Not really blogging

A. Makelov

Mars = Science fiction

One minute it was Ohio winter, with doors closed, windows locked, the panes blind with frost, icicles fringing every roof, children skiing on slopes, housewives lumbering like great black bears in their furs along the icy streets.

And then a long wave of warmth crossed the small town.

Ray Bradbury, “Rocket summer“

1. The bottom line of this post, in two words

It seems that there is enough textual and contextual evidence to suggest that the “Martian chronicles” can be read, among other things, as the chronicles of an abstract process – the development of science fiction as a genre, progressing from the realm of inventions like humanoid machines and rockets to the point of indistinguishability from magic.

2. Introduction

For all you dedicated Bradbury fans, yes, “Rocket summer“ is the first short story in his “Martian chronicles“. When I was first reading the book, this opening vignette meant nothing to me besides the literal fact that a rocket is being launched, and I quickly forgot about it. But later, with the book finished, and the deadline for my next English paper looming ahead (that’s how inspiration works, apparently), impressions gave rise to ideas and ideas gave rise to a principle at work – behind “Rocket summer“ and behind the rest of the chronicles. Or a piece of rubbish that I managed to convince myself is enough evidence for a principle at work – I can’t really tell the difference; the paper on which this post is based can be found here.

3. Ambiguity in plot

Everyone who’s read the “Chronicles“ knows how confusing and ambiguous the whole thing is. In part, this is because most of the short stories are unrelated, having been published separately by Bradbury before the collection was assembled, and then joined together by short vignettes, such as “Rocket summer“, to the effect that the many Mars-es depicted seem quite different from each other. Moreover, both we, as readers, and the characters we read about, keep encountering the same problem: distinguishing Mars from Earth, past from future, travel through space from travel through time, human from Martian. In “Ylla“, Martians behave just like ordinary people; in “The Earth men“, Martians comically fail to recognize humans as a different species; in “The third expedition“, Mars in Bradbury’s future is indistinguishable from Earth from his past:

Lustig said, “But suppose, by accident, in space, in time, we got lost in the dimensions and landed on an Earth that is thirty or forty years ago.“

In “And the moon be still as bright“, the future is mixed with another past – the colonization of America, and it is extremely unclear whether Spender actually switched with a Martian: the Martian appeared before me and said, `Give me your boots’ […] And the Martian walked down into camp and he’s here now.

4. Ambiguity in genre

The ambiguity in the stories is paralleled by an ambiguity between science fiction and fantasy as genres. While the “Chronicles” are often called science fiction (often enough for Wikipedia to do it), Bradbury insisted that

First of all, I don’t write science fiction. I’ve only done one science fiction book and that’s Fahrenheit 451, based on reality. It was named so to represent the temperature at which paper ignites. Science fiction is a depiction of the real. Fantasy is a depiction of the unreal. So Martian Chronicles is not science fiction, it’s fantasy. It couldn’t happen, you see? That’s the reason it’s going to be around a long time.” because it’s a Greek myth, and myths have staying power.

On the surface, the book employs many of the customary tropes of science fiction, such as space colonization, telepathy, humanoid machines; on the other hand, their rational explicability is either absent or neglected, and the stories are driven by open-ended, timeless philosophical questions set in poetic environments, rather than Campbell-era-style logical puzzles which always have a solution.

5. “Night meeting“

But when it comes to ambiguity, the best example by far is “Night meeting“, where the book seems to be aware of its unifying themes. I’d strongly suggest reading it if you haven’t, for it is a very beautiful piece on its own (the entire collection can be found here). Foreshadowed by the remark “Even time is crazy up here” made by the man at the gasoline station, a meeting takes place between the opposites mentioned above (these being Mars-Earth, past-future, space-time, human-Martian), embodied by Muhe Ca, the Martian, and Tomas, the human:

“You are so certain. How can you prove who is from the Past, who from the Future? What year is it?”

“Two thousand and one!”

“What does that mean to me?”

Tomas considered and shrugged. “Nothing.”[…]

How do you know that those temples are not the temples of your own civilization one hundred centuries from now, tumbled and broken? You do not know.

Most of all, this is saying that looking far enough into the future is indistinguishable from looking into the past – and here comes the principle at work (literally! : ) ).

6. The principle

Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.

Arthur Clarke

Clarke’s most famous quote has a fairly unpopular corollary: “Any sufficiently advanced science fiction is indistinguishable from fantasy”. In light of the previous sections, one is inclined to think that the Chronicles’ blend of fantasy and science fiction is working together with elements of the plot to tell a meta-narrative of the science fiction genre, rather than a particular science fiction or fantasy story.

One can further interpret Mars as a metaphor for science fiction itself, and more specifically for its ability to generate wonder. Carl Sagan succinctly captured the attitudes of people from Bradbury’s time towards the red planet:

Mars has become a kind of mythic arena onto which we have projected our Earthly hopes and fears.

Carl Sagan

The concept of a projection is key here, but perhaps in a more intentional context than what Sagan implied. A projection, in both the mathematical and psychological sense, is a transformation whose subject and outcome coincide from some perspectives, and are displaced from others. One of the great merits of science fiction is that it functions largely as such a projection: of current society and technology into future times and alien places, and indeed a projection of our existential hopes and fears. By displacing concepts from their everyday contexts to a genuinely new setting via its novum, it helps us separate the fundamental from the specific – and, consequently, prejudice from rationality. But when the displaced reality is overwhelmingly far from our point of view, the effect wraps around, back in time, to magic, fantasy – and wonder.

Mars, in Bradbury’s Chronicles, is the target of such displacement – the arena where past meets future, science fiction meets fantasy, and so on. In this line of thought, going back to the man at the gasoline station from “Night meeting”, we find the following little jewel:

“How do you like Mars, Pop?”

“Fine. Always something new. I made up my mind when I came here last year I wouldn’t expect nothing, nor ask nothing, nor be surprised at nothing. We’ve got to forget Earth and how things were. We’ve got to look at what we’re in here, and how different it is. I get a hell of a lot of fun out of just the weather here. It’s Martian weather. Hot as hell daytimes, cold as hell nights. I get a big kick out of the different flowers and different rain. I came to Mars to retire and I wanted to retire in a place where everything is different. An old man needs to have things different. Young people don’t want to talk to him, other old people bore hell out of him. So I thought the best thing for me is a place so different that all you got to do is open your eyes and you’re entertained. I got this gas station. If business picks up too much, I’ll move on back to some other old highway that’s not so busy, where I can earn just enough to live on and still have time to feel the different things here.”

“You got the right idea, Pop,” said Tomas, his brown hands idly on the wheel. He was feeling good. He had been working in one of the new colonies for ten days straight and now he had two days off and was on his way to a party.

“I’m not surprised at anything any more,” said the old man. “I’m just looking. I’m just experiencing. If you can’t take Mars for what she is, you might as well go back to Earth. Everything’s crazy up here, the soil, the air, the canals, the natives (I never saw any yet, but I hear they’re around), the clocks. Even my clock acts funny. Even time is crazy up here. Sometimes I feel I’m here all by myself, no one else on the whole damn planet. I’d take bets on it. Sometimes I feel about eight years old, my body squeezed up and everything else tall. Jesus, it’s just the place for an old man. Keeps me alert a nd keeps me happy. You know what Mars is? It’s like a thing I got for Christmas seventy years ago – don’t know if you ever had one – they called them kaleidoscopes, bits of crystal and cloth and beads and pretty junk. You held it up to the sun light and looked in through at it, and it took your breath away. All the patterns! Well, that’s Mars. Enjoy it. Don’t ask it to be nothing else but what it is. Jesus, you know that highway right there, built by the Martians, is over sixteen centuries old and still in good condition? That’s one dollar and fifty cents, thanks and good night.”

7. It all makes sense now

Or at least, some of it makes sense. Remember “Rocket summer”? The rocket, that science-fiction-y thing, is described more like a fire-breathing dragon from some fantasy book; by its technological power, it superposes past and future, showing “last summer’s ancient green lawns”; it also projects summer onto winter, rendering the “bear disguises” of the housewives obsolete. Remember “Usher II”? There literature came to life on Mars.

Finally, remember the ending?

The Martians were there–in the canal–reflected in the water. Timothy and Michael and Robert and Mom and Dad. The Martians stared back up at them for a long, long silent time from the rippling water.

Did they really have to become the Martians, in the end? Was that the only possibility? Maybe “if you can’t take Mars for what she is, you might as well go back to Earth”, in the words of the old man at the gasoline station, so when the radiation on Earth dissipates they will return. Yet Mom and Dad burned the old way of life. And maybe they didn’t have a choice – for Mars is science fiction, and you can’t help but colonize, and become, science fiction one day.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s


Exploring and venting about quantitative issues

Rational Altruist

Adventures of a would-be do-gooder.

Gowers's Weblog

Mathematics related discussions

What's new

Updates on my research and expository papers, discussion of open problems, and other maths-related topics. By Terence Tao

Stefan's Blog (archive, for news see

Most of the blog moved to

%d bloggers like this: