Back in the 1960s, when I was a clueless teenager reading Martians, Go Home by Fredric Brown, I thought the book was hilarious. My friend George had turned me onto the story by describing the wild antics of the invading Martians. Back then I focused on the comic elements. Fifty years later when rereading the book I identified with the victims of the Martian pranks, the humans, and the disruptions to their everyday life.
True, the book wasn’t funny today, but then neither is Gilligan’s Island. However, the book worked well on this new level because the plague of Martians brought about the same kinds of social disruptions as the coronavirus pandemic. The older me focused on the repercussions of the pandemic of little green men. Brown had extensively dealt with that aspect of the story, but I had missed it as a kid. The Martians put many people out of work and made gathering in large groups impossible. Because of our current situation, those threads in the story were elevated as perceptive writing. I have to wonder, though, if the current pandemic had not happened would rereading Martians, Go Home have impressed me so much?
Doesn’t real-life suffering make fictional suffering so much more vivid? Living through this pandemic has enhanced many of the books I’ve been reading and many of the shows I’m watching. Some of my friends are avoiding stories that remind them of the pandemic and seeking fictional escapes instead, but not me. I recently binge-watched an eight-part version of War and Peace, and the parallels were impressive. And what I really loved was the ending when the remaining characters found a new normal. That felt really good emotionally.
What’s ironic now, are stories about pandemics used to be a favorite theme of mine. I’m not sure I would enjoy them today, or if I did, not in the same way. One of my most loved books is Earth Abides by George R. Stewart, and one of my top DVD series is Survivors. In both stories, a pandemic wipes out 99.9% of the human race. Their appeal was starting society over. My younger self found that very exciting. This pandemic is hardly like those pandemics, but real life and fiction produce something in common — the desire for normal. Missing just a little bit of normal has taught me I really would have hated missing most of normal. Even though I thought I wanted to be a Robinson Crusoe rebuilding society, I probably would have gone catatonic losing the old one.
Experience is hard on fiction. Growing up I thought becoming an astronaut would be the pinnacle of all experiences. My junior high self would have sold his soul to fly on a Project Gemini mission. But I didn’t know myself. It took me years to realize I didn’t have the right stuff. My love of normal routines makes it impossible for me to have been an astronaut. Loving science fiction is one thing, being Neil Armstrong is something we’ll never see in any kind of fiction.
My experiences in life have taught me all about which characters I couldn’t have been, and which ones I could. But I didn’t know that in 1965, so I gorged myself on all kinds of books daydreaming I could become someone like the protagonist living their far-out adventures. Now, in 2020 when I read stories, I often see myself as one of the minor characters or identify with the faults of the main character.
Life has always cleared my rose-colored fantasies.