Little Green Men

Mr Montello was my sixth grade teacher. He probably taught us all our subjects — math and science, reading and religion — but I don’t quite recall. What I know for sure is, after lunch for weeks on end, he read out loud The Martian Chronicles by Ray Bradbury.

Imagine us in that stuffy corner classroom, our heads heavy on the scarred wooden desks, baloney sandwiches dissolving in our bellies. Imagine Mr Montello, blond-haired and golden skinned, perched on the edge of his own desk, holding his book in one hand and gesticulating with the other.

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 […] Rocket summer.

Ray Bradbury, The Martian Chronicles (Doubleday 1950)

For the 30 odd students in my Southern Californian classroom, the idea of winter was already bizarre enough. Things were about to get much stranger once we landed on Mars. Day by day, chronicle by chronicle, we were about to be immersed in the wonderful world of Bradbury imagination.

Thrilling Wonder Stories

Bradbury was a prolific writer. In the late 1940s, his short stories appeared in journals such as Imagination, Planet Stories, and Super Science Stories. Thrilling Wonder Stories published four of the stories that would later become “chronicles” in The Martian Chronicles. In my battered Bantam Book from circa 1977, asterisks appear beside certain chronicle titles to acknowledge in a particularly overt fashion the copyright owner as Standard Magazines, Inc. or Crowell-Collier Publishing Company.

The idea of reconstituting his short stories as a novel did not come from Bradbury. It was his publisher who suggested a “fix-up” to him. That is to say, to assemble these stories in a logical sequence, weave them together with some interstitial material and perhaps sprinkle in a few new chapters for fun. Today, we might call a fix-up a set of interlocking stories.

I like to imagine a teenage Mr Montello eating up these pulp fiction magazines. Despite being blond and tan and good at the guitar, Mr Montello had a cleft lip. This must have put a damper on his social life. I imagine him to have been a nerd, a social misfit, the kind of kid who dreams away the school day in the throes of a Ray Bradbury tale.

The Way We Were

There are plenty of misfits inhabiting The Martian Chronicles. Bradbury was writing against the backdrop of the Cold War. Nuclear annihilation was all but certain. During the bomb drills, Mr Montello would stop reading so that we could hide under our flimsy desks.

In The Martian Chronicles, this sense of coming doom leads to the Mars missions, a concerted attempt to relocate Earth’s population before we blow it up. The first encounters between earthlings and Martians are unhappy ones. Eventually, the earthlings prevail. They re-make Mars in the image of home. Soda shops, luggage stores, and hot dog stands. Bathtubs and porches and movie theaters with gum under the seats. It is the way I imagine Waukegan, Illinois, where Bradbury was born in 1920.

There are no jet packs or moon suits in The Martian Chronicles. I suppose that, in 1950 when The Martian Chronicles was first published, there was no need for a lot of gizmos. Mars is a place very much like Earth, only with air much thinner than ours. There are no little green men.

The Way We Are

Bradbury is known to be an optimist. In The Martian Chronicles, that optimism is most apparent in his description of the native Martians. From their “yellow coin eyes” to the fragility of their crystal towers, this is a civilization worth preserving. Listen to this description of a Martian vehicle.

It was a machine like a jade-green insect, a praying mantis, delicately rushing through the cold air, indistinct, countless green diamonds winking over its body, and red jewels that glittered with multifaceted eyes. Its six legs fell upon the ancient highway with the sounds of sparse rain which dwindled away, and from the back of the machine a Martian with melted gold for eyes looked down

Ray Bradbury, “August 2002: Night Meeting”

For all his optimism, Bradbury sees us earthlings for who we are. Disease carriers, philistines, children who would rather make musical instruments out of the bones of dead Martians than pay homage to their learning.

The chronicle for June 2003 records the mass exodus of Black Americans. They’ve built their own space rocket. There’s no stopping them. One good old boy, Samuel Teece, witnesses their departure with dismay.

I can’t figure out why they left now. With things lookin’ up. I mean, every day they got more rights. What they want, anyway? Here’s the poll tax gone, and more and more states passin’ anti-lynchin’ bills, and all kinds of equal rights. What more they want? They make almost as good money as a white man, but there they go.

Ray Bradbury, “Way in the Middle of the Air”

Bradbury wrote “Way in the Middle of the Air” in 1948. He was unable to get it published in any journal prior to the release of The Martian Chronicles. The story was later dropped from the 1997 issue.

The Rave Reviews

Luckily, I have the 1950 version and Mr Montello did, too. I can’t remember whether we discussed these chronicles in class and, if so, what wisdom was imparted to my 10 year old brain. It wasn’t a passion for science fiction. In fact, I would not have looked at my yellowing copy of The Martian Chronicles if I had not been nudged to do so by a recent writing prompt to recall a moment of being told a story.

The Martian Chronicles received rave reviews when it appeared in 1950. Bradbury wowed critics as diverse as Christopher Isherwood and the snooty Paris Review. Over the course of his long working career, Bradbury won every prize worth having, including a special citation from the Pulitzer Committee for “his distinguished, prolific and deeply influential career as an unmatched author of science fiction and fantasy.”

It must have taken Mr Montello ages to finish reading The Martian Chronicles out loud. I think he skipped whole weeks worth of lesson plans in science or reading or maybe both. Looking back, it feels like a fair trade even though I have no active memory of the story. What I remember is getting lost in a world far away. I think Bradbury would have been pleased.

28 Jan 2022 | Karen Kao