BY AARON BLOCK
[A new entry in our “I Loved This Book When…” series will appear every Monday this summer. To keep up with this series or any other, check out our Special Features page.]
I loved The Martian Chronicles when I was a 7th grade dork. The title alone was like chum dropped in dork-infested waters. The word “chronicles” promises epic adventures, swords and bloody battles, maybe some monsters, and definitely some beautiful women. Then take that and set it on Mars, the most exciting and alien-laden of all planets? I was sold.
The title is probably also the reason why, when given a choice between Chronicles and Peter Dickinson’s young adult novel Eva, nearly all of my 7th grade Reading classmates chose the latter, the story of a teenage girl whose brain is transplanted into a chimp’s body following a car crash. No extra-planetary adventures, no dense passages detailing the fictional history of a fictional people—just a girl’s name. Also, the plot summary promised a relatable young protagonist dealing with real—real-ish—problems. But I didn’t want relatable, or real. I wanted dense histories and strange faces and giant lasers.
Of course, I didn’t get any of that. Bradbury’s take on sci-fi is miles away from the fantastic action and adventure of Star Wars, He-Man, and the superhero comics I’d grown up with. His characters aren’t romantic heroes, but sad, desperate, naïve people who are undone by their own desire to escape a failing world. The Martians aren’t single-minded monsters or would-be conquerors; instead they’re as intelligent, brash, confused, and lonely as any of the human characters.
Instead of adventure, Bradbury’s stories raise questions and push their characters to examine their natures and motives. Indeed, “Spender,” the one story that contains a lengthy battle scene, is more of a meditation on zealotry, environmentalism, and the writing of history. And the title is ironic—rather than chronicles, Bradbury offers only vignettes, a sort of pointillism storytelling with minimal connectivity.
But I wasn’t disappointed. The disorienting structure, melancholy feel, and lyric descriptions of desolate Martian landscapes all heightened my awareness that I and my few friends had taken sides against our classmates. The sadness I felt when reading the chapter titled “There Will Come Soft Rains”—about an automated house of the future that self-destructs after its occupants are vaporized in a nuclear explosion—seemed miles away from anything the popular kids could articulate. I’m not pretending that we chose to read about aliens because we felt alienated, but certainly reading the “wrong” book was yet another step in our adolescent trend towards outsiderdom.*
I don’t want to turn my middle school trials and troubles into hagiography. In fact, the opposite is closer to the truth. As a culture we tend to think of young nerds as pathologically trying to belong to the mainstream, but always rebuffed thanks to prodigious intellectual gifts and/or mild to severe mental illness. My friends and I were mocked and bullied by some, sure, but we mostly got by through a kind of willful isolation. We felt like we didn’t fit in, so we mostly kept to ourselves. We were awkward and shy. We took Gym (games, running laps around the gym) instead of Athletics (football, track), and ate lunch by ourselves, at our own table. We liked cartoons like “The Tick” and “Space Ghost: Coast to Coast” and read Wizard: the Guide to Comics and created our own comic strip starring a bizarre caricature of Jim Varney and some blood-thirsty squirrels. It was all part of a stand-offish and, at times, defensive posture that kept some of the pain at bay, but also kept us from growing. So it felt natural that everyone else was wrapped up in Eva’s bio-ethical questions, while we wondered about the morality of colonialism.
Even though I was only 12 it was impossible to miss Bradbury’s messages, which are somewhat less than subtle—racism, colonialism, xenophobia, censorship, disregard for nature, and nuclear weapons are bad; environmentalism, art, and non-violence are good. I was happy to read a book that assumed I was knowledgeable about history and literature, and rewarded me for it (the chapter “Usher II” is a big, nerdy pat on the back for anyone even passingly familiar with Poe’s stories) by flattering my sense of justice. The whole book seemed to be pleased that I had made such a bold decision to set myself apart, and in turn favored me with several sad, compelling stories, the first “real” book I would ever re-read just for the sheer pleasure of reinhabiting its fictional worlds.
Now, 15 years later, I still have never read Eva, and chances are I never will. I’m sure it’s a fine read, the kind of young adult novel that doesn’t talk down to its readers and asks them to wrestle with serious questions (no less venerable a source than Amazon.com user reviews bear that out). But part of me doesn’t want confirmation that the kids who chose to read it had just as satisfying an experience as I did reading The Martian Chronicles. It’s the same part, an ugly and unsavory part, that still clings to an “us vs. them” mentality.
Bradbury dismisses that kind of thinking quite beautifully in the book’s final chapter, “The Million Year Picnic.” One afternoon, a father takes his wife and three sons out for a fishing trip, and promises he will show his children real Martians. They’re one of the last human families left on Mars following the nuclear war that destroyed Earth, waiting for the final few family-bearing rockets to arrive. After destroying their own rocket, the father takes his children to a Martian canal:
“I’ve always wanted to see a Martian,” said Michael. “Where are they, Dad? You promise.”
“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.
Obviously I wasn’t reading as carefully as I liked to think I was, or else I’d have realized that the boundaries between my friends and I and the rest of the class were flimsy and based mostly on confusion. Maybe if everyone had been made to read The Martian Chronicles we could’ve all stared into the canal together.
*The pattern reemerged later in the school year when we were again asked to choose one of two books: Bradbury’s Something Wicked This Way Comes or Richard Adams’ Watership Down. You might imagine that bunny rabbit adventures would be the socially acceptable option compared to Bradbury’s treatise on aging and friendship set in a sinister sideshow, but that’s not the case when you’re struggling through puberty. Even the girls called me a wuss.