Thursday, May 28, 2015

My Martian's Eyes are Nothing Like the Sun: Ray Bradbury's Sonnet 130

If there's one poem, other than "The Red Wheelbarrow," that you can bet on most Americans having read in school it's Shakespeare's 130th sonnet, the one beginning "My mistress' eyes are nothing like the sun." The poem trots out all of the clichés of the renaissance love poem—that one's love has lips as red as coral, skin as white as snow, breath like perfume, hair like spun gold, etc.—and dismisses them. None of them apply to the mistress of the poem, but it doesn't matter: she's as beautiful and wonderful as any of the stereotypical creatures hanging around in the sonnets of lesser poets. A sonnet like Shakespeare's is inevitable when a genre becomes so established and formulaic that its clichés jostle thickly together. Is it any wonder, then, that Ray Bradbury, writing for the science fiction magazines of the late 1940s, needed to pull a Shakespeare and write a little piece that scraped the clichés off another formulaic genre: the tale of the Martian invasion?

The story is called "The Concrete Mixer," and appeared in a 1949 issue of Thrilling Wonder Stories before being republished in Bradbury's 1951 collection The Illustrated Man. It opens with a Martian named Ettil sitting quietly at home and resolving not to take part in a planned invasion of earth. "I shall remain on Mars," he tells his family, "and read a book." Men of Bradbury's generation knew well what happened to those who resist the call to war: first, society is incredulous ("Who ever heard of a Martian not invading!" says Ettil's father in law), then it tries to shame the objector into uniform, and finally it threatens imprisonment or worse. Already we're entering the "Sonnet 130" zone, in that our Martians here are not a monolithic, dissent-free society bent solely on war nor are they without quiet domestic scenes.  But the theme of the clichés of the genre is about to become far more explicit.

When asked for his reasons for resisting conscription into the invading force, Ettil says that he believes the invasion is doomed.  He points to an archive of literature seized from the lone, exploratory rocket sent from Earth to Mars, a rocket captured by the Martians.  He hauls out copies of seized magazines from Earth—Wonder Stories, Fantastic Stories, and Science Tales—magazines very much of the sort for which Bradbury wrote, and he says of the stories of Martian invasion contained in the issues:"each invasion is thwarted by a young man, usually lean, usually Irish, usually alone, named Mick or Rick, or Jick or Bannon, who destroys the Martians."  It's not that the invasion will literally be destroyed by a single, modern-day Huck Finn type, says Ettil, it's that a planet nourished on these tales will be filled with confidence, and have "morale.  A big thing.  The Earthmen know they can't fail.... Their youth of reading just such fiction as this has given them a faith we cannot equal.  We are uncertain: we know that we might fail.  Our morale is low..."

Ettil is right about one thing: the Martian invasion will fail.  Like Shakespeare's mistress, Bradbury's Earthlings will prove themselves every bit the equal of their clichéd literary counterparts without partaking in a single quality of those counterparts.  When the Martian fleet arrives, it is greeted with neither fear nor gunfire, but with a brilliantly rendered welcoming committee of the small town Rotarian type. "This is Earth calling," comes the radio message, "This is William Sommers, president of the Association of United American Producers!"  He continues, saying "Welcome! Welcome to green, industrial earth!"  When the Martians creep cautiously from their spacecraft, weapons in hand, they are greeted by an assembled crowd with officials giving banal speeches, kisses from beauty queens, a brass band, the man who grew the biggest grapefruit in the San Fernando Valley, and other creatures of 20th century American commercial hoopla and boosterism straight out of a Sinclair Lewis novel.

In the scenes that follow, the Martians are subjected to complimentary hot dogs, free beer ("courtesy of Hagenbach beer, Fresno, California"), popcorn, movies, and free product samples ("BLIX: the new sudsy soap!").  It's all mass production and mass consumption, not mass destruction, but Ettil sees that, as far as the invasion is concerned, there's little difference: "we have been dropped like a shovelfull of seeds into a concrete mixer," he writes in a letter home, "nothing of us will survive: we have been killed not by the gun but by the glad-hand, not by the rocket but by the automobile."

This is more than just an undoing of the clichés of the tale of Martian invasion: it's also a statement about the nature of American empire in the wake of the Second World War.  Coca-colonization.  The absorption of all differences into the single market, where everything exists as commodity.  But it's also more than that: in a way, Bradbury's story anticipates the critique of mass consumption and mass media that Guy Debord will make almost 20 years late in Society of the Spectacle.  We see this when a car pulls up beside a demoralized Ettil and a little man asks "You a Martian?"  When Ettil replies in the affirmative, the man says "Just the man I gotta see—the chance of a lifetime. Hop in quick.  Hop in.  Take you to a real nice joint where we can talk.  Don't just stand there."  As it turns out, the man is a movie producer, hoping to take Ettil on as a consultant for a film about the Martian invasion.  But it quickly becomes clear he's not going to be taking much input: the film will impose a set of conventions, mostly drawn from Westerns, and bend the truth to fit those clichés.  The producer lays it all out:
Here's how I get the picture in my mind—listen." He leaned forward excitedly. "We got a flash scene of the Martians at a big powwow, drummin' drums, gettin' stewed on Mars. Inthe background are huge silver cities” "But that's not the way Martian cities are!" "We got to have color, kid. Color. Let your pappy fix this. Anyway, there are all the Martians doing a dance around a fire!" "We don;t dance around fires!" "In this film you got a fire and you dance," declared Van Plank, eyes shut, proud of his certainty. He nodded, dreaming it over on his tongue. "Then we got a beautiful Martian woman, tall and blond." "Martian women are dark!" "Look, I don;t see how we're going to be happy, E.V. By the way, son, you ought to change your name. What was it again?" "Ettil." "That's a woman's name. I'll give you a better one. Call you Joe. Okay, Joe. As I was saying, our Martian women are gonna be blond, because, see, just because.
The spectacle of the invasion comes to replace the invasion itself, and Ettil, the real invader, is recruited into being a part of this.  Meanwhile, the Martians have become pacified, drinking beer and watching movie after movie in the theaters—we anticipate that soon they will be watching the movie of their own invasion, re-presented in terms far from their own.  The spectacle of experience will become more real than the experience, and the invaders will, in the manner outlined by Debord, let the characters in the spectacle do their living—and invading—for them.

It's a triumph of cliché, a fact that Bradbury underlines by revealing the producers' name to be Rick, one of the typical names of the hero of a standard tale of repelling a Martian invasion.  So, in a sense, Bradbury does Shakespeare one better, not only stripping away the clichés of genre writing, but having them come back and win despite it all.  It's as if Shakespeare's mistress, happily seeking the very banality the poet rejected, came back at the end of the poem after a trip to the day spa, with lips as red as coral, skin as white as snow, breath like perfume, and hair like spun gold.

1 comment:

  1. You should have mentioned Baudrillard, The Gulf War Did Not Take Place :-)