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Monday, September 1, 2014

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Martian Chronicles and Mr. Sammler’s Planet

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The NASA rover Curiosity set down on Mars this past August on a site dubbed Bradbury Landing, after the American science fiction writer and fantasist Ray Bradbury who died this summer. Bradbury’s early stories were among the first and best imaginings of what sort of life humans might make for themselves on Mars. Published in the second half of the 1940s and early 50s they appeared in lowbrow venues like Thrilling Wonder Stories and Weird Tales.

When the stories were collected under the title The Martian Chronicles, Bradbury’s publisher included a preface by the TV figure Clifton Fadiman. Fadiman recognized that Bradbury was – in his early prophetic work – less than wholly enthusiastic about the notion of colonizing Mars. Fadiman called Bradbury a “moralist” who meant to tell us that “the place for space travel is in a book, that human beings are still mental and moral children who cannot be trusted with the terrifying toys they have by some tragic accident invented.”

The Martian Chronicles opens with a powerful vignette called “Rocket Summer,” in which the Ohio winter is transformed in a matter of moments by a rocket that “lay on the launching field, blowing pink clouds of fire and oven heat.” In a story called “Earth Men,” the leader of a landing expedition from earth knocks on the first Martian door he sees. Upon being informed that earthlings call the planet Mars, the local haughtily informs his visitors that his planet is known as Tyrr. This sort of reversal happens again and again, until the earth travelers “seemed to be emptied of all their blood and their rocket fever. They were drained dry.”

Although the best science fiction writers seem capable of prophesying the future, they don’t necessarily mean to wholeheartedly celebrate what they foresee. But Bradbury understood how his readers felt – especially young male readers picking up the pulps at the pharmacy or the gas station. In another short piece he pictures a boy who “wanted to go to Mars on the rocket. He went down to the rocket field in the early morning and yelled in through the wire fence at the men in uniform that he wanted to go to Mars.”

A literary descendant of Bradbury’s, the Vancouver-based writer William Gibson wrote recently of his 1950s American childhood as a “zeitgeist... chewy with space-flavoured nuggets” like the “interplanetarily themed chrome trim” on his father’s Oldsmobile and the molded “spacemen on the counter at Woolworth’s.”

Toward the end of The Martian Chronicles, Bradbury depicts a father explaining to his young son that “science ran too far ahead of us too quickly, and the people got lost in the mechanical wilderness, like children making over pretty things, gadgets, helicopters, rockets...”

When Bradbury wrote of interplanetary rockets and Mars landings, they were a part of a dreamscape. But the space race transformed reality in the middle sixties, and by the late sixties, in his masterful novel Mr. Sammler’s Planet, Saul Bellow was responding to immediate events – the Apollo expeditions that circled the moon, which led to the moon landing in the summer of 1969. Bellow’s hero, Artur Sammler, is a Polish-born Jew – an old-world intellectual and survivor of a Holocaust-era mass grave. On Mr. Sammler’s planet the two pressing concerns are daily existence in New York City and the German atrocities in wartime Poland. But the moon landing hovers in the background as Sammler confronts popular ideas regarding “the advantage of getting away from here, building plastic igloos in the vacuum, dwelling in quiet colonies.”

Pessimism reigns on almost every front in Mr. Sammler’s Planet, and Sammler’s consideration of the “moon image” leads him to a dark conclusion: “we know now, from photographs the astronauts took, the beauty of the earth, its white and its blue... But wasn’t everything being done to make it intolerable to abide here, an unconscious collaboration of all souls spreading madness and poison? To flush us out?... Defile, and then flee to the bliss of oblivion. Or bolt to other worlds.”

Here Bellow’s conclusion echoes the early musings of Bradbury on Mars travel, and the once-ambivalent feelings about the relationship between real life on earth and a dreamed-of life on far-off planets. Bellow’s Artur Sammler – a stand-in for his author – characterizes himself as a man who stands apart “from all developments. From a sense of deference, from age, from good manners… New worlds? Fresh beginnings? Not such a simple matter.”

One hears in Sammler the tone of the moralist that Fadiman found in Bradbury’s early works, which were not, in fact, those of conventional science fiction. Calling the rover’s starting point on Mars Bradbury Landing isn’t a great deal more appropriate than calling it Bellow Landing.

Norman Ravvin’s recent publications include a novel, The Joyful Child (Gaspereau Press), and Failure’s Opposite: Listening to A.M. Klein (McGill-Queen’s), which he co-edited with Sherry Simon.

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