Group Read 27The Big Book of Science Fiction

Story #17 of 107: “September 2005: The Martian” by Ray Bradbury

The quick take on this story is I wonder why an average work by Ray Bradbury who is famous for many other exceptional stories is included in this anthology. By now, if you’ve been following this series of reviews on the stories in The Big Book of Science Fiction, you’ll know it’s going to be another self-psychoanalysis session of why I’ve been reading science fiction for sixty years.

I have a love-hate relationship with Ray Bradbury. Mostly love, but after churning out tons of science fiction stories in the 1940s and early 1950s, he seem to abandon the genre. I hated that. And the fact he never quite wrote real science fiction, I also hated that. I love The Martian Chronicles even though Bradbury never took Mars seriously, which I did, so I hated that too. “September 2005: The Martian” was originally published as “Impossible” in the November 1949 issue of Super Science Stories. It was retitled and embedded into a chronology for The Martian Chronicles. Later editions changed the title to “September 2036: The Martian.” I assume once we get to the 2030s it will be retitled again, then maybe not, if Elon Musk colonizes the planet before then.

“The Martian” is an emotional story about an elderly couple living on Mars who painfully miss their dead son. Tom died as a teen back on Earth before they immigrated. Then one morning Tom shows up at their house on Mars. We know from previous stories in The Martian Chronicles that Mars was once inhabited, and the Martians have shapeshifting capabilities. This shapeshifting theme was used to perfection in the 1948 story “Mars is Heaven!” I found it less effective in this story, “The Martian.” The lone Martian gets trapped into a human shape whenever it gets near a human because of their need to see a lost loved one. I always considered shapeshifting a fantasy theme, but John W. Campbell used it for his SF famous story, “Who Goes There?” and it was used in the first episode of Star Trek when it premiered in 1966, “The Man Trap.”

Shapeshifting is a very ancient theme in storytelling and fiction. I’m not sure Bradbury’s use of it in this story is very original. Bradbury plays up the emotion by having the Martian appear as dead children to two different couples. Although Bradbury keeps telling us how old and elderly LaFarge and Anna are, but they are just fifty-five and sixty, and that seems funny now. Probably when I read this story the first time in my teens, 55 and 60 were ancient.

Even though I enjoyed “The Martian,” I was also annoyed at it. You get the feeling the Martian colony is clone of some small midwestern town from Bradbury’s youth of the 1930s. Bradbury even admits inspiration from Sherwood Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio, another fixup novel of short stories. My theory was Bradbury wanted to be a literary writer all along, but started out in science fiction because of fan friends, and because the genre was easier to break into. Once he achieved fame he moved on to the larger literary world. And who can blame him for not staying bottled up in one small genre? Because Bradbury had a thing for fantasy and horror, his science fiction never quite felt futuristic. He was never a Campbell writer, and “The Martian” feels more inspired by Poe or Collier, than the science fiction of his day.

Don’t get me wrong, “The Martian” is a solid story that is sentimental and moving, with a touch of horror and grotesque, just set on Mars. My situation in reviewing it is compounded by three concerns. First, why is this story in The Big Book of Science Fiction? I still can’t figure out if this anthology is the VanderMeers’ view of the best of 20th century science fiction, or the best of 20th century science fiction after a 21st century reevaluation, or the best stories that aren’t already in in The Science Fiction Hall of Fame which has stayed in print since 1970? This anthology only has three stories from the 1940s, and only one from Astounding (“Desertion”). The 1940s was considered the Golden Age of Science Fiction. I guess its not now. The Bradbury is from a minor magazine, and the other story is by Jorge Louis Borges, who was never part of the science fiction world. Is this a snub of John W. Campbell?

My second conflict is with Ray Bradbury, but I’ve already covered that love-hate relationship. “The Martian” is average-good Bradbury, but far from great. Why not pick one of his standout stories? To me, the obvious choice is “There Will Come Soft Rains.” Maybe I’m putting too much importance on The Big Book of Science Fiction. Maybe it’s just a collection of stories that the VanderMeers liked, and not the important short SF from the 20th century anthology that I expected it to be. I guess I lament that large SF anthologies just don’t come around very often anymore, and the ones that do I put all my hope for preserving the great SF short stories of the past that I love and want to be remembered.

My third conflict is between the fantasy of space travel in fiction and the reality of space travel in real life. This gets especially complicated because my expectations when young are so much different from my beliefs in old age. Let’s say when I was young science fiction was my Bible and I had unwavering faith of the final frontier. Now that I’m old, I’m skeptical about the final frontier, and science fiction is my fantasy escape from an ever harsher reality. When I was young I look down on Bradbury for writing fantasy flavored science fiction, but now that I’m old I admire Bradbury for his quaint sentimental space fantasies, and just ignore their unrealistic and unscientific aspects. In fact, I ache to read The Martian Chronicles: The Complete Edition (2009) that includes all of Bradbury’s Martian stories. Unfortunately, that limited $300/900 edition is out of print and costs thousands of dollars to acquire used.

Maybe I can explain my problem in another way, although I’m afraid my analogy might offend some people. I recently followed SpaceX’s Inspiration4 mission to orbit with four ordinary people getting to play astronaut for three days. Don’t get what I’m about to say wrong. I admire what the private space companies are achieving, and that three day mission was very impressive. But I’m against space tourism. Space is very costly on so many levels, including to the environment. To see the colonization of space has been my lifelong dream, but I’ve changed my mind. If space travel is going to be yet one more way we’re destroying the Earth then any mission should be vital. Turning space into a playground for the rich is obscene. On the days the news followed the Inspiration4 mission, it also showed scenes of 15,000 desperate Haitians huddling under a Texas bridge. The contrast was philosophically heavy.

At first I was very excited about this space mission. When I was young I dreamed of going into space and I envied those two men and two women. But my mind was completed changed when I saw them being interviewed in orbit. This is probably just me, but ordinary people just don’t look like they belong in space, which is the exact opposite of what SpaceX wants us to think. The people from Earth in “The Martian” never looked like they belonged on Mars.

Now that I’m old, I’m not sure if humans are meant for space. Space is perfect for robots, which seem right at home in the extreme environments of outer space and on other planets. I can accept highly trained astronauts who travel into space with a purpose machines can’t yet solve, like repairing the Hubble telescope. But watching ordinary folk goofing off in zero-g and gawking at Earth seem way too frivolous. It trivializes what some humans train for years to do.

There are some Ray Bradbury science fiction stories I love dearly, but there are others I feel took science fiction too lightly, like he was never a true believer in the final frontier. This really shouldn’t bother me now that I’m no longer a true believer myself, but I guess I’m still holding onto earlier resentments.

Reading science fiction at this time in my life and this moment in history feels like playing the fiddle while Rome burns. But it’s my way of reevaluating my life, my 1960s expectations for the future that we’re now living in, the contrast between what science fiction was and what it will become, and the relationship between science fiction and reality.

The collective desire for the space program to get to Mars today was partly inspired by Ray Bradbury and other science fiction writers. It’s the ultimate goal for many people and nations. I think we seriously need to psychoanalyze that desire.

Main Page of Group Read

James Wallace Harris, 9/21/21

14 thoughts on ““September 2005: The Martian” by Ray Bradbury

  1. There is no internal consistency in The Martian Chronicles. For example, the two stories you mention totally contradict each other. In “Mars Is Heaven” (“The Third Expedition”), the shapeshifters are in complete control of their abilities, while in “The Martian”, the shapeshifter has no control and is forced to adopt whatever shape humans want it to.

    I don’t really covet the Complete Edition of The Martian Chronicles. The additional stories are nearly all scraps of little interest to anyone who is looking for the “best” in science fiction. The new Bradbury edition by the Library of America includes The Martian Chronicles, and adds two stories that weren’t in the original US edition or in the most recent mainstream edition, the 2012 Simon & Schuster one (which has the same TOC as the first edition). Neither of the two additional stories are of much interest to a reader of your taste.

    The VanderMeer book is boldly emblazoned as the ULTIMATE collection, which is definitely an indication of its ambition. It’s not just a grab-bag of any old stories the editors liked. It’s definitely meant to be representative.

    That being the case, the Bradbury entry should have been selected from the following:

    “There Will Come Soft Rains”, or
    “The Veldt”, or
    “A Sound of Thunder”, or
    “The Fog Horn”, or
    “All Summer in a Day”.

    This is the pool of stories that gives equal weight to fame and quality. I suppose you could add “Mars Is Heaven!”, which is good, but it’s really just a shock ending story.

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    1. I thought “Mars is Heaven!” was way more than just a shock-ending story. The whole story plays with the psychology of what we’re looking for in space. I think Bradbury nailed it, we want another Earth, but a nicer one, one that recalls the magic of our childhood.

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  2. Perhaps their choosing of more off-the-beaten-path stories, has more to do with the cost of reprinting the most famous ones than with any appreciation of these stories. I myself think their “ultimate” collection is a joke.

    I have to disagree with your current appraisal of space flight, except for the part about its impact on the environment.

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    1. I figured many would disagree with my current ideas about space flight. Millions of people are tremendously excited about the successes of private enterprises in space. But basing its funding on tourism is very problematic. The romance of science fiction has oversold the value of living in space. We don’t need humans to explore or even mine space. The only reason to colonize space with humans is to make backups for our species. And it would be much cheaper to create self-sustaining colonies with machines first, before populating them with people. We want to go to space to inflate our egos, for the adventure, and come up with all kinds of rationalizations to justify the real costs.

      We’re in a race to preserve civilization from multiple forms of destruction, but everyone wants to ignore all that just to keep doing what they want. Space tourism is among the most excessive form of that denial. I keep expecting science fiction to deal with that.

      My guess is the cost of reprinting good stories isn’t really that different from reprinting bad stories. I actually believe the VanderMeers liked these stories, they just don’t like the old stories we do. But as we move forward in time some of their picks are the standout stories from the years they were published. We’ve just now reached the 1950s, and that means we have five decades where science fiction will change several times.

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  3. I liked this Magical Futurism story – not that this subgenre would be well-established or defined back in the days. I just like to categorize it that way in order to set my expectations right.

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      1. I think, editor Betsy Wollheim coined that term not long ago for Nnedi Okorofor‘s „Who fears Death“. You know Magical Realism? Magical Futurism is the same, just not set in current time but in the future. Cross-genre in way: wyrd plus SF. Does that help?

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        1. I don’t think so. Magical Realism belongs to literary writers, so I would think Magical Futurism would belong to them too, even though Betsy Wollheim suggested it. Here’s how I define genre. Genre books are those books shelved separately from the Fiction section in libraries and bookstores. Literary writers want to stay in the general fiction section no matter what their books are about, and that’s fair. Literary writers, academics, and critics have their own jargon that allows them to have their own book world. And that’s cool. For example, I would never put Jorge Louis Borges in the Science Fiction section, even those books that are very much like science fiction. Ditto for Margaret Attwood or Kazuo Ishiguro. They want to be literary writers. Genres are a convenience for genre writers, publishers, and readers. But it should be voluntary.

          The stories in The Martian Chronicles were written for pulp magazines, and they fit in with Planetary Romances, so why not stick with genre terminology? I believe Vonnegut and Bradbury wanted to escape their genre beginnings, but they never did. That should tell beginning writers: don’t break into genre if your goal is literary.

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        2. No, I don’t think that my understanding of genre is the same as yours.

          I‘m absolutely not interested in how authors want their works to be categorized, especially not with Atwood 😁
          And I don’t think that Magical Realism is only for literary writers. „Little, Big“ is Magical Realism, and John Crowley writes in diverse genres.

          I‘m fine with this story categorized as Planetary Romance. But that doesn’t exclude a second genre at all.

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        3. There are no hard and fast rules about any of this. Crowley is a difficult case. His fantastic works don’t feel like genre works, so I can understand thinking about him in literary terms. On the other hand, he has worked in genre. He was my teacher for a week at Clarion West. His books are published in both the Book of the Month Club and The Science Fiction Book Club.

          But when I see the term Magical Realism I think of the literary world. When I hear it used on a genre book I feel the reviewer wants to elevate it out of the normal fantasy book world. In a practical sense, when you go to a bookstore, do you find Crowley in the SF/F section or the Fiction section? (It’s better for the writer financially, and critically to be found in the Fiction section.)

          I agree with Wikipedia on this one: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Magic_realism

          I would love it if we did away with genre labels and file all fiction in the Fiction section, but that’s not how the world works. It might break us of the habit of always gorging on one kind of cookies.

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        4. Here in Germany, some works of Crowley are published as SF, others as Fantasy, none as literary fiction.
          Gene Wolfe said „Magical Realism is Fantasy by Spanish writers“, Terry Pratchett „a polite way to say you write fantasy“ (which fits to your feeling).
          I‘m more tending towards a definition where the unreal breaks slightly into reality.
          Genres and subgenres help me with my expectations and often enough communicate. It’s not about literary fiction versus genre for me at all. It’s more about content. That’s why I don’t care how a book is marketed, how much money a writer earns with it or what the preference of an author are. It’s about my own understanding of a work.

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