The Martian Chronicles: Summary:1999 jan-feb
January 1999 (“Rocket Summer”)—February 1999 (“Ylla”)
Summary: Humanity at long last begins its expansion to outer space, beginning with the planet Mars. On the red planet, a female Martian named Ylla K starts to have what she regards as dreams of explorers from earth, one Nathaniel York and his fellow astronaut, Bert. In these dreams, she watches the humans land in the Green Valley; she converses with York via telepathy, even learning a human song from him; and conducts a flirtatious affair with him, culminating in York’s promise to take her back with him to Earth. Ylla tells her aloof, emotionally cold husband, Yll, of these dreams; “Mr. K” is disturbed by them, and even makes some uncharacteristically emotional overtures toward his wife. Ylla’s dreams persist, however, and on the day when—in Ylla’s dreams—the rocket from Earth is supposed to land, Yll arranges for the couple to stay in their house all day. In the afternoon, Yll goes “hunting” in the Green Valley. From home, Ylla hears her husband fire two shots from his weapon. Yll returns, telling Ylla the dreams will no longer disturb her.
Analysis: The epigraph for The Martian Chronicles (“It is good to renew one’s wonder… Space travel has again made children of us all,” p. [v]) is attributed to “the philosopher,” but appears to be original to Bradbury. Whatever its ultimate source, it serves to create an expectation in the reader that the stories to follow will address the “sense of wonder” long held to be an essential ingredient of the science fiction genre.
“Rocket Summer” is the first of what we might call the “macrocosmic,” “big picture” passages that place the “microcosmic,” “smaller picture” short stories in context, illuminating and even indirectly commenting on them. (Other authors have used the technique to similar effect, perhaps most notably John Steinbeck in The Grapes of Wrath.) “Rocket Summer” uses the nature metaphor of seasonal change to describe the human race’s initial venture toward the stars. The passage begins in “Ohio winter,” complete with hanging icicles and skiing children (p. 1); the season changes, however, not into spring, but into summer: “rocket summer” (p. 1). In other words, the new era of humanity’s history represented by the launching of the rockets is no gradual, inevitable change but a radical, dramatic break initiated by humanity itself. The passage captures the sense among many in 1950s America that the country and world stood on the precipice of a radically new chapter in history, the “Space Age.” It does not, however, offer an explicitly positive or optimistic view of this future; it refrains from making any overt judgment, being content to simply note and describe the difference in the world before and after the rocket. The passage may even hint that this “rocket summer” (perhaps like so-called “Indian summer”) will not last forever, for whatever reasons: “The rocket made climates, and summer lay for a brief moment upon the land…” (p. 1)—a moment that will eventually pass.
“Ylla” transfers our attention to the planet Mars, where we encounter a married couple who, for all of their alienness—Bradbury carefully chronicles such details of Martian living as “the golden fruits that grew from the crystal walls” (p. 2) and “the fire table [bubbling] its fierce pool of silver lava” (p. 5)—face a very mundane problem well known by humans: “Marriage made people old and familiar, while still young” (p. 3). Mr. and Mrs. K are essentially stuck between the past and the future. Yll is lost in the past, spending his days reading books—and not just reading them, but physically fondling them in a way that he does not touch his wife. Ylla, for her part, is dreaming—perhaps literally? Bradbury’s narrative leaves the exact nature of Mrs. K’s experiences unclear—of the future, an afternoon yet to arrive in which explorers from “the third planet” (i.e., Earth) land on Mars and change that world in a fundamental way by their very presence. The future of which Ylla dreams is denounced as “impossible” by Yll: “The third planet is incapable of supporting life” (p. 4). Ironically, of course, Yll and Ylla can hardly said to be “living,” dwelling as they have for twenty years along the shores of a “fossil sea” in a home previously owned by ancestors, “which turned and followed the sun, flower-like, for ten centuries” (p. 2). Our first look at Bradbury’s Mars, then—if Yll and Ylla’s marriage is any indication—is of a static, unchanging, essentially “dead” society. Ylla’s dreams of encounters with humans—and not just a neutral encounter, but a romantic and sexually charged one—threaten to destabilize this society with the possibility (as always suggested by sexuality) of new life. Yll attempts to suppress his wife’s dreams by insisting upon a return to work—“If you worked harder you wouldn’t have these silly dreams” (p. 4)—but the exact nature of Martian work remains unclear. What is clear is that it is the antithesis of play. Martian life apparently includes no place for new music: the song Ylla learns from York in her dreams is “strange” (p. 5). Mr. and Mrs. K have not “gone for an entertainment in six months” (p. 6), and Yll only suggests that they do so as an attempt to make Ylla forget her dreams. He may actually feel some jealousy of his wife—note his outburst, “You should have heard yourself, fawning on him, talking to him…” (p. 9)—but readers may also conclude that Yll himself has been having an extramarital affair: he does, after all, go “twice a week to Xi City,” ostensibly for “business,” although Ylla seems not to believe him (p. 6). It is altogether appropriate that Yll wears a mask when he goes hunting, because he is presenting a metaphorical “mask in his marriage.
Small wonder, then, that York’s entry into this mundane existence excites Ylla’s imagination and heart. She has grown desperate for escape, desperate for a new future as her eagerness to answer the door at the story’s end illustrates—likewise her disappointment that the person at the door is not York, as we are led to believe she expected, but only Yll returning from his “hunting” (p. 13). For Ylla, however, there will be no new life: once Yll has killed the two humans (not directly stated, of course, but implicit in the two gunshots heard from the Green Valley), Ylla can no longer remember the “fine and beautiful song” (p. 13) that York taught her to sing. The possibility that Ylla’s relationship with York was, in fact, all a dream makes Yll’s murder of the human astronauts all the more poignant: he has, as far as he is concerned, closed off, killed off, even the possibility of a new future for his wife and for his world. Of course, in the larger context of The Martian Chronicles, the future is not so easily dissuaded. More humans will follow; and, as we shall see, by the book’s end, the old Martians will have been replaced by “new Martians”—the emigrating humans themselves. Ylla’s dreams of a new future find ultimate vindication.