Ray Bradbury’s The Martian Chronicles first appeared as a series of short stories published in the late 1940s; in the fictional “future history” depicted therein American economic strength and technological prowess grew rapidly in the second half of the century, but society slid into increasing fascism and repression. In this world the ‘60s brought no civil rights movement, but rather a stifling political correctness that enshrined “rational” thought and resulted in the brutal censorship of imaginative fiction. After the first explorations in 2000, humans descended upon Mars by the thousands from 2001-2005, dotting the red landscape with towns and farms; Bradbury wrote, “The rockets came like locusts, swarming and settling in blooms of rosy smoke. And from the rockets ran men with hammers in their hands to beat the strange world into a shape that was familiar to the eye…” Many who came were poor or oppressed, including black Americans in search of a world of their own. But in November of 2005 there was a mass exodus back to Earth in support of a nuclear war, leaving only a few scattered individuals and small settlements behind.
Years after The Martian Chronicles was published, Robert Heinlein proposed that since the universe is infinite, every world of fiction describes an actual parallel reality. In this story, I imagine an episode from my own life in the world depicted by Bradbury, the world’s greatest living writer of fantasy…
“It’s time to go.”
“I told you, I’m not going.”
“Maggie, you can’t stay here; the whole town is going. And if you change your mind later, there isn’t another rocket within driving distance; most of the others have already left.”
“I don’t live in town, and you should know by now I don’t change my mind once it’s made up.”
Bill sighed a sigh that came all the way from his shoes, and fidgeted with the brim of the hat in his hands; I watched warily against the possibility of his attempting to physically force me to his truck, and congratulated myself on having had the foresight to place my shotgun within easy reach behind the door.
“Damn it all, woman, if you aren’t the stubbornest…what you got worth staying here for? Your husband’s already gone.”
“Against his will, and even if I went with you I wouldn’t be able to see him on Earth. When he eventually gets free, he’ll come looking for me here.”
“Is that the only reason you’re staying?”
“Even if it were, it’s Earth that has nothing for me; everything I have I’ve built here in the last three years. Even my business is illegal there.”
“It’s not like you’re gonna have many customers here, either,” he spat sarcastically.
“It’s not like I’m going to need many, with all the bill collectors gone. And even though I won’t have any field hands any more, I reckon there’s enough food stored in town to keep me alive for decades.”
“You could get a different job on Earth; you’re the smartest person I ever met.”
“What different job? I was trained as a librarian, and that’s an obsolete profession in a world where books are banned.”
“Not all books are banned!”
“No, only the ones worth reading. I was eight years old when they had the Great Burning, and I’ve watched the number of banned genres, the penalties for being caught with them, and the powers of the Moral Climate Monitors growing ever since. When I was twenty-eight the burning crew came to destroy the library where I worked after they discovered we were keeping a secret collection, but we were tipped off and had time to hide the books elsewhere. After I came to Mars, I got in touch with the underground and they’ve smuggled tons of contraband here, where it isn’t illegal yet…and never will be if I have anything to say about it.”
“You mean you’re staying because of a lot of stupid books full of nonsense and fairy tales?” he asked, genuinely incredulous.
“Somebody has to guard our cultural legacy against fanatics, control freaks and the people like you who don’t have the spine to stand up to them. Especially if you all incinerate yourselves in an atomic war.”
He lunged forward to grapple me, but I anticipated it, grabbed the shotgun and had it leveled at him before he closed half the distance. “You won’t shoot me,” he scoffed.
With a mix of anger and exasperation he exclaimed, “How long do you think you can wait here alone?”
“Penelope waited twenty years for Odysseus.”
“Who are they, more storybook characters?”
“Something like that,” I answered quietly. “Now, please get out of my house.”
He crammed his hat back onto his head and stalked out the door, turning at the bottom of the porch steps to yell, “I hope the Martians get you, you crazy whore!” Then he climbed into his pickup and roared off down the drive, leaving a huge cloud of red dust in his wake.
I didn’t even wait until he was out of sight, but went for the satchel hidden in my storm cellar, adding a few perishable food items to the things already in it. I made sure my cat and livestock had enough food and water for a few days, shouldered the satchel, picked up the gun and walked out the back door, calling my dogs to follow. By the time Bill returned with a posse to “rescue” me against my will, I had already reached the secret sanctuary I had prepared several weeks ago, when talk of returning to Earth began. I figured they might look as long as 24 hours before giving up, so I made sure I had enough provisions for a week just to be on the safe side.
Apparently, they had enough respect for my competence to recognize that they wouldn’t find me if I didn’t want to be found, at least not in the available time with the few men they could spare for the search. Early the next morning I was awakened by the sound of thunder, and I watched as the rocket rose swiftly on a pillar of flame, carrying the prodigals back to the world that, in the end, they had never really left. I figured I’d wait until late afternoon to go home, and after breakfast I opened up a volume of Homer to pass the time, mentally preparing myself for what I knew was apt to be a long, lonely vigil.
One Year Ago Tuesday
That was the day last March’s fictional interlude was published, and considering its premise I thought it most appropriate I call your attention to it today rather than two days from now.