Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘The Martian Chronicles

Fear of a female planet

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The Legion of Time

In his memoir In Memory Yet Green, Isaac Asimov describes some of the earliest stories that he wrote with an eye to publication, when he was just eighteen years old, and concludes:

There were no girls in [these stories]…But then, women were very much an unknown quantity for me…In 1938, when I was writing my first stories, I had yet to have a formal date with a girl. In short, the circumstances of my life were such that it never occurred to me to put a feminine character in my stories…I eventually had dates, and I eventually learned about women, but the early imprinting had its effect. To this very day, the romantic element in my stories tends to be minor and the sexual element virtually nil.

When you dig a little deeper, however, you find that the absence of women wasn’t just an accidental quality of the young Asimov’s work, but a conscious decision. Or at least that’s how he chose to spin it. In a letter that was published in the September 1938 issue of Astounding—or just as he was making his first serious efforts as a writer—Asimov wrote: “When we want science fiction, we don’t want swooning dames…Come on, men, make yourself heard in favor of less love mixed with our science!” A year later, after his letters had inspired a debate among fans, Asimov doubled down, writing: “The great philosophers and the great religious leaders of the world—the ones who taught truth and virtue, kindliness and justice—were all, all men.”

To be fair, Asimov was only nineteen, and later in his life, he probably would have been embarrassed by the sentiments expressed in those letters. (They feel a lot like a defense mechanism to justify his own shyness with women, both in fiction and in real life.) But the trouble that science fiction has always had with its female characters is so fundamental that you could almost point to it as a defining quality of the genre. The case of Robert A. Heinlein is even more problematic than Asimov’s, in large part because he was a better writer. In an essay published in the memorial volume Requiem, the writer Spider Robinson disputes the accusation that Heinlein was “a male chauvinist,” listing a few dozen female characters who seem to disprove the allegation. “Virtually every one of them,” Robinson concludes, “is a world-class expert in at least one demanding and competitive field.” And there’s no question that Heinlein’s fiction is full of tough, smart, attractive women. The trouble is that they possess these qualities mostly because it’s what the protagonist—invariably male—likes to see in a prospective mate. These strong, intelligent, liberated women become the prize that the hero gets for surviving, and they’re often openly eager to have his babies. They aren’t allowed to drive the story or have an inner life of their own, and even the toughest of them meekly submits to the hero as soon as he takes charge. The only really convincing adult woman in all of Heinlein is Cynthia Randall in “The Unpleasant Profession of Jonathan Hoag,” and I don’t think it’s an accident that she feels so much like a portrait of his wife Leslyn in the years before their marriage fell apart.

"The Door into Summer" by Robert A. Heinlein

I’m being hard on Heinlein precisely because he was the best writer the genre ever produced, which makes his failure here all the harder to forgive. If we judge science fiction’s treatment of women by the extent to which they’re allowed to affect the stories in which they appear, then none of the central figures in Astounding pass even that rudimentary test. On the whole, in fact, science fiction has done better when its women are openly allowed to be sinister. Belle in The Door into Summer, my favorite Heinlein novel, isn’t exactly a positive role model, but as a femme fatale—much of the first half of the book reads oddly like James M. Cain—she’s twice as interesting as the usual pneumatic secretary with a genius IQ whom Heinlein submits for our approval. As far as other writers go, A.E. van Vogt, whose background was in confession stories, is surprisingly good with women, especially when they’re a little menacing. And then there’s Jack Williamson, who was so much better at female villains than at heroines that it became a running joke among his friends. (You can see this most clearly in his masterpiece, “The Legion of Time,” which amounts to a Betty and Veronica story told on a cosmic scale.) In a letter to John W. Campbell, Heinlein writes:

At a recent gathering of the Mañana Literary Society, [Cleve] Cartmill and [Anthony Boucher]…were trying to determine why Jack’s sinister female characters were so solid and convincing and his heroine-like females so cardboard. Someone suggested that it was because Jack was really afraid of women. Jack considered this and said that he thought it might be true. “I may have a subconscious conviction,” avers Jack, “that vaginas are equipped with teeth.”

It’s tempting to blame much of this on the historical circumstances in which pulp science fiction emerged: Hugo Gernsback’s Amazing came out of a community of electronic hobbyists that consisted mostly of young white men, and the fan groups that emerged followed suit. As you see in even a cursory glance at the letters columns from that period, girls were regarded with active suspicion. (Asimov sarcastically observes that there must be “at least twenty” female science fiction fans.) It certainly wasn’t an environment in which most women felt welcome, and it became a cycle that fed on itself, with writers unable to see the contrary examples that were right in front of their faces. Ray Bradbury was mentored by the likes of Catherine Moore and Leslyn Heinlein, but in The Martian Chronicles, he blows much of his goodwill whenever he has to talk about women. There’s the punchline in “The Silent Towns,” for example, in which the last man on Mars goes in search of the last woman, only to be dismayed to find that she’s dumpy and unattractive. And there’s the unforgivable line about the early days of settlement of Mars: “Everyone knew who the first women would be.” It’s a massive blind spot that reminds me of the androids in Westworld, who can’t see anything that conflicts with their programming. Given the times in which they lived, you could argue that it’s unreasonable to wish that these writers had done better. But these were the men we trusted to tell us about the future. If they can’t be held to the highest possible standard, then who can?

Return to Dimension X

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Dimension X

Over the last week, I’ve been listening to a lot of classic radio programs from the fifties, including Dimension X, X Minus One, Stroke of Fate, and Exploring Tomorrow. They’re all science fiction shows, and although they suffered from the shifting time slots and unreliable scheduling that always seem to plague the genre, they attracted devoted followings and laid the groundwork for shows like The Twilight Zone. (Stroke of Fate was an alternate history series, and I’ll confess that I couldn’t resist starting with the episode that imagines what would have happened if Aaron Burr, rather than Alexander Hamilton, had died in that duel.) Given the growing popularity of science fiction in podcast form, it’s worth asking what writers and producers can learn from these older shows, many of which are available for streaming, and it turns out that they have a lot in common with modern efforts in the same line. Just as podcasts often benefit from sponsorships from existing media, many of these programs partnered with science fiction magazines, usually Astounding or Galaxy, both as a source of content and to take advantage of a known brand. If I were trying to start a science fiction podcast, I’d do the same thing. An established magazine would serve as a conduit for talent and ideas, and adapting, say, one story per issue could provide another way of building an audience. It couldn’t be done for free, and it can be challenging to adapt science fiction—which can be hard to follow even in print—to a radio format. But it’s because the genre is so hard to pull off that we remember the few shows that have taken the trouble to do it well. And the example of old-time radio provides a few useful guidelines here, too.

For instance, in these classic shows, we rarely hear more than two voices at once. This might seem like too obvious a point to even mention: even on the page, it’s difficult for the reader to keep track of more than two new characters at a time, and without any visual cues, it makes sense to restrict the speakers to a number that the listener can easily follow. This was also a function of budget: many of these shows were limited to casts of three actors per episode, usually two men and one woman, the latter of whom was also pressed into service for any children’s parts. But it’s worth keeping in mind as a basic structural tool, particularly when it comes to adaptations. Dimension X did a very satisfying job of presenting Ray Bradbury’s The Martian Chronicles in less than half an hour, focusing on the high points of a few stories—“Rocket Summer,” “Ylla,” “And the Moon Be Still as Bright,” “There Will Come Soft Rains,” “The Off Season,” and “The Million-Year Picnic”—and reworking them as a series of two-handers. (They did much the same in an earlier episode with Bradbury’s “Mars is Heaven!”, which Stephen King later recalled in Danse Macabre as his first encounter with horror.) A scene between two characters, particularly a man and a woman, is immediately more engaging than one in which we have to work hard to follow three male voices. It buys you breathing room that you can use to advance the story, rather than wasting time playing defense. And if I were trying to adapt a story for radio and didn’t know where to begin, I’d start by asking myself if it could be structured as five two-person dialogue scenes, ideally for one actor and one actress.

X Minus One

Another strategy that many of these episodes share is an unapologetic reliance on narration. In the movies, voiceover is often a crutch, and it’s particularly irritating in literary adaptations that read whole chunks of the original prose over the action. But there’s a good case to be made for it in radio. It saves time, for one thing, and it can provide transitional material to bridge the gaps between narrative units. Building on the rule of thumb that I mentioned above, if there’s a piece of important action that can’t be boiled down to a two-person dialogue scene, you might just want to insert some narration and be done with it. It should be used sparingly, and only after the writer has done everything possible to convey this information in some other fashion. But it’s an important part of the radio playwright’s bag of tricks, and it would be pointless to ignore it. There’s a reason why narration plays such a central role in radio journalism and podcasting: as I’ve noted elsewhere, it deliberately usurps the role of the listener’s inner monologue, telling us what the action means so that we’re freed up to pay attention to what comes next. It’s very hard for anyone to follow along on two levels of thought at once, and most of the listener’s attention should rightly be devoted to what is happening at this moment, rather than to figuring out what has happened already. Narration is a great way of doing this, and it doesn’t need to be used throughout the episode. (An excellent example is X Minus One’s adaptation of Frederik Pohl’s “The Tunnel Under the World,” which still works like gangbusters.)

But it’s also possible to take these rules too far. Of all the radio shows I’ve heard, the most frustrating is Exploring Tomorrow, which was hosted for about half a year by none other than John W. Campbell, with stories drawn from the pages of Astounding. Campbell would speak before, during, and after each episode, commenting on the action and providing transitional or expository material, and his role as an identifiable host anticipates the persona that Rod Serling would later assume. Yet the show was a flop. Why? Campbell wasn’t a natural radio presence, which didn’t help, but his narration also detracted far more than it added: it spelled out themes that should have been implicit in the action, and it ended up undermining the drama in the process. A story like “The Cold Equations,” for instance, should have been perfect for the format—it’s already a gripping two-hander with one male and one female character, and it had been adapted successfully by previous shows. Yet the version on Exploring Tomorrow just sort of sits there, because Campbell insists on telling us what has happened and what it means. (He also spoon-feeds us a lot of exposition that should have been conveyed through dialogue, if only because it would have forced the writers to work harder.) In theory, it isn’t so far from Ira Glass’s description of radio as “anecdote then reflection, over and over,” but it doesn’t work here. Campbell was a born lecturer, both in his magazine and in the office, but people didn’t want to invite him into their homes. And if a show can’t manage that, all the craft in the world won’t save it.

Astounding Stories #10: “Way in the Middle of the Air”

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Way in the Middle of the Air

Note: As I dive into the research process for my upcoming book Astounding: John W. Campbell, Isaac Asimov, Robert A. Heinlein, L. Ron Hubbard, and the Golden Age of Science Fiction, I’ll be taking the opportunity to highlight works within the genre that deserve to be rediscovered, reappraised, or simply enjoyed by a wider audience. You can read the earlier installments here

The golden age of science fiction, at least as I define it, ended in May 1950, with the initial publication of the article “Dianetics: The Evolution of a Science” in Astounding. (Technically, the issue would have appeared on newsstands the month before, but let’s not split hairs.) Yet with every end comes a beginning, and science fiction itself was far from dead: The Martian Chronicles was released just a few weeks later, and it success marked a signal moment in the genre’s passage into the mainstream. Its author, Ray Bradbury, had been desperate to get into the pages of Astounding, but despite the patient mentoring of Leigh Brackett and the friendship of Robert A. Heinlein, he was only able to sell one short story and a couple of minor pieces. In the end, he was the only major science fiction writer of his era who emerged outside the influence of John W. Campbell, and this wasn’t simply an oversight. Campbell had met Bradbury and critiqued his submissions at length, and the two men shared mutual close friends, but they never saw eye to eye. And while Campbell’s overall track record remains unimpeachable—it’s all but inevitable that he would overlook a promising talent or two out of the dozens he developed—it still feels like a loss. When I raised the issue at a panel last month at the Nebula Conference, the editor Stanley Schmidt said that it was less a question of a failure to recognize talent than of Bradbury not quite fitting in with Campbell’s vision, which is true enough. But it’s hard not to see his absence as anything less than a gap in the history of the magazine.

My favorite story in The Martian Chronicles is “Mars is Heaven!”, which appears under the title “The Third Expedition,” but the one that I’ve been thinking about the most is “Way in the Middle of the Air,” which starkly exposes both Bradbury’s strengths and his limitations. Bradbury had trouble selling it: it was published for the first time in the book itself, although it later appeared in Raymond A. Palmer’s Other Worlds Science Stories, and when you read it, you can see why. It’s about a small town in the South whose entire black population packs up and leaves on a rocket for Mars. The story is seen through the eyes of a group of white landowners, who sit sullenly watching the exodus from the porch of a hardware store. Its satirical targets are obviously the racists who are left behind, and there’s no question that Bradbury’s heart was in the right place. But the result is still intensely problematic, at least to modern readers. The black colonists are seen mostly as a monolithic mass moving through the center of town: “And in that slow, steady channel of darkness that cut across the white glare of day were touches of alert white, the eyes, the ivory eyes staring ahead, glancing aside, as the river, the long and endless river, took itself from old channels into a new one.” And the only reasonable reaction to lines like “the watermelon patches, if any, were left alone to heat their hidden liquors in the sun” and “in still farther meadows, the watermelons lay, unfingerprinted” is to wish fervently that they didn’t exist.

Ray Bradbury

But the real problem is that once the colonists have left for Mars, we never hear from them again. In the text as it stands, the implication is that they all returned to Earth, like everybody else, when war broke out back home—which feels even less plausible in this case than it does for the other settlers. Bradbury was keenly aware of this omission, and his reaction to it is fascinating in itself. In the biography Becoming Ray Bradbury, Jonathan R. Eller writes:

For his October 1949 submission of The Martian Chronicles typescript, he had prepared a short narrative bridge passage to explain why these people did not appear anywhere else in the saga. In this bridge, titled “The Wheel,” the interplanetary journey is portrayed like a spiritual saga in miniature, an Old Testament-style journey to the Promised Land. In this brief interlude, the actual destination is really less important than the freedom it stands for—the black pioneers deviate from course and eventually end up on Venus. But this option was too facile and dismissive, and Bradbury soon realized it; “The Wheel” was deleted from the Chronicles before the galleys were set, and Bradbury instead completed a full and logical sequel set on Mars.

This sequel, “The Other Foot,” appeared in The Illustrated Man, but it doesn’t fit in with the chronology of The Martian Chronicles: for its plot to make sense, it requires that only black colonies exist on Mars. For all his efforts and good intentions, Bradbury was unable to find a place for these colonists anywhere in his larger story.

Which tells us a lot about the author himself. If the Bradbury of this period has a weakness, it’s that he’s prone to falling in love with an image or a gag or a twist for its own sake, without considering how it fits into the big picture or working out its deeper implications. You see a similar problem in “The Silent Towns,” an equally discomfiting story in the same collection, and he was so taken, it seems, by the effect of “Way in the Middle of the Air”—which is an undeniably powerful story—that he made room for it here, despite his full knowledge that the absence of the black colonists in the rest of the narrative would create a self-evident hole. (He ultimately appears to have had second thoughts about it: the story was omitted in the British publication and in the later 1997 edition.) For many readers, his most appealing quality as a writer is the warm streak of nostalgia that pervades his fiction, but it can also shade into sentimentality in its worst sense, in which the symbols and trappings of small-town America are mistaken for a coherent set of values. Personally, I prefer Bradbury in his darker, more sinister mode, which is why I think his masterpiece is “Mars is Heaven!”, which begins as an evocation of idyllic Americana and twists it into an unforgettable nightmare. “Way in the Middle of the Air” deserves to be read and remembered, if only because it’s the kind of story that few other authors of the era could even have contemplated writing: it’s impossible to imagine it ever running in Astounding. But it strands its colonists in the middle of the air, and it would be left to other writers to take them to the stars.

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