Monday, April 4, 2011

The Million-Year Picnic

The Martian Chronicles (1950)
by Ray Bradbury

     They reached the canal.  It was long and straight and cool and wet and reflective in the night.
      "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 ...

One of my prized possessions is an autographed copy of Ray Bradbury's BRILLIANT episodic novel, The Martian Chronicles.  He was the keynote speaker at a teacher's Technology Conference in Orlando I attended probably close to 20 years ago.  I was in awe.  Here was an author whose work I DEVOURED when I was a teenager ... not quite science fiction, not quite fantasy, but a hypnotic mix of the two, a mysterious world inhabited by carnivals from Hell, tattoos that came to life and told stories, magic sneakers, and a society where books are illegal and are burned.  Bradbury rose to the microphone in front of a packed convention of teachers and began to rail eloquently against the evils of technology - at a TECHNOLOGY conference!  I watched in delight as this wonderful eccentric horrified the organizers of the conference, sitting mouths agape behind him.  I'm not sure I'll ever forget that moment or that moment where I was able to meet him in person and ask him to please sign a hard-covered copy of my favorite of his works.

I used to fancy myself a bit of a science fiction writer.  Most of my work as a teenager that appeared in our high school's literary magazine (I was also the editor for a few years) was science fiction short stories.  I still have most of the poems and short stories I wrote during high school - I was quite prolific during that time.  The Bradbury influence is pretty clear today as I read the words manually typed on erasable onion skin paper.

Though I do marvel at the imagination which created Fahrenheit 451, Dandelion Wine, Something Wicked This Way Comes, and The Illustrated Man (with its short story, "The Veldt," which still gives me chills), it's The Martian Chronicles that I return to again and again. The final image captured above in Bradbury's words from the last chapter/short story "The Million-Year Picnic" is nothing short of astonishing - an Earth family on a picnic to a Martian canal looking at the reflections of the new "Martians" staring back at them from the water.  Leading up to that, though, is a fascinating tapestry of loosely-woven short stories chronicling the colonization of Mars and the often tragic results of the meetings between the inhabitants of the two worlds.

Among the 27 other tales - "Ylla," a Martian woman has recurring telepathic dreams of the first astronauts from Earth and a jealous husband guns them down when they arrive; the penultimate story, "There Will Come Soft Rains," in which a post-nuclear holocaust fully-automated Earth house still serves the family whose images are burned on the outer walls; "The Settlers," with its brilliant homage to the opening of Dickens' A Tale of Two Cities ...

     The men of Earth came to Mars.
     They came because they were afraid or unafraid, because they were happy or unhappy, because they felt like Pilgrims or did not feel like Pilgrims.  There was a reason for each man.  They were leaving bad wives or bad jobs or bad towns; they were coming to find something or leave something or get something, to dig up something or bury something, or leave something alone.  They were coming with small dreams or large dreams or none at all.  But a government finger pointed from four-color posters in many towns: THERE'S WORK FOR YOU IN THE SKY: SEE MARS! and the men shuffled forward, only a few at first, a double-score, for most men felt the great illness in them even before the rocket fired into space.  And this disease was called The Loneliness, because when you saw your home town dwindle the size of your fist and then lemon size and then pin-size and vanish in the fire-wake, you felt you had never been born, there was no town, you were nowhere, with space all around, nothing familiar, only other strange men.  And when the state of Illinois, Iowa, Missouri, or Montana vanished into cloud seas, and, doubly, when the United States shrank to a misted island and the entire planet Earth became a muddy baseball tossed away, then you were alone, wandering in the meadows of space, on your way to a place you couldn't imagine.

It gives me chills just transcribing the words on the keyboard from the book to the screen.  As you can tell, I LOVE this book and I could rave for pages and pages.  If you haven't read it ... even if you might not be a fan of science fiction ... you must.

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