-Lover unleashed
Sleeping Creation’s Potential for Change.
In YOU the Virus of TIME began!

You Think. And You IMAGINE!
Migrate, Explore, and when you do:

PRIOR:
As the human race began to progress, travel, intermingle, everything started to come unglued. Manifest first as tremors in Heaven.

ANGEL:
Heaven is a City Much Like San Francisco…

With earthquakes mirroring heavenquakes. And so,

ANGEL:
He began to leave us!
Bored with His Angels, Bewitched by Humanity,
In Mortifying Imitation of You, his least creation,
He would sail off on Voyages, no knowing where.

And on April 18, 1906, the day of the Great San Francisco Earthquake,

ANGEL:
HE Left
And did not return.
We do not know where HE has gone. HE may never

Prior is relating all this, his visitation or dream of an angel, to his friend Belize: “It’s all gone too far, too much loss is what they think, we should stop somehow, go back.” To which Belize replies, p52:

But that’s not how the world works, Prior. It only spins forward.

The Angel goes on:

Before the boiling of blood and the searing of skin
Comes the Secret Catastrophe:
Before Life on Earth becomes finally merely impossible,
It will for a long time before have become completely unbearable.
(Coughs)
YOU HAVE DRIVEN HIM AWAY! YOU MUST STOP MOVING!

The ultimate conservative agenda.

Forsake the Open Road:
Neither Mix Nor Intermarry: Let Deep Roots Grow.
If you do not MINGLE you will Cease to Progress:
Seek Not to Fathom the World and its Delicate Particle Logic:
You cannot Understand, You can only Destroy,
You do not Advance, You only Trample.
Poor blind Children, abandoned on the Earth,
Groping terrified, misguided, over
Fields of Slaughter, over bodies of the Slain:
HOBBLE YOURSELVES!

And the Angel gives Prior a book.

Vessel of the BOOK now: Oh Exemplum Paralyticum:
On you in you in your blood we write have written:
STASIS!
The END.

Many scenes, trials and tribulations (including the death of Roy Cohn) later, Prior ascends to Heaven and faces a row of Continental Principalities, who “maintain surveillance over Human Mischief,” and gives the book back.

PRIOR:
It just… It just… We can’t just stop. We’re not rocks—progress, migration, motion is… modernity. It’s animate, it’s what living things do. We desire. Even if all we desire is stillness, it’s still desire for. Even if we go faster than we should. We can’t wait. And wait for what? God…

He isn’t coming back. And even if he did…
If He ever did come back, if He ever dared to show His face, or his Glyph or whatever in the Garden again… if after all this destruction, if after all the terrible days of this terrible century He returned to see… how much suffering His abandonment had created, if He did come back you should sue the bastard. That’s my only contribution to all this Theology. Sue the bastard for walking out. How dare He.

The terrible things including, of course, AIDS.

PRIOR:
I haven’t done anything yet, I…
I want to be healthy again. And this plague, it should stop. In me and everywhere. Make it go away.

I want more life. I can’t help myself. I do.
I’ve lived through such terrible times, and there are people who live through much much worse, but… You see them living anyway.

And so Prior rejects the Angel’s plea for the abandonment of modernity. And lives.

In the final scene, four years later in 1990, Prior addresses the audience.

This disease will be the end of many of us, but not nearly all, and the dead will be commemorated and will struggle on with the living, and we are not going away. We won’t die secret deaths anymore. The world only spins forward. We will be citizens. The time has come.
Bye now.
You are fabulous creatures, each and every one.
And I bless you: More Life.
The Great Work Begins.

End of play.

Posted in Book Notes, Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Ray Bradbury: THE MARTIAN CHRONICLES

THE MARTIAN CHRONICLES is Bradbury’s best and best-known science fiction book, given that we allow it to be called science fiction at all (this has always been debatable). The only contender for this position, a book which certainly leads it on high school student summer reading lists, and thus Amazon.com bestseller lists, is FAHRENHEIT 451. More on that book in another post.

(As an aside, my strategy for determining whether a given title is science fiction or fantasy, for lists I’m compiling for sfadb.com, is to compare the number of citations for any given title from sources that claim to list *only* science fiction, vs. the number from sources that claim to list only fantasy. For the vast majority of books, the tallies go heavily one way or another, and by this analysis, the two Bradbury titles just mentioned are definitely SF. This strategy is, in effect, a formalization of Damon Knight’s dictum “Science fiction is what we point to when we say it.” Coincidentally, I read Knight’s nonfiction collection IN SEARCH OF WONDER recently, and blogged about it here.)

THE MARTIAN CHRONICLES is a “composite novel” or fix-up, a book composed of 14 or so stories written in the late 1940s – written separately, without any necessary notion of combining them into a book – and then assembled with the addition of various bridging passages or “interchapters” to comprise a history of humanity’s settlement of Mars, the destruction of the native Martian race, the break-out of nuclear war back on Earth, a mass exodus of human settlers on Mars returning to Earth, and the status of the last few humans on Mars recognizing *themselves* as the Martians.

As mentioned in an earlier post, Bradbury wrote other stories in the 1940s set on Mars than went into this book. As with the later DANDELION WINE, the process of assembling the book seems to have entailed selecting those stories that were more or less consistent, and which supported the larger frame story about the history of human exploitation of Mars. In addition, many of the non-chronicled Mars stories had premises which were simply inconsistent with those that were included – to take an example, the story “Dark They Were, and Golden-Eyed” (from 1949, later collected in A MEDICINE FOR MELANCHOLY) had a human family stranded on Mars when atomic war breaks out on Earth. They come to care less and less about Earth, and more and more about their surroundings; gradually their skins turn dark, their eyes turn golden, and they *become* what a later Earth expedition perceives…. are native Martians. But this idea of transformation isn’t present in any of the stories that were captured in the CHRONICLES. One could identify a similar issue with virtually any of Bradbury’s Mars story not included in the book.

The stories in THE MARTIAN CHRONICLES can be grouped into three phases. The early chapters describe four expeditions of Earthmen to Mars: the first three fail; the fourth one survives, and discovers that the Martian race has been largely exterminated by contamination by the earlier expeditions. The middle section describes the migration of humans from Earth to Mars, the creation of settlements, and several ambiguous interactions with the few surviving Martians. The final section describes the breakout of atomic war on Earth, the migration of most settlers on Mars back to Earth, and what happens to the very few left behind.

I think this must have been the first Bradbury book I read, at age 15 or so, and I was charmed by the elegant descriptions of the casually exotic. Here from the first story, “Ylla,” the story of the failed first expedition, told from a Martian couple’s point-of-view:

They had a house of crystal pillar on the planet Mars by the edge of an empty sea, and every morning you could see Mrs. K eating the golden fruits that grew from the crystal walls, or cleaning the house with handfuls of magnetic dust which, taking all dirt with it, blew away on the hot wind.

And when I first read the book, I was profoundly tickled by conceits like this, a reaction by Mr. K to his wife Mrs. K’s report of her dream about a man from the third planet, named Nathaniel York: “A stupid name; it’s no name at all.”

The second expedition is told in “The Earth Men,” in which the characters are named Mrs. Ttt and Mr. Aaa and so on; it tells of four Earthmen who land in a rocket on Mars and encounter various Martians who are unimpressed by their presence and too busy to talk to them, finally redirecting them to what the Earthmen realize is an insane asylum. It seems there are many Martians with delusions they are from other planets, including Earth. Skeptical readers immediately detect unanswered questions and inconsistencies from story to story. The insane asylum idea is cute, but why are there so many insane Martians? A bit more editing or rewriting (RB apparently spent a good deal of time revising stories for inclusion into books like this one) might have included the suggestion of the Martians having been psychically infected by the incidental contact of the first expedition in “Ylla.”

“The Third Expedition” is a famous story all by itself, also known as “Mars Is Heaven!” and included in the first SCIENCE FICTION HALL OF FAME anthology (though the original story didn’t include discussion of the previous two expeditions; those passages were added in to the version in the book). This story describes the familiar situation of humans landing on an alien world and finding it exactly like Earth – such as we later saw in Twilight Zone, and Star Trek. Here we come to understand that this illusion — created by the Martians, complete with local copies of the crewmen’s relatives, parents and brothers, who invite them to dinner and to stay overnight — is a trick, to overcome and defeat the invaders. (Like most SF of the 1940s and ‘50s, this and other stories here assume the existence of telepathy and various similar mental powers.)

The town in this story, I note, is the depiction of Bradbury’s Green Town (the setting for the DANDELION WINE stories), set on Mars.

The key story of the entire book, I think, is the one about the fourth expedition, “And the Moon Be Still as Bright.” The Earthmen of this expedition are depicted as crude tourists (or ‘ugly Americans’) who have no appreciation for what has been destroyed, and further despoil the environment. They discover that the nearby Martian cities are dead, some for thousands of years, but others much more recently, dead only in the past week, leaving thousands of cinder-like corpses. And the Martians died of chicken-pox (cf. H.G. Wells)! One of the crewmen, Jeff Spender, is much affected by this tragedy, and disapproves of the other men’s casual disregard, their disposal of trash in the canals. He perceives that this lack of respect will ruin Mars. He quotes Byron (thus the title), as a partying crewman vomits on the tiles of an elegant Martian library. He takes off into the hills for a couple days and then returns on a murdering spree, apparently with the idea to destroy this fourth expedition and prevent further trips from Earth. He has a confrontation with Captain Wilder, and makes his case with he’s learned from the Martian towns. The Martians were as good as anything human; “They stopped where we should have stopped a hundred years ago.” He talks about art, and religion.

They knew how to live with nature and get along with nature. They didn’t try too hard to be all men and no animals. That’s the mistake we made when Darwin showed up. We embraced him and Huxley and Freud, all smiles. And then we discovered that Darwin and our religions didn’t mix. Or at least we didn’t think they did. … So, like idiots, we tried knocking down religion. … If art was no more than a frustrated outflinging of desire, if religion was no more than self-delusion, what good was life? Faith had always given us answers to all things. But it all went down the drain with Freud and Darwin. We were and still are a lost people.

The Martian cities had statues, symbols; they didn’t ask why they lived, they just lived their life. “They blended religion and art and science because, at base, science is no more than an investigation of a miracle we can never explain, and art is an interpretation of that miracle. They never let science crush the aesthetic and the beautiful.”

In other stories (not in this book), like “The Man,” RB seems remarkably naïve and credulous about religion, but these passages display a relatively sophisticated take on the strain between the verities of religion and the revelations of science, and in this story at least, RB identifies this tension with the conflict between Earthmen and Martians.

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I read this book in January 2018, and in March I read David Seed’s Ray Bradbury, a volume in the “Modern Masters of Science Fiction” series from the University of Illinois Press, the series edited by Gary K. Wolfe. Given the series’ purview, Seed discusses only Bradbury’s science fiction in detail, mentioning the fantasy stories and detective novels only in passing. Curiously to me however is that Seed discusses the numerous Mars stories, those in CHRONICLES and the dozen or two others (those others written in the ‘40s, and yet others written, or at least not published, until later), and never acknowledges or points out that most are *inconsistent* with each other, or at least inconsistent with those in the book. I think this is because Seed isn’t concerned with what the stories portray at face value, but more about how they relate to the symbols Seed perceives Bradbury is preoccupied with. He may be right; but I prefer to take the stories at face value, and see what they suggest about what Bradbury thought plausible (so to speak) about what would happen if Earthmen, of whatever types, encountered Martians, of whatever types.

One insight I appreciate from David Seed’s book is that Bradbury was consciously influenced by literary writers of his time – as we’ve seen in many of his short stories that exemplify them: Thomas Wolfe, Ernest Hemingway, John Steinbeck. In particular, Bradbury was impressed by the structure of Steinbeck’s THE GRAPES OF WRATH, with its ‘interpassages’ or asides from the personal story about the Joads. (I read GRAPES OF WRATH decades ago but have not looked at it since.) These were the inspirations for the short chapters written for CHRONICLES, to bridge from one story to the next and imply the individual stories were examples taken from greater narrative, a whole history of the settlement of Mars of which we were only seeing selected passages.

And as I reread MC just now, I was actually quite impressed by these interpassages (many of which I didn’t remember). A striking one is “The Musicians,” about human boys who hike out to the dead Martian town and play at being musicians – by playing the bones of the dead Martians, like xylophones – before the Martian towns will be burned clean by the Firemen (a F451 angle!). Bradbury manages to link those earlier expeditions to the stories about the settlements; he even somehow justifies the presence of the story “Usher II” (a FAHRENHEIT 451 story!) to the overall narrative by suggesting that Earthly cultural prims have arrives on Mars. David Seed feels this story in particular doesn’t belong.

In fact, “Usher II” was left out of the UK edition of this book, which was called THE SILVER LOCUSTS; while later editions of MC in the US added or dropped a story or two, discussed below.

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A key point about this book, for any contemporary reader, and many a critic of the 1950s, is this: Bradbury’s Mars isn’t the least bit realistic. Not realistic even for its time. Earlier pulp writers, like Edgar Rice Burroughs, portrayed a Mars that his hero from Earth could be transported to, without any kind of issue, about, say, the atmosphere. Bradbury’s Mars is based on those early pulp stories, as well as early astronomical reports, by Percival Lowell, that claimed the existence of canals.

So is the book SF? In some way, yes, because everybody treats it as such. (Which may simply mean that most people don’t know, or don’t care, that his depiction of Mars is wildly inaccurate, and was so even when he first wrote the stories.) And it’s science fiction, I think, because Bradbury treats Mars as a real place that humans might venture to and occupy; it’s not a fantasy place with no connection to our contemporary world. Bradbury’s Mars may be idealized, even fantasized, but it’s still a location in a science-fictional, not fantastic, universe.

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Back to those stories added to or dropped from later editions. One story in the first edition, “Way in the Middle of the Air,” was taken out at some point, likely in the 1970s; it’s still in my 1968 era Bantam paperback, in the photo here. When you read it you’ll understand why. (It’s preserved in Bradbury Stories: 100 of His Most Celebrated Tales, published in 2003.) It depicts a southern town in which all the “niggers” are being drawn to the promise of settlement and a new life on Mars, and somehow having the wherewithal to build their own rockets and abandon their masters and bosses. It’s told from the point of view of a white man offended by the very idea that their kind should have such initiative, and especially that with all them leaving, he’ll have no one to lynch tonight (!). At the end of the story, all the blacks having left for Mars despite his protestations, this white man tries to salvage his pride by nothing, to his friends, that at least the departing niggers called him “Mister.”

Obviously, MC would not have survived the decades with this story in it, that would have drawn condemnation for those words, as other books like TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD have done…

At the same time, two stories were added to later editions that were not in the first – because, for one thing, they were written later than the book’s publication of 1950. A relatively incidental one was “The Wilderness,” first published in F&SF in 1952, which depicts two young women packing to go to Mars, from Independence MO, to meet their husbands who’ve already settled there. As in the previous story just mentioned, there are explicit parallels between the trips to Mars and the Conestoga wagons that took so many people from the east into the western US, in the 19th century.

And one other later-written story, “The Fire Balloons,” first published in Imagination in April 1951, is one of the most significant religious stories Bradbury ever wrote. Two Episcopal fathers depart for Mars, one who’s written a book about the problem of sin on other worlds. He wonders, mightn’t there be new sins on Mars, sins humans wouldn’t recognize? When they arrive on Mars, the locals tell them about the two races of Martians: one pretty much dead (as we’ve gathered in earlier stories), the other not at all human: round luminous globes of light, spheres of blue fire. The two fathers walk into the hills, and quickly find them—these globular creatures remind them of the July 4th fire balloons, lifted aloft by candles. When a landslide suddenly happens, the fire balloons lift the two men away from danger. So are they real, do they have souls, and free will? Peregrine is anxious to prove this so, to the point where he steps off a cliff to see if the fire balloons will save him – and they do. The two fathers then prepare a ‘church’ to attract them and teach them human religion. The fire balloons come, and they speak: they are the Old Ones, the old Martians, who forsook material life, free of bodies and ills, to live forever. “We have put away the sings of the body and live in God’s grace.” They have no need of the humans’ church. They depart. And the fathers think there must be a Truth on every planet, all parts of a Big Truth, all adding up to a whole Truth.

This is an extraordinary story, given Bradbury’s attitude in stories like “The Man,” in which he assumes that the verities of Christian religion must apply to every planet everywhere – and that a spaceship landing on an alien planet would expect to find a small town there, with bands playing, just like small town Illinois. That story is embarrassing on both counts.

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Two of the finest stories here are “Night Meeting” and “The Martian.” They are both about ambiguous encounters with the few surviving Martians, once humans have firmly settled onto the planet. In “Night Meeting” Tomas Gomez drives into the hills – after stopping at a gas station (! How did this gasoline get to Mars?) – to a dead Martian town, and sees a green insect-like machine approach, carrying a Martian with golden eyes, named Muhe Ca, who touches Tomas’ head so they can understand each other’s speech. But they cannot touch – they pass through one another. They both think they are real, and the other is a phantom; the Martian thinks his cities are alive, a festival is about to happen, the streets are clean, the canals are full of wine! Tomas sees everything dead, except for the new towns the humans have built. Are they future and past, overlapping? They agree to disagree, and move on. It’s a spooky story that focuses the ambiguity that David Seed identified; are the Martians real at all? Is this just a symbolic passing of the torch? Or, as I prefer to think, does this story represent a kind of simultaneous existence that are both true, without understanding the other?

In “The Martian” settler LaFarge and his wife live in a house along a canal, and miss their son Tom, long dead. A scratching at their door reveals a small boy… who looks like Tom, who assumes the character of Tom so completely and innocently the couple stops asking questions. When they go to town, though, the boy, the Martian, is affected by the presence of other people, all wanting their own lost ones, and dies in a confusion of changing identity. It’s heartbreaking not just for the human couple, whose illusion is taken away from them, but for how this is evidence that the Martian race has been literally subsumed by the desires of an invading race – and is thus destroyed.

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“Usher II” is a Fahrenheit 451 story – that is, a story about the rebellion against those government officials who would suppress imagination and fantasy and horror. In this story William Stendahl has constructed a new House of Usher, after Edgar Allan Poe’s original, on Mars, full of hidden machines to portray characters from stories by Poe and others. An official arrives, an Investigator of Moral Climates, who tells him he must tear the house down. This happened on Earth, how imaginative books were burned, and Hollywood was told only to make realistic works, by the likes of Hemingway.

Stendahl has the investigator killed by a mechanical ape, and then holds a grand party for all the local cognoscenti, and has them killed, one by one, by the various mechanical contrivances in the house, to be replaced by robot duplicates of themselves. The story ends with a replay of Poe’s “Cask of Amontillado” scene, of the victim being walled up in a cellar, crying, ”For the love of God, Montresor!” After which, his point having been made, Stendahl and his architect flee, as the house collapses behind them.

This is a problematic story on a couple grounds. First, the threat of moral rectitude hasn’t actually happened, wasn’t even that real in the 1950s. That is, society hasn’t banned Poe and all the others; except perhaps among the extreme religious right, who disapprove even of Harry Potter. If anything, popular entertainment continues to revel in fantasy, horror, and gross depictions of violence (with the related issue of gun violence in the US, though similar depictions of horror and violence in countries like Japan have not resulted in anywhere near the same rate of gun violence).

Second, does this reaction against governmental ban, against what are simply *stories*, really sanction murder? What was Bradbury reacting to? The disapproval of comic books, at the time, in the 1950s (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Seduction_of_the_Innocent)? Or as in F451, the alarm that mindless TV was replacing imaginative books?

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Three later stories in the book. In “The Off Season,” Sam Parkhill, the jerk from “And the Moon Be Still as Bright,” has set up a hot dog stand with his wife at some crossroads in the middle of nowhere, expecting traffic from the thousands of new rockets and settlers expected from Earth. Confronted by aethereal Martians, he reacts in the worst way, until the Martians inform him that something has happened back on Earth – and he sees in the sky, the Earth changes color, catches fire, seems to explode.

(I wonder if this remote desert setting is a response to Bradbury having lived in Arizona for a time. The setting here of “two dead highways” in the middle of the desert recalls the desert landscape that I knew, growing up…)

“The Silent Towns” is the one embarrassing story that remains in current editions of TMC. It’s set in a deserted Martian town where everyone has left, except for one Walter Gripp, a miner who would come into town every two weeks looking for a woman to marry, and was in the hills when everyone else left to return to war-torn Earth. Now, he tries phoning other towns, trying to find anyone left alive on the entire planet. And he finds one! A Genevieve Selsor, whom he rushes to meet, and eventually meets, and sees that she’s a fat, pale woman obsessively eating candy, who’s made a wedding dress in anticipation of their meeting, and who is thus hopelessly self-centered and shallow. Walter flees, and never answers the phone again. The story’s an Adam and Eve replay with a bad joke at the end: that the woman is so fat and homely that the man can’t stand her. Even before this era of ‘fat-shaming’ attitudes about political correctness (which just means not offending other people unnecessarily), even for its time, this is just a dumb, crude joke.

“The Long Years” depicts an expedition from Jupiter returning to Mars after many years, and finding a family, a Mr. Hathaway with his wife and kids, two daughters and one son, on an otherwise desolate planet. The captain and crew realize something is wrong – the kids should be older by now. They realize that Hathaway’s family died 19 years ago, and he has somehow recreated them, via Martian technology. Hathaway himself dies; the faux wife and children remain.

This is a better evocation of the last remnants of humans on Mars than the previous story, though it complicates matters by introducing the notion that Hathaway, a tinkerer who wired up the nearby town, also constructed robot versions of his family. It might have been more consistent to have them be remnant Martians, playing their roles as in “The Martian”; but then the story would have been repetitious.

Both of these stories recall episodes of The Twilight Zone, and the recognition that Rod Serling, that show’s producer and lead writer, often repurposed ideas he’d read in published SF stories for the scripts he wrote for his show. “The Silent Towns” evokes the very first TZ episode, “Where Is Everybody?” (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Where_Is_Everybody). And “The Long Years” recalls the TZ episode “The Lonely” (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Lonely_(The_Twilight_Zone)), about a robot companion for an isolated man.

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The final two stories in the book are each classic in their own right.

“There Will Come Soft Rains” depicts an automated house in the aftermath of an atomic war on Earth. Its residents are all dead, but the house keeps functioning automatically: the robot mice come out to clean; the sprinklers come on; bridge tables emerge; baths are fixed. The house even reads a poem, one containing the title.

But a tree branch falls, and sets off a fire, and the house burns. Leaving only the robot voice announcing the date.

The key vision is the outside wall of the house, which shows the outline of five people, silhouettes from when the bomb went off. As in Hiroshima.

In a sense, this is another F451 story, depicting what RB feels is the horror of mechanized existence.

And finally, “The Million-Year Picnic,” ironically one of the earliest Mars stories RB ever wrote, in 1946, back when he had a completely different conception of what his Mars book might be. In the context of the book, it tells of a family that has left Earth’s atomic war and fled to Mars. They expect another family to arrive soon. The father promises his boys that the Martians aren’t dead, and the family takes a trip up the canals, leaving their own rocketship behind. The father recalls the old way of life, left behind: “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 finally killed Earth. That’s what the silent radio means. That’s what we ran away from.”

This is Bradbury’s take on what was happening in the mid-20th century.

The story ends with one of the most beautiful and moving scenes in all of SF literature:

“I’ve always wanted to see a Martian,” said Michael. “Where are they, Dad? You promised.”

“There they are,” said Dad, and he shifted Michael on his shoulder and pointed straight down.

The Martians were there. Timothy began to shiver.

The Martians were there – in the canal – reflected in the water. Timothy and Michael and Robert and Mom and Dad.

The Martians stared back up at them for a long, long silent time from the rippling water…

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