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: Case Closed Volume 56

Manga Review: Case Closed Volume 56 by Gosho Aoyama

Quick recap for newer readers:  Shinichi Kudou (“Jimmy” in the US version) is a teen genius detective.  He runs afoul of a mysterious criminal organization, but their assassination attempt instead causes him to shrink to a childlike appearance.  To conceal his survival from the organization, Shinichi poses as Conan Edogawa, ward of inept private detective Kogoro Mouri (Richard Moore) and his teenage daughter Ran (Rachel) who happens to be Shinichi’s love interest.  Conan continues to solve crimes, though it’s harder to get people to listen to a small kid.  See my previous review for more.

Case Closed Vol. 56

The volume to hand is #56.  The first story is “Engagement Ring?!” which guest stars Detectives Sato and Takagi, and their slow-moving romance subplot.  Sato is suddenly wearing a gold ring on her left hand’s ring finger, and Takagi wasn’t the one who gave it to her.  The crime this time is the suicide (or is it?) of a mystery writer that Kogoro was supposed to participate in an interview with.  That writer also had a ring that turns out to be an important clue.  The case is also complicated in that Sato is one of the few police officers who’s noticed that “Sleeping Mouri” doesn’t move his lips when he gives the real solution, so Conan must figure out other ways to lead the police to the answer.

Next up is “The Witch Legend Mystery” which is loosely based on the story of a lost traveler who seeks shelter with a kindly old woman overnight.  He wakes up in the middle of the night due to an odd sound, peeks into the next room, and sees that the woman is actually an onibaba (anthropophagous demon granny) who is sharpening a knife in preparation for butchering him.

In this case, both the Detective Kids with Doctor Agasa, and two “hosts” and their client separately find themselves stranded near a mountain hut, and reluctantly taken in by the scary-looking old woman who lives there.  (A “host” is a handsome man who entertains women at a nightclub, getting them to buy drinks and expensive trinkets for them.)  The client winds up dead from a slit throat.  Was it the old woman, who one of the children saw sharpening a knife in the dead of night, or someone else?

The remainder of the volume is a series of connected stories that deal with the Eisuke Hondo subplot.  This mysterious youth is clumsy, but perceptive, and seems to be connected to the supposed missing (actually comatose) Rena Mizunashi, newscaster and associate of the Black Organization.   Conan’s Osakan counterpart Heiji Hattori (Harley) has discovered someone who may have know Eisuke’s father; also there’s only one known photograph of the man.  But when Conan, Doctor Agasa, and Ai (English name Anita, another survivor of childification) go to check that photo–it’s missing!

That problem resolved, Conan has some new clues.  Then Ran suggests visiting a friend of the Mouri family who is a huge Rena fan, to see if Eisuke really is her brother, as the photographs would suggest.  Conan and Sonoko (Serena) tag along, and Conan solves a bank transfer scam case on the way.  But news footage of Rena only confuses the issue–she apparently can’t be Eisuke’s sister, and the boy’s motives are still murky.

It’s nice to get some plot movement, so this is one of the volumes to pick up if you’re most interested in the “myth arc.’  Otherwise, it’s got a couple of decent mysteries that are typical for the series.

Book Review: Jewish Noir

Book Review: Jewish Noir edited by Kenneth Wishnia

Many of the themes of noir fiction, alienation, hostile society, darkness and bitter endings, resonate with the experience of Jewish people.  So it’s not surprising that it was easy to find submissions for an anthology of thirty-plus noir stories with Jewish themes.  (Not all of the authors are themselves Jewish; see if you can guess which ones.)

Jewish Noir

The volume opens with “Devil for a Witch” by R.S. Brenner.   A man caught embezzling for what he thinks are good causes has his death faked by the FBI so that he can go undercover in the Klu Klux Klan.  The title comes from an old saying about trading a known danger for an unknown one, and this assignment turns out to be perilous indeed.  The author bio mentions that this is an excerpt from an upcoming novel.

Most of the stories in this collection are appearing for the first time, but two are not.  “A Simke (A Celebration)” by Yente Serdatsky was first published in Yiddish in 1912, and this is its first publication in English.  It’s a melancholy tale of a woman whose refusal to conform to the social norms of Russian-Jewish immigrants made her popular in her youth, but isolates her now that she is middle-aged.  Harlan Ellison® contributes a story first published in 1960. “The Final Shtick”, about a comedian returning to the small town he had good reason to flee, and his feelings concerning this.

As one might expect, several of the stories concern Nazis, neo-Nazis and/or the Holocaust.  “Feeding the Crocodile” by Moe Prager is perhaps the strongest of these–a writer tells stories to a death camp commandant in hopes of surviving just a bit longer.  But the crocodile gets greedy.

There’s a fairly wide variety of protagonists in these stories.  Good people who do bad things, bad people who try to do good things, evil people who sink even lower, men and women, religious Jews and secular ones, Jews of different sexual orientations and skin colors.  Ethnic slurs and antisemitism are peppered throughout, and there is mention of child sexual abuse, suicide and rape.

“The Golem of Jericho” by Jonathan Santlofer is on the borderline with supernatural stories.  A bullied boy and his grandfather build a golem, which may or may not have killed the bullies; it’s certainly a mysterious coincidence.

The weakest story is “Her Daughter’s Bar Mitzvah: A Mother Talks to the Rabbi” by Adam D. Fisher which is just one long kvetch.  (My spell checker doesn’t flag that word, interesting.)  No crime, no hopeless ending, just complaining.

It should be noted here that this volume published by PM Press has no connection to the series of regional noir anthologies put out by Akashic Books despite the very similar presentation and book structure.

Most of the stories are good; recommended to noir fans who are willing to stretch their focus a little.

 

TV Review: The Man Behind the Badge

TV Review: The Man Behind the Badge

It’s back to the big box set of old TV shows with this anthology series that ran 1953-55, with Charles Bickford as the host.  This one is interesting because it didn’t concentrate on one law enforcement agency or type of crime, instead featuring public servants of all kinds.

The Man Behind the Badge

The stories are based on actual events, with all names except that of the civil servant himself changed to protect the innocent.  My DVD had six episodes:

  • “The Case of the Dying Past”  A district attorney for a small city in Vermont receives anonymous complaints that a harness shop owner is engaging in loan sharking.   When he investigates, the shop owner engages in a rant about how people these days don’t appreciate hard work and craftsmanship, like this here horsewhip.  They’re lazy whiners who want handouts.  Not that he’s admitting to the loan sharking.  Before the DA can find enough evidence to move ahead, the loan shark is murdered and the DA must solve the crime.  Notable for the first suspect telling what appears to be a cock and bull story, but is actually true.
  • “The Case of the Priceless Passport”  Foreign nationals have been entering the United States with really good fake American passports.  Two men from the immigration service go undercover in Mexico to track down the forgers.  Some tense scenes in an abandoned warehouse, and particularly good performances by the villains’ actors.   An interesting time capsule from when Mexicans weren’t the people we were worried about coming in from Mexico.
  • “The Case of the Capital Crime”  Security guards at a department store in Washington, D.C. are murdered during a robbery.  The police detective assigned to the case is able to determine the killer must have worked at the store within the last six months and be over six feet tall.   That narrows the list of suspects considerably, but actually catching the killer is another matter.  The case is resolved when an act of kindness by the detective has an unexpected dividend.
  • “The Case of the Hot Stock”  A man from the Bureau of Securities based in Lincoln, Nebraska, tracks down a conman who selling fake oil well ownership certificates.  This one was very painful to watch, as most of the episode was dedicated to the conman romancing a lonely spinster to take her money.  The government man is finally moved to crush her romantic dreams by the most direct demonstration of the criminal’s perfidy he can manage.
  • “The Case of the Hunted Hobo”  Young couples are being robbed on Chicago’s Lover’s Lane.  After one victim gives a important clue to where the robber hides, a police officer goes undercover as a hobo to track him down.  Aaron Spelling(!) has a bit part as a Lover’s Lane Romeo.
  • “The Case of Operation Sabotage”  A B-47 Aircraft Commander at a base near Riverside, California notices some odd behavior on the part of one of his crew’s wife.  As there’s a big training mission coming up, tensions are heightened, and he’s not sure if there’s really something going on or if she’s naturally curious.  The episode touches a bit on the strain military secrecy can cause in a marriage, and there’s a huge twist at the end.

Some nice writing and the variety of public servants profiled make this an interesting find.  Some episodes are online.

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