Thursday, May 30, 2019

Ray Bradbury, The Martian Chronicles

Bradbury, Ray. The Martian Chronicles. New York: Doubleday, May 1950.

The Martian Chronicles at Goodreads
The Martian Chronicles at ISFdb

Overall Rating:     7.5/10

There are a number of good articles on this book readily available, and my comments will be brief.

Space colonization stories reflect colonization experiences on Earth. Bradbury references human experiences, sympathizing consistently with the colonized. Here, humans are the aggressors, and though there is some sympathy for the individual, there is little sympathy afforded the human race. Characters are most often representative of different attitudes, and rarely fleshed out. Often a human is a flat out aggressor, as in "The Off Season," or a sympathizer, as in Spender from "--And the Moon Be Still As Bright."

Many of the stories were re-worked to fit the chronology, some fitting in fairly well, while others obviously re-tooled for the purpose of inclusion. While there is a certain amount of consistency, the overall effect is jagged, as there are great variances in tone and approach. What is consistent is the progression of human colonization of Mars, and a kind of circular pattern takes shape. Humans fail at their conquest, then gain the planet by inadvertently killing the inhabitants through disease, establish their own culture while treating the previous culture disrespectfully, until finally they must abandon the planet, only to later leave on Mars the seed to develop a new civilization. Vulnerable on Mars, this new civilization appears ripe for eventual conquest, and the pattern can repeat.

Vignettes are included between some of the stories. These are slight, some more effective than others, and I won't be commenting on these individually.

Ylla     7/10
Maclean's Magazine, 1 January 1950. (As "I'll Not Ask for Wine.")
A Martian woman named Ylla tells her husband Yll of an odd dream she had. In that dream, a rocket ship from Earth has descended to Mars, carrying two odd-looking men. Though Yll laughs at the silliness of this dream, he is also uneasy. Ylla continues to dream, and Yll's discomfort increases. A sympathetically-told story. Character driven, it could have been set on any countryside on Earth. The story would have to be character driven and detailing human experience in order to be purchased by the popular Canadian political and current affairs magazine, Maclean's. A good opening story, as it gives the collection's only potential for unity between the two races.

The Earth Men     7/10
Thrilling Wonder Stories, August 1948. pp 69-76
The second human expedition to Mars carries four men. Expecting great honours and a treatment of champions, they are instead welcomed with indifference, passed on from one household to another. Far lighter in tone than "Ylla," it is a little odd as it presents the martians as being somewhat loopy, whereas the humans are comically arrogant. Nonetheless an enjoyable story.

The Third Expedition     7/10
Planet Stories, Fall 1948. pp 56-66. (As "Mars is Heaven!")
During the third expedition to Mars, humans have become incautious and not too logical, in this story that borders on fantasy. Members of the expedition land on a Mars from the bygone Earth year of 1926, and soon encounter deceased family members, leading them to the conclusion that Mars is heaven. Not quite, as the reader suspects. This story was apparently re-worked considerably to fit the scope of The Martian Chronicles, but rather than push the setting to a later decade, Bradbury instead created a form of longevity that is otherwise non-existent in the rest of the stories.

—and the Moon Be Still As Bright     6/10
Thrilling Wonder Stories, June 1948. pp 78-91. (As "...and the Moon Be Still As Bright")
The fourth expedition to the red planet informs its crew that Martians are all but extinct, thanks to the diseases brought over by the earlier expedition, namely chicken pox. While many of the crew act like freshman university students on a resort during spring break, archaeologist Spender instead empathizes with the Martians, and on their behalf takes a stance of vengeance. Emulating and acknowledging the actions of Europeans colonizing the Americas, Bradbury's sympathies are with the indigenous, and a Cherokee astronaut, likely among the first indigenous astronauts to appear in literature, appropriately named Cherokee, makes an appearance. The story is a bit overlong but does its duty to bring the book to its second act, whereas Martians are less loopy and the overall tone of the work less playful. The satire on human materialism contrasted with the spiritual Martians allows Bradbury to make some still relevant points on consumerism and cultural insensitivity.

The Green Morning     6/10
The Martian Chronicles. New York: Doubleday, May 1950.
Despite having difficulty in getting accustomed to the thin atmosphere on Mars, Benjamin Driscoll is recruited to elevate the atmosphere to Earth standards. In an isolated area, he begins to plant the seeds that will help make the planet habitable to humans. Written specifically for the collection, this is among the weaker stories, and reads like both filler and a convenience in explaining human adaptability to the planet.

Night Meeting     6/10
The Martian Chronicles. New York: Doubleday, May 1950.
Another story written for the collection, it fits better in the whole of the work than does "Green Morning." Here a simple blue collar Earthman encounters the spirit of a Martian.

Way in the Middle of the Air     6/10
The Martian Chronicles. New York: Doubleday, May 1950.
A hardware shop owner and his buddies are shocked to learn that the black people of the south are making their way to Mars. The only story in the collection to be set on Earth (aside form the descriptive piece ""There Will Come Soft Rains" and a vignette), it is in some ways progressive, despite being dated, but the characters are stock, providing an outlet for Bradbury's point. The story does fit in well with the notions of oppressed races, though ideas are not followed up later, as we don't actually see any black people on Mars. The story was controversial upon the release of The Martian Chronicles, where it first appeared, and was removed from many earlier editions.

Usher II     6/10
Thrilling Wonder Stories, April 1950. pp 95-103. (As "Carnival of Madness")
As a result of the 1975 ban and burning of all fantastical fiction, such as the works of Edgar Allan Poe, Mr. Stendhal has a replica of the house of Usher built on Mars. Pursued again by the moral authorities, he uses the house as part of his vengeance on society. A good story on its own, but doesn't seem to fit the collection, and was likely re-formatted with the Mars slant. It is a predecessor and companion, of course, to Bradbury's Fahrenheit 451, dealing with censorship and government-sanctioned book burning. The original title, "Carnival of Madness," is more appropriate than "Usher II."

The Martian     8/10
Super Science Stories, November 1949. pp 72-79. (As "Impossible")
An older couple settle on Mars to get away from Earth and the memory of their lost son, Tom. Late one night a figure appears, and Tom has returned. The father quickly learns the truth, that a telepathic Martian can take on the role of a lost one, via the memories of the living. To me the most powerful story, as the tragedy in not only that of the couple who must again lose their child, but also this unfortunate Martian, who will forever be the object of someone's grief. Likely heavily re-fitted to suit the collection, the original, titled "Impossible," likely has little to do with Martians and possibly set on Earth. This one I will hunt down.

The Off Season     7/10
Thrilling Wonder Stories, December 1948. pp 99-104.
Sam Parkhill, a member of Captain Wagner's expedition from "--And the Moon Be Still as Bright," sets up the first hot dog stand on Mars, expecting to earn a fortune. Yet when a martian comes to pay a visit, his fear grips reason and he kills the visitor, which leads to an all-out chase, as other Martians appear. Though the humans in the story are barely characters, the tragedy of useless Martian deaths is effective.

The Silent Towns     7/10
The Martian Chronicles. New York: Doubleday, May 1950.
In an abandoned Mars, the last man in a deserted town hears the ringing of a phone. Missing the call, he too decides to try connecting via the Martian phone system (using a land line), and fantasizes meeting an attractive woman. A comical and enjoyable last man story, though adds little to the whole.

The Long Years     7/10
Planet Stories, Spring 1949. pp 51-58. (As "Dwellers in Silence")
Following years of living alone in a Martian cave with his family, archaeologist Hathaway from the fourth expedition discovers a ship is returning to the red planet. Having been in the field with his family when Earth was abandoned, he and his family took to the caves where they have been living since. Something is off, however, as the reader is subtly informed. A good story with a surprisingly bittersweet final image.

There Will Come Soft Rains     6/10
Collier's, 6 May 1950.
An automated home continues to function in a post-apocalyptic setting. Entirely descriptive, the piece is quite haunting. Interesting that the dad of the house has his shadow burned by the atomic blast while mowing the lawn, when later we learn that lawn mowing is a function of the automated house. Perhaps it was a hobby?

The Million-Year Picnic     6/10
Planet Stories, Summer 1946. pp 95-100.
A family lands on Mars, escaping the war-ravaged Earth. A fitting end to the collection, though a little sentimental for my taste.

Thursday, May 16, 2019

Brian Aldiss, Who Can Replace a Man? / Best Science Fiction Stories of Brian Aldiss (1965)

Aldiss, Brian. Best Science Fiction Stories of Brian Aldiss. London: Faber and Faber, 1965.
______. Who Can Replace a Man? New York: Harcourt, Brace & World, 1966.
______. Who Can Replace a Man? New York: Signet, November 1967. (My edition)

A concise bibliography at ISFdb
Who Can Replace a Man? at Goodreads

Rating:     7.5/10
Signet, 1967

In a small white box in my dad's basement, I recently discovered a selection of books I enjoyed as an early teen. At that time I experienced a relatively brief affair with science fiction, focusing mostly on short stories of the 1950s through the 1970s, and some more contemporary 1980s novels. Among my favourite short story authors was Brian Aldiss, and of his collections I preferred this one. So I thought I would re-visit, thinking I would cringe at my immature tastes, but to my pleasant surprise, I breezed quickly through the book and, with some minor exceptions, enjoyed the collection perhaps even more under the guise of my more mature self. Nuances I likely did not catch as a youth, and a greater appreciation for dark fiction, no doubt adding to my enjoyment.

The collection is a good range of science fiction story sub-genres of and 50s and 60s: distant future, near future, hard science, political fiction, cold war paranoia, elements of fantasy, new wave and dark humour. The one constant is that each story contains some element of the dark, with an emphasis of pessimistic depictions of the far future, ill treatment of human values and individuality, and the ill consequences of a mechanized future. An argument can be made that these are the best of Aldiss's pre-1965 stories, as the original title suggest, with my favourites being  "Outside" and "Who Can Replace a Man?", along with "Old Hundredth", "Not for an Age" and "Man in His Time." The collection, however, also includes two pieces that can be excised to improve the whole: "Psyclops" and, mainly, the semi-adventure paranoia piece "Basis for Negotiation."

Who Can Replace a Man?     8/10
Infinity Science Fiction, June 1958. pp 58-66 (as "But Who Can Replace a Man?")
On a cultivation farm in a dystopian future, the agricultural robots learn that humans have become extinct. Their logical minds seek a plan of action, and a small group leaves for the city. A bleak story dealing with the idea of power and anticipates man's perpetual rule over machines (at least while machines have limited AI), Aldiss manages to infuse humour in what could have become a very dated robot story, but instead remains quite solid despite the obvious 1950s design of these over-sized machines. The story infuses robots with recognizable human traits, and has them, in their own dry logic, adopt an all-too human approach to conquest. In terms of technique, the pacing is excellent, as the quiet opening escalates nicely toward chaos, until we reach that great finale.

This story is generally highly regarded and readily available online.

Not for an Age     7/10
The London Observer, 9 January 1955.
Middle aged professor Rodney Furnell has become aware that he is perpetually re-living one single, average and mundane day of his life. Though he is unable to change his actions, his thoughts are independent, and he contemplates both his situation, and the crowd of faces surrounding each scene, as some future audience is watching each moment play out.

Little detail of the future society is given, only what is essentially necessary for the story. Aldiss is not exploring the world, but rather the individual and his tragic circumstances. As in many of these stories, the twist only helps to make a tragic situation even worse.

Faber & Faber, 1965
Psyclops     5/10
New Worlds Science Fiction #49, July 1956. pp 30-39
A father tries to telepathically warn his unborn son of some great impending danger.

This is among Aldiss's many experimental new wave pieces, first published in the new wave advocate New Worlds (edited by John Carnell). I did not care for the story when I first read it as a naive and impressionable teen, and still care little for it as a jaded adult. It is not a bad idea for a story, but some of the fetal ruminations, particularly at the start, are plain bad, and much of the incidental information dropping by the father, though required for the story, is awkward and unsubtle (How do I explain to unborn child and, more importantly, the reader, that I am miles away and he is drifting off course! Whadda ya know: I just did!).

Outside     8/10
New Worlds Science Fiction #31, January 1955. pp 29-37
Six people occupy a house. Their only communication with the outside world is via "the store," a closet where every morning they find food and other random necessities or luxuries. This morning there is no food, and one of the six, Harley, begins to question their circumstances, and tries to recall why they are confined to this space. An excellent science fiction suspense story, a product of cold war fears and paranoia. Great pacing and suspense, Aldiss sets up his clues quite nicely, resulting in an effective ending.

Dumb Show     6/10
Nebula Science Fiction Number 19, December 1956. pp 58-66
In the midst of a future war, Mrs. Snowden and her granddaughter live their meager lives in Mrs. Snowden's childhood home. As the artillery for this war is sound, all is silence and the landscape is diminishing as structures collapse. Another dark Aldiss story, made darker by its finish, and one among many featuring the potential horrors of war, as weapons technology becomes both more advanced and more creative. Though a good story, the characters are overshadowed by the theme, whereas stories such as "Outside" and "Not for an Age" manage a consistent balance between the two.

The New Father Christmas     7/10
The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, January 1958. pp 69-74
Yet another dark future tale. In the year 2388, an elderly couple who oversee a mechanized factory, along with three "tramps" illegally boarding inside, appear to be among the last remaining humans on Earth. Christmas morning they gather for tea and discuss the changes around the factory, and their belief in the New Father Christmas. Claustrophobic and haunting, another technological horror story. Appropriately, the adults act like children, and we see how the world has progressed physically, whereas humans have digressed.

Ahead     7/10
Science Fantasy v6 #18, 1956. pp 96-109 (As "The Failed Men")
In the distant future a group of humans known as the Failed Men have buried themselves underground. The elite group, the Paulls, have meanwhile collected volunteers from different time periods to help them in handling this population. One man from their past (though our future) has become obsessed with why the group has "failed," and what they failed at, but the translating machine used to communicate with them can only translate literally, and the words lack meaning. An affecting and oddly powerful story. Re-titled "Ahead" for this collection, which in the story is what the narrator uses as reference to going to the future, its original title is far more accurate, as the story does not deal with the future, but with the isolation of this particular group, and the lack of clarity surrounding their failure.

Poor Little Warrior!     7/10
The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, April 1958. pp 125-130
In the distant future a man travels to the Jurassic age to hunt brontosaurus. A rare second person stream of consciousness story, effectively written as it adopts an aggressive tone and sarcastic title. The story features an average man, unhappy with his life, who clings to the hopes of escape via a marketing brochure. He is less a victim of the Jurassic as he is of his life, and cannot escape either. The story holds up well and has some cleverly thought out phrasing, such as: "...all destined in that awful jar-full movement to turn into bowel movement." (79)

Man on Bridge     6/10
New Writings in S-F 1, John Carnell, ed. UK: Dennis Dobson, 1964.
In a future where free thinking is prohibited and intellectuals are persecuted and forced to live in camps, a group of "cerebrals" has developed a technique of transforming men into entirely logical thinkers. One heavily lobotomized man, aptly named Adam X, claims to be a new breed of man. Though set seemingly in the far future, the story maintains an impression of the past, as it is heavily referenced with recognizable symbols of the past, such as military camps, the term "prole," and the rural farmhouse inhabited by our protagonist's family.

The Impossible Star     7/10
Worlds of Tomorrow, August 1963. pp 143-162
Four astronauts are stranded on a planetoid orbiting an incredibly massive and unusual star. As they attempt to repair their ship and communicate with the other two ships of their survey party, the members become increasingly aggressive toward one another. A good combination of hard science and psychological suspense. In this story neither space nor humanity is enviable, and the two combined is disastrous.

Basis for Negotiation     5/10
New Worlds Science Fiction #114, January 1962. pp 50-90
In a near future nuclear age, China declares war on the U.S. Britain declares neutrality, which results in civil tensions and inner turmoil. A university professor travels to London to oppose the Prime Minister's stance.

An overlong and dated story, very much a product of its time. It is saved by decent writing, an interesting eventual bit of irony (though after thirty-plus pages), and the fact that Aldiss does not preach but tosses out a couple different viewpoints. Each opinion is consistent in its claim that Britain is ruined, they differ only in the detail of which set of politics or social class did the ruining. Aldiss also hammers these points until they become dull. Interestingly, after its original printing in 1962, the story was included in three separate collections/anthologies by 1965, and in an omnibus collection in 1969, after which it fell off everyone's radar. It might only be remembered in the future for having been selected for inclusion in Aldiss's first Best of collection. (The anthology reprint was for a book edited by John Carnell, then editor of New Worlds where the story first appeared. This can imply that Carnell and Aldiss were really the only two who saw value in the story. Since they did work closely with New Worlds, perhaps it came about from a discussion or proposal of some kind. No other editor seemed interested in keeping it in print.)

Old Hundredth     8/10
New Worlds Science Fiction #100, November 1960. pp 62-73
Once again Aldiss presents us with a distant future Earth, only on this Earth there are no humans. At least not in form. Having long since transcended matter, humans exist as wisps of light, or as music or other forms of non-matter. On Earth dwell creatures to whom humans have granted sentience on their experimental Venusian labs, as Venus had long ago taken the place of the moon and revolves alongside Earth around the sun. We follow re-purposed giant sloth Dandi Lashadusa, a musicologist studying the "musicolumns" that house those who have trans-substantiated into music. Quite detailed and complex for such a short story, Aldiss succeeds in creating an unusual, potent world. With a touch of fantasy, Aldiss makes something so potentially abstract into a world quite concrete.

Unlike "Basis for Negotiation," "Old Hundredth" has been reprinted consistently throughout the decades since its initial publication. It was included in Judith Merrill's The 6th Annual of the World's Best SF (NY: Simon & Schuster, October 1961).

A Kind of Artistry     7/10
The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, October 1962. pp 6-27
In the far flung future, humanity has reached deep into the galaxy, taking on new knowledge and new ideas, and in doing so taking on new forms; only Earthborns retain some semblance of the original human being. One such man, Derek Flamifew Ende is tasked with making contact with the Cliff, a sentient asteroid that has crashed into a distant planet.

A complex story of ideas. The title refers to both suffering and happiness being "a kind of artistry." Humans have lost both purpose and drive as they have become self-preservationist. Derek lives with his "Mistress" in the matriarchy of old Earth, and while he is devoted to her, he is in constant need of being away from her. The secret of their relationship, which we learn late in the story, reveals how inward and self-interested this future society has become.

Man in His Time     7/10
Science Fantasy, April 1965. pp 5-32
Jack Westermark, the sole surviving astronaut of a British expedition to Mars, returns with an odd condition: He is living 3.3077 minutes in the future. The theory is that each planet exists within its own time frame, and while some might be ahead of Earth time, others might be lagging behind. (It is not explained why the affected astronaut returns to Earth maintaining Martian time, rather than re-adapting to Earth time, as depicted in a similar situation in the Christopher Nolan film Interstellar.)

The story is more philosophical than scientific, and above anything it is character driven. The plot is set up through a series of sequences, most of which are set at Westermark's home, and much of it through his wife's point of view. It was refreshing to read a story, among a number of heavily male-centric pieces, focusing primarily on a woman (uncommon for the period), and science aside, in a sympathetic and all-too human way. As interesting as the premise may be, it is presented as a tragedy, for both the victim and those around him. A short story finalist of both the Nebula and Hugo, it was included in Nebula Award Stories 1967 (co-edited by Aldiss and Harry Harrison).

For more of this week`s Friday's Forgotten Books, please visit Todd Mason's blog.

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