Bradbury, Ray – “And the Moon Be Still As Bright” (1948)
Another entry in the Martian Chronicles. A new rocketship from Earth has landed on Mars, whose denizens appear to have gone extinct. The desolation begins to eat away at the men (yes, all men), who react by ramping up their raucous disrespect for the ruins. Spender, the archaeologist, is so disgusted by this that he wanders away from the base for a few weeks and then strolls up to a few of the men at breakfast one day.
“Well,” said Spender. “I’ve found a Martian.”
“Where?” The men squinted at him.
“Up in the ruins. I didn’t think I’d find him. I didn’t intend to find him. I don’t know what he was doing there. I’ve been living in a little valley town for about a week, learning how to read the ancient books and looking at their old art forms. And one day I saw this Martian. He stood there for a moment and then he was gone. He didn’t come back for another day. And I sat around, learning how to read the old writing and the Martian came back, each time a little nearer, until, on the day I learned how to read the old writing–it’s an amazingly simple language to learn, and there are tile picture-graphs to help you, and old song-spools you can listen to–”
“On that day when I learned the language, the Martian appeared before me. He said to me, ‘Give me your boots,” and I gave him my boots and he said, ‘Give me your shirt and all the rest of your clothes,’ and I gave him all of that, and then he looked at me and he said, ‘Give me your gun,’ and I gave him my gun. Then he said, ‘Now come along, and watch what happens.’ And then the Martian walked down into camp and he’s here now.”
The men look around and then looked at each other.
“I don’t see any Martian,” said Cheroke.
Then he shoots them all. This leads to a chase and showdown between Spender and the captain (the only other reasonable man of the bunch), with Spender making his case for the superiority of the Martian way of life before allowing the captain to kill him.
Whether Spender is actually possessed by a Martian or has just taken it upon himself to avenge them is unclear – the only bit of ambiguity in the whole collection, I think. Either way, this story is the polar opposite of Genius: an attack on the exceptionalism of the modern liberal individual leading a society fixated on progress. The Martians, unlike humans (and we can safely read “humans” as “Americans” here, a point reinforced by Spender’s expectation that Cheroke, descendent of the Cherokee, would side with him, and Spender’s anecdote about his childhood trip to Mexico and the same he felt over his family’s racism), “stopped where we should have stopped a hundred years ago” and “knew how to live with nature and get along with nature. They didn’t try too hard to be all men and no animal.” Humans “were and still are a lost people,” whereas the Martians were “found,” and Spender knows that if the colonization effort is allowed to succeed, “they hope to establish three atomic research and atom bomb depots on Mars. And that means Mars is doomed.”
After the showdown, the captain, a kindred spirit but a perhaps more rational (ahem) thinker than the susceptible Spender, adopts the role of stewarding the planet in order to conserve some of the indigenous Martian culture and spirit. The story ends: “The next afternoon, Whitie did some target practice in one of the dead cities, shooting out the crystal windows and blowing the tops off the fragile towers. The captain caught Whitie and knocked his teeth out.”