Bradbury the Realist
Anything Martian is currently newsworthy—made so by NASA’s announcement that liquid water exists on the surface of the Red Planet, by various plans and projects to take people to Mars, and in an ambitious item of cinema, The Martian, under the direction of Ridley Scott. Mars has maintained its newsworthiness in cycles for nearly 150 years since the Vatican-sponsored astronomer Giovanni Schiaparelli published his discovery of canali on the fourth orb from the sun in 1877. David Seed’s fine study of Ray Bradbury (1920—2012), the essential book of whose authorship, The Martian Chronicles, appeared precisely at the midpoint of the last century, arrives just in time to ride the peak of the present phase of recurrent Mars-mania. Ray Bradbury is not, of course, a mere plank of a surfboard hitching a watery lift and Seed is no mere wave rider. On the contrary: Seed, working within the parameters of a formula book issued in a series by an academic publisher, has overcome any inherent limitations of the genre to appreciate in clear prose and tightly organized paragraphs a writer-fantasist whose large oeuvre (over forty novels, many hundreds of short stories, essays, journalism, screen-scenarios, and screenplays) eschews stylistic invention or affectation and every beckoning “ism” to comment plainly but trenchantly—even sometimes prophetically—on the brutal fact of modernity. The fantasist was a realist, after all, and the modest style was, at last, a powerful style like none other. Seed knows this and the knowledge structures his presentation.
Referring to the radio-play Leviathan ’99 (1966), Seed writes that for Bradbury space and space-travel have “a spiritual dimension” and that the cosmos constitutes a “mystery,” using that word in its religious meaning. That “spiritual dimension” is also the tragic dimension—Bradbury himself having used the terms tragedy and myth with regard to The Martian Chronicles. Seed understands Bradbury in both a genre-context and a capitally literary context—and both contexts are necessary. He points out in the opening historical paragraphs of his chapter on the Chronicles, that Mars, which in the speculative accounts of Schiaparelli and his French protégé Camille Flammarion was romantic and utopian, acquired its tragic and prophetic character in the solemn nonfiction books of the wealthy amateur astronomer from Boston, Percival Lowell. For Lowell, in such books as Mars and its Canals (1906) and Mars as the Abode of Life (1908), Mars stands a portent to the inevitable doom of “desertism” that must overtake any planet. Being smaller than Earth, Lowell reasons, Mars cooled faster and began its career of life and intelligence earlier than did Earth. As a planet ages, its most precious resource, its water, slowly seeps away into the vacuum of space. In the canals, Lowell saw a planet-wide effort by the Martians to hold to life by bringing the polar melt annually to the equatorial regions where civilization might continue agriculture and maintain itself. In prose partly Transcendentalist and partly Theosophical, Lowell described an immensely old race, having in wisdom outgrown the pettiness of nations to constitute a global utopia, knowing that even its supreme efforts could only postpone the desiccated climax.
On the authority of scattered autobiographical remarks, Seed notes that Bradbury read Lowell in youth at the same time he became a devoted readers of the Mars or “Barsoom” books of Edgar Rice Burroughs, who assumed Lowell’s planetology as the setting of his John Carter adventures. Yet the Burroughsian Mars is hardly tragic despite boasting a few melancholy moods. Understanding that the Burroughsian Mars was not a possibility for him, Bradbury wisely took a few cues from his Southern California mentor, pulp-writer Leigh Brackett. As in the case of Brackett’s Mars, Bradbury makes the Red Planet the scene of a collision between the technocratic corporatism of Earth, which resembles a puritan theocracy, and the laissez-faire Pagan aestheticism of Martian city-states. Of Bradbury’s earliest Martian story, “The Piper,” Seed remarks that it “takes its title from William Blake’s introductory poem to Songs of Innocence, where the piper is a version of the poet projecting his songs onto an Arcadian landscape filled with responsive innocent children.” Often, in the Chronicles, Bradbury’s Martians are childlike, but they are just as often waspish and bigoted. Reading the Chronicles requires four categories: Earth and Mars, Innocence and Corruption; there are decent men and bigoted men on both worlds; otherwise it would not be a tragedy, but a comic book.
Seed has intuited something quite essential to understanding fantastic sagas about Mars, not only Bradbury’s. “One aspect of Mars fiction,” Seed writes, “that has tended to be forgotten [is] the connection between the Red Planet and spiritualism.” His treatment of the uncanny tale “Night Meeting” is illustrative of the contention. If generally speaking the Chronicles were about the tragic failure of cultural communion—as most critics characterize it—then the pathos of “Night Meeting” must be high indeed, for Bradbury gives his readers in this instance the extraordinary grace of communion briefly achieved. Tomas Gomez, a worker-immigrant to the new cheap Mars being built up by an Americanized world economy, is on his way to a beer-bust when he encounters a Martian, Muhe Ca, on a remote road. They encounter one another through a rift in time, and each seems a wraith to the other—and yet finally they acknowledge one another perhaps because neither is a bug-eyed monster to the other. Seed writes: “The synchronization of expression and the identity of paralinguistic features like facial expression and gesture undermine the otherness of the Martian so completely that it seems perfectly natural for the two men to continue conversing in a shared language … that they can understand” Nevertheless, the “seepage of consciousnesses” between Earthman and Martian has occurred. Seed finds precedents for Bradbury’s ethereal and gracious Mars in surprising venues, not least in the Burroughsian “Barsoom.”
Seed’s analysis of an ambiguous chronicle, “The Fire Balloons,” deepens the thesis that Bradbury’s Mars is the setting of a moral and theological tragedy. “The Fire Balloons” is “ambiguous” in that it appears in some editions of the Chronicles but not in others. (Consistent with Seed’s construction, “The Fire Balloons” would be a quasi-“un-chronicled” Mars story.) A group of priests on Mars, having heard the rumor of disembodied Martians who freed themselves from somatic existence through intensity of prayer, seek out these rumored beings. As Seed indicates, Bradbury’s protagonist Father Peregrine, “with his name suggesting both ‘alien’ and ‘pilgrim,’ functions as the author’s own ‘surrogate.’” In the story, Father Peregrine insists, despite the skepticism of his fellows, that the encountered globes of blue fire are human, no matter the difference in form—and that their spirituality must at least be an analogue of Christian spirituality. Seed describes Peregrine’s resolve as “his open-minded conviction that God could take any form and location.” The definition of the human is not in an outward form but in an inward disposition and in the consciousness of a need for redemption. A drastic experiment proves Father Peregrine at least partly correct. Seed is nevertheless right when he adds that “this is not to suggest that Peregrine is exempt from the main irony of travel to Mars, namely projective delusion.” As in “Night Meeting,” much in “The Fire Balloons” remains ambiguous. Seed’s insistence on the irony implicit in the totality of the Chronicles reminds aficionados of Bradbury that, the apparent simplicity of his style aside, his approach was almost invariably indirect.
Bradbury was an eccentric, a decided individualist, who remains difficult to categorize under hackneyed labels. He was certainly not a liberal in the contemporary sense. He was a critic of progress and imperial schemes; he defended the legitimacy of the stubborn individual as long as the individual conformed himself, at the most profound depth, to the transcendent norms. Paradoxically, he judged that transcendent norms best articulated themselves through intensely local rather than through diffusely cosmopolitan institutions. A fine example, which Seed emphasizes, is the “un-chronicled” Mars story “The Concrete Mixer,” first published in 1949 and later collected in The Illustrated Man. As Seed remarks, this rather parabolic tale consists in a “reversal of the most obvious association of Mars with militarism,” as in the seminal War of the Worlds by H. G. Wells and in innumerable pulp-fictions. The main character is a young Martian, Ettil, who disdains to join the jihad against Earth. Seed writes: “This puts him at odds with the social norm”; and when the jihad conscripts him, he experiences the “dehumanization” (Seed’s word) that befalls humanity as a whole in the “chronicled” Chronicles. Ettil’s alienation only grows when the invasion fleet arrives at its destination. In Seed’s incisive comment, “The story shifts around from an invasion narrative to an ironic account of 1940s American consumerism using the time-honored device of a visitor from another world.”
In Seed’s view, “the majority of stories in The Martian Chronicles focus on characters’ interrogation of their strange new experiences,” such that “their attempts at understanding become a central part of each story’s subject.” As “Night Meeting” suggests, however, Earthmen and Martians are partly interchangeable in Bradbury’s narrative scheme. A canard about the Chronicles is that it is a strict allegory of nasty Europeans arriving on the shores of the New World and brutally, vulgarly shouldering the indigenous innocents into oblivion. Bradbury is far more subtle. A careful reading of the early Chronicles reveals that Earth—Bradbury’s Americanized, vulgarized, and politicized Earth—is by no means the only decadent world of the Solar System. Mars too, at the moment of the human advent, is a globally decadent society, having fallen far down from the spiritual integrity of its earlier, philosophically Pagan iteration. In respect of the story “The Earth Men,” where astronauts attempt to announce their arrival to Martians and receive only a rude reception, Seed comments that “Bradbury traces out a process of blocked verification where the very grounds for confirming the voyage are denied.” Seed attributes the story’s horrifying conclusion to “psychosis.” He points out that in their habit of wearing masks, the Martians “conceal the features of beings [themselves] who otherwise resemble human beings.” The American spacefarers are naïfs, it is true, and not altogether individuated, but they mean no harm even when they blunder. The Martians, on the other hand, seem to be suffering from incontinent telepathy and contagious insanity, which would be symbols for the burgeoning mass media, most especially television, that were so prominent in the emerging postwar society against the background of which the Chronicles first appeared.
Seeing these features of the text, Seed might have put himself in a position to make an exceptionally subtle interpretation of the central chronicle of the Chronicles, “—And the Moon Be Still as Bright.” For some reason, Seed in this instance proves overly cautious, for which he should perhaps be gently chided. The story’s main character is Spender, a kind of Holden Caulfield on steroids, who, reacting with paranoid extremity to the vulgarity of his crewmates as they swagger through the recently dead cities of the devastated planet, believes himself to have become a Martian, whereupon he begins exacting revenge on the invader-desecrators of the world. Spender is the case par excellence of what Seed earlier refers to as “projective delusion.” Spender, in Seed’s phrase, experiences “Romantic Pathos” over the planetary tragedy, using the term “Romantic” to mean infatuated and uncritical. Spender is likely not “a clear surrogate for Bradbury,” as Seed declares. Captain Wilder would fill that role. In fact, Spender is an ideological maniac who forecasts the agents of the cultural “Moral Climates” police in another chronicle, “Usher II.” What Seed calls Spender’s “surge of violence … in a quixotic attempt to stave off migration,” is actually a demented failure to discriminate between large categories of people from the same society and individual, witting perpetrators of an enormity. Spender is not only wrong in attributing guilt for the Martian die-off to the members of his expedition, no matter their vulgarity, but in misreading the state of Martian society at the moment of its demise. Spender is in no way a hero.
There is a connection between The Martian Chronicles and Bradbury’s second most-read book, Fahrenheit 451 (1951). The Chronicles story “Usher II” intimates the emergence of the Puritanical, politically correct totalitarian state on Earth, most especially in North America. It even mentions book-burnings. Seed does his readers the good service of putting Fahrenheit 451 in a detailed context. Everyone can see that Bradbury’s dystopia has a relation to Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World (1932) and George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four (1948). Seed lists some less-obvious companion-texts, most notably Richard Matheson’s “When the Waker Sleeps” (1950) and Arthur Koestler’s Darkness at Noon (1944). Fahrenheit 451 is, of course, “about” Senator Joe McCarthy, whom Bradbury and Matheson commonly loathed, but in his novel Bradbury indicts the Left as severely as he indicts the Right, supposing that the senator from Wisconsin embodied the Right. Seed remarks that Beatty, fireman-protagonist Montag’s fire chief-foil in Bradbury’s novel, has a model in Koestler’s Communist Party interrogators in Darkness. Seed’s reference to Darkness underscores the point that Fahrenheit 451 is not a political novel; it is a Dostoyevsky-like anti-political novel by an author whose general thesis is that modernity has culminated in ideological regimes that require the dehumanization of humanity. Literacy belongs to the humanity of the individual, which is why it threatens regimes. Seed stresses the prescience of Bradbury’s imagined future. “Given the subject of Fahrenheit 451,” he writes, “it is a supreme irony that in 1967, unbeknown to Bradbury, the editors at Ballantine bowdlerized the novel for a high-school edition, removing references to nudity and drinking, and also expletives.”
In a chapter dedicated to “Bradbury on Space,” Seed examines numerous philosophical and programmatic statements by his subject on the topic of space exploration—of which Bradbury was an outspoken and lyrical exponent. For Bradbury, the move from the surface of Earth into the starry heavens was primarily a spiritual quest—a search for freedom of thought, as much as freedom of action, in new worlds. Rather surprisingly, but quite plausibly, Seed sees Bradbury has taking a cue from George Bernard Shaw, whose contribution to the science fiction genre goes largely unnoticed. Nevertheless, Bradbury gives Shaw voice in the story “G.B.S.—Mark V” (1976), in which an astronaut alienated from his crewmates engages in a dialogue with a robotic simulacrum of the author of Back to Methuselah. “The Shaw character expounds a vision of the cosmos as a field of forces where shapes are formed and reformed.” In an act of censorious vindictiveness, one of the crewmates “kills” the robot by shutting it down in mid-sentence, quite as though he had come straight from the “Moral Climates” agency of “Usher II” in the Chronicles. Seed comments, “Bradbury is clearly using Space-Age narrative as a parable of learning from a member of the older generation of writers.” Shaw was a follower of Henri Bergson and a believer in the French philosopher’s élan vital. Seed reports a conversation in 1978 on an ocean liner between Bradbury and Carl Sagan over the competing theories of evolution of Darwin and Lamarck: “Where Sagan was insisting on the survival of the fittest largely by chance, Bradbury was more inclined to Lamarck’s theory, wished survival.” Bradbury was, Seed writes, a “space visionary.”
Seed’s book should be read in a context of recent, related books. I refer, for example, to Robert Crossley’s magnificent study of Imagining Mars: A Literary History (2011), K. Maria D. Lane’s Geographies of Mars: Seeing and Knowing the Red Planet (2010), and Robert Marley’s Dying Planet: Mars in Science and the Imagination (2005)—all three of which discuss The Martian Chronicles at length. Seed’s study makes earlier studies obsolete, especially given his attention to Bradbury’s nonfiction prose as well as his fiction. Readers of Seed’s book will find themselves in a provocative dialogue with its author about one of the outstanding American authors of the mid-twentieth century.
Thomas F. Bertonneau is a long-time visiting professor on SUNY Oswego's English faculty. He writes about literature, music, religion, politics, and culture.
Posted: October 11, 2015