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Bradbury, Ray – “Mars is Heaven!” (1948)

03/06/2012

In the year 1960, the first rocket ship to Mars lands in what seems to be a Norman Rockwell painting transposed into real life. The captain and two others leave to explore while ordering the other 14 crewmembers to stay aboard the ship and keep watch (Bradbury’s Mars, it bears mentioning, has a surprisingly breathable atmosphere). Their exploration of the town is mostly an opportunity for Bradbury to harp on nostalgia for the 1920s, which is where this Martian town appears to be stuck. Things get even weirder when they knock on a Martian’s door and she informs them that this is, in fact, a town in Wisconsin and the year is 1926. Throughout this section, the captain and the archaeologist accompanying him put forth a variety of rationalist explanations for what is taking place: this must have been a secret enclave of scientists with secret rocket capabilities who are now suffering from some sort of homesickness-induced madness or some such. Even here, the supernatural is invoked from time to time, as when someone suggests that such cultural convergences on different planets prove the existence of God, or the apropos-of-nothing insistence that this “couldn’t be Heaven.” When the dead relatives of the astronauts start appearing in the town, the attempt at rationalist explanations go out the window. This must be Heaven, the men (and of course they’re all men and, presumably, white men at that) decide, and promptly abandon the ship and their mission in order to enjoy their new lives with their old loved ones. The captain, once he has settled down for the night with his parents and dead brother, has a chance to reflect on their situation:

He lay peacefully, letting his thoughts float. For the first time the stress of the day was moved aside, all of the excitement was calmed. He could think logically now. It had all been emotion. The bands playing, the sight of familiar faces, the sick pounding of your heart. But–now… How? He thought? How was all this made? And why? For what purpose? Out of the goodness of some kind God? Was God, then, really that fine and thoughtful of his children? How and why and what for?… Who had lived here a thousand years ago on Mars? Martians? Or had this always been like this? Martians. He repeated the word quietly, inwardly. He laughed out loud, almost. He had the most ridiculous theory, all of a sudden. It gave him a kind of chilled feeling. It was really nothing to think of, of course. Highly improbable. Silly. Forget it. Ridiculous.

But, he thought, just suppose. Just suppose now, that there were Martians living on Mars and they saw our ship coming and saw us inside our ship and hated us. Suppose, now, just for the hell of it, that they wanted to destroy us, as invaders, as unwanted ones, and they wanted to do it in a very clever way, so that we would be taken off guard. Well, what would the best weapon be that a Martian could use against Earthmen with atom weapons? The answer was interesting. Telepathy, hypnosis, memory and imagination…. Suppose these houses are really some other shape, a Martian shape, but, by playing on my desires and wants, these Martians have made this seem like my old home town, my old house, to lull me out of my suspicions? What better way to fool a man, by his own emotions.

After this realization the phantoms promptly reveal their true, awful Martian shapes and slaughter the interlopers.

This story has some great things to say about nostalgia and the inhospitable universe and human attempts to understand it by means of either faith or reason, but too much of the text boils down to lengthy descriptions of life in an idealized version of 1920s America.

What to make of the fact that the forlorn Martians (partially) maintain their human shapes the next day and weep at the funerals for their victims?

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