Book Review: The Martian Chronicles

Book Review: The Martian Chronicles by Ray Bradbury

Once, Mars was a place of mystery.  Humans looked at it from the blue Earth with feeble telescopes, and imagined what life, if any, might inhabit that red dot in the sky.  Were there canals filled with water?  Bloodsucking tripod operators?  Beings that had never fallen from grace with God?   Ray Bradbury looked, and imagined stories of Martians and Earthlings, and the doom of both.

The Martian Chronicles

Several of the stories in this volume were written in the latter half of the 1940s, and then connected with interstitial material in 1950 to make a chronological narrative.  The book opens with “Rocket Summer”, when a January 1999 Ohio winter is interrupted with heat from exhaust tests on the launchpad.  It ends with “The Million-Year Picnic” as refugees from war-torn Earth arrive on Mars in October 2026, and see the new Martians.   In between is the coming and going of the human presence on Mars.

The first three expeditions to Mars all die; perhaps if the U.S. government hadn’t outlawed science fiction and fantasy (but apparently not religious texts) in the 1970s, they would have been  better prepared.  But they get posthumous revenge; in a nod to H.G. Wells, by the time the Fourth Expedition arrives, the majority of Martians have been killed off by a common Earth disease.

Wave after wave of Earthlings arrive, most of them from the United States, as it monopolizes the construction of interplanetary rockets.  In the story “Way in the Middle of the Air”, the entire black population of the Southern U.S. decamps to Mars.  (in this bleak future, race relations did not advance beyond the early 1950s; poll taxes have only recently been abolished as of 2003. and the Klan is still very active.)   One particularly virulent racist panics when he realizes he will soon not have African-American people to oppress!  There’s use of the N-word and other racist language, so this story is sometimes left out of school editions of the book.  Because of the stitched-together nature of the collection, this large population of emigrants is never mentioned again, and their fate is finally revealed in a completely different short story collection.

Eventually, once the early settlers have made the place relatively safe, the moral guardians who eradicated speculative fiction  on their homeworld arrive to make Mars just as joyless.  “Usher II” has a multimillionaire who is still hopping mad about their destruction of his library take revenge in inventive ways mostly inspired by Edgar Allan Poe.  Mr. Bradbury was tangentially involved with the comic book industry, which was undergoing the attacks (“think of the children!”) which would lead to the Comics Code.  He would return to the theme of book burning in Fahrenheit 451.  As a kid I could easily imagine boring grownups banning all the good stuff.

Eventually, atomic war breaks out on Earth, and most of the population of Mars returns to that planet in a probably vain attempt to help out their relatives or home nation.   “The Silent Towns” concerns one of the very few people left, a miner who’d been up in the hills without communication for a few weeks when everyone else took the rockets home.  He’s initially thrilled when he learns there’s a young woman also still on Mars, but isn’t pleased when he actually meets her.

Some of Bradbury’s stories from this time period showed a nasty streak of misogyny, and this is one of them.  Genevieve stayed on Mars because she’d been constantly bullied about her weight, but rather than treat her sympathetically, the narrative flow treats her as a gross monstrosity for daring to be fat, and indulging herself in ways roughly equivalent to those Walter had done earlier in the story.  Walter escaping and hiding from her for the next twenty years is treated as a happy ending.

“There Will Come Soft Rains” is also included in this collection, one of the most perfect short stories ever written.  After the atomic war on Earth, we look at the last day of a “smart house” that hasn’t quite figured out that all the humans in its city are dead.

One of the interesting things about the stories is that in the early ones, while the Martians are still flourishing, we see their petty sides and moral failings; but after they have mostly died off, those fall by the wayside and their great accomplishments and gentleness are emphasized.

Ray Bradbury really does have a gift for poetic turns of phrase, and his nostalgia for Midwestern small towns shines through.  Sometimes the poetry can get in the way of comprehensibility, or become self-indulgent, dragging on for a paragraph or two too long.  And of course, he made no attempt to be scientifically accurate even to what was known about Mars back in the day–he readily admitted that the stories were really fantasy.

Several of the stories were adapted for EC Comics, and there have been some television show versions as well.

The book is certainly well worth reading at least once, even if it will not be to everyone’s taste.

Manga Review: Let’s Dance a Waltz

Manga Review: Let’s Dance a Waltz by Natsumi Ando

Tango Minami’s mother runs a ballroom dance school, where he helps out as a dance instructor (he’s tall for a junior high student.)  But due to a disastrous mistake in his childhood, Tango has decided never to take another full-time partner, and thus not qualify for ballrooom competitions.  Besides, these days he’s much more into hip-hop dancing, which he can perform solo and skill at which makes him popular at school.  Indeed, he hides his ballroom dancing from his schoolmates to avoid being seen as dorky.

Let's Dance a Waltz

Himé Makimura is a shy, withdrawn girl.  Despite her name meaning “princess”, Himé is plain, clumsy and rather pudgy.  Most of her classmates don’t notice her except to be mean, as when a boy notices her looking at him and delivers an excessively strident speech about how he could never be attracted to her.  It surprises our young woman when Ms. Minami spots that under her chubbiness, Himé has the right muscle and skeletal structure to be good at ballroom dancing.

Himé turns out to like dancing very much, especially with her instructor Tango–and everyone around can see that they’re excellent partners.  Except Tango.  While he notes that he finds her unattractive, that’s not the point for him.  He does not want a partner, especially one that goes to the same school as him and could expose his secret ballroom life.  Himé, meanwhile, is falling in love with Tango.

This is a shoujo (girls’) romance manga aimed at the junior high market, so the emphasis is on innocent emotions.  Tango is less meaning to be cruel, and more selfishly immature, and bad at asking for guidance.   His mother seems overbearing, but might be more supportive of his choices if he explained himself better.  There’s almost no dubious content aside from some fat-shaming by Himé’s classmates.

The creator spent time taking ballroom lessons herself to give some authenticity to the poses and training–she mentions that her instructor originally got into dancing to improve his posture.

Contrasting our main pair are the stars of the Minami school, Yuusei and Sumiré.  They’re excellent dancing partners, and good friends, but not a romantic couple.  Indeed, there are hints that Sumiré has feelings for Tango that she’s never acted on.  She’s a good sport, though, and is a consistent help to Himé on dance matters.  Yuusei is a serious sort and wants to be a rival to Tango on the dance floor–he’s the most set against Tango’s refusal to do competitive ballroom.

Late in the volume, Himé gets a makeover; the intensive exercise of dance practice has turned some of her fat to toned muscle, and extensive dolling up with Sumiré’s help for a competition has made our heroine look unrecognizably pretty.   (Presumably, she will still be dowdy at school.)  Tango may change his mind yet!  I know some of my readers are not keen on makeover sequences, but they are common to this sort of plotline.

There are translation notes in the back; perhaps the most important is that while “Tango” isn’t a common boy’s name in Japan, it’s a plausible one that wouldn’t be as much of a giveaway as it is in English.

This is a sweet story that should do well with its target audience; boys who are brave enough to get past all the pink on the cover would also enjoy it.

 

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