The Martian Chronicles, by Ray Bradbury

The other day I walked past the house where we lived until I was five and was surprised all over again. No matter how many times I've visited it as an adult, I always forget that it is green now, not the white I remember. And the back yard that stretched an unimaginable distance now seems no more than a patch of grass with a few bushes around the edges. Even the tree that once held the bees that stung all of us during a memorable picnic lunch is gone. I remember my mother hanging sheets in that yard and how I dodged between the damp fluttering walls that made up an interminable maze. This afterthought of a yard could hardly have contained such imaginings. Could I be mistaken? Perhaps I turned down the wrong street. Perhaps my childhood never happened that way.

I experience the same trepidation when I reread books I loved when young. Bradbury met some critical need in my teenaged heart, his stories full of the ache and longing that swamped me. If the emotions were sometimes over the top, well, I knew all about that. Many of his images became part of my personal iconography: carnivals and October nights, Ohio fireflies, and lightning rods with curious markings. And, inevitably, the Mars as he imagines it to be before the men from Earth arrive.

I was afraid, coming to this book decades after my last reading, that I would find it too childish in its language, too obvious in its satire, too unrestrained in its passions. But I did not. It may be all of those things, but I did not notice, caught up as I was in the world of Bradbury's imagining. Even the smell of the pages brought back memories of another cold spring.

The story which affected me most deeply back then was the one about Spender, a member of the Fourth Expedition who found on Mars a civilisation he admired and wanted to preserve from the incursions of the loud and violent Earthmen. I finished Spender's story sitting in the back row of my English class, the paperback hidden in my grammar text. Nostalgia for a lost civilisation, a past preferable to our present, overwhelmed me and I was so moved that tears ran down my face and blotched my uniform, startling the teacher who wondered what tragedy lurked in diagramming sentences. A few years later, reading Tolkein, I found the same nostalgia, the same shimmer of the past (as Tolkein called it) adding depth to the present.

Reading it now I did not cry, but I was still moved. What most surprised me, though, was that Bradbury, writing this book that was first published in 1950, set his far-distant future in what is now for me the recent past: 1999-2005, though the last few stories take place in 2026. I found it disconcerting to think that Spender made his stand in 2001, a year I recall as devoid of manned expeditions to Mars.

Also disconcerting, and of course always a danger when predicting the future, is how far off some of Bradbury's predictions are. Not just the lack of regular taxi shuttles to the red planet, but the idea that by 2005 the Moral Climates people would have banned all literature except for the most realistic and unimaginative. Poe, the Grimm brothers, Lewis Carroll, any books deemed escapist—“All the beautiful literary lies and flights of fancy“—are destroyed, and filmmakers are only allowed to make versions of Hemingway stories. The idea is laughable now when the entertainment juggernaut seems unstoppable.

But then I recalled the attempts to ban the Harry Potter books for being about magic. Bradbury recognised the Puritan streak in American culture, the intrusive, I'm-going-to-decide-what's-best-for-you attitude that has become only too familiar. In contrast, his books open the mind. They are certainly worthy of being pulled off the shelf for another read.

You may not be able to go back to your childhood, but you can bring the past into today. All week I have been conscious of the shadow of my younger self, of how my life now would appear to her. It's more than a different point of view; it's a stretch that exercises an imagination grown lazy.

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