The Martian Chronicles – Ray Bradbury

The early culture of space sci-fi was built on a foundation which portrayed Martians as beastly killers attacking Earthlings with no remorse.  However, in Bradbury’s Martian Chronicles (1950), we have a chance to think about what really might happen.  How would humans feel if Martians came to settle Earth- Would we defend ourselves? Would we welcome the aliens with open arms and help them make a home here?  Another viewpoint Bradbury explores is the human pioneering spirit, such as the US’ Western Expansion through the 17-18th centuries. In both cases of settlement humans are determined to take what they want, and to make the land and culture adjust to themselves, rather than adapt to the new settings.

The first few chapters had a humorous tone. The humans sent the explorers to Mars, but the first three crews were killed in defense.  A Martian woman dreamt of the first rocket coming, she talked to the captain of the rocket in her sleep.  Her jealous husband overheard the conversation and resolved to keep his wife away from the mysterious visitors. He made sure she stayed at home while he went for a casual walk and hunting gun (which shot shells full of bees!).  The chapter ends with two shots in the distance and the wife solemnly welcoming her husband back home.

The second crew found themselves in a frenzy of Martian paranoia.  They have used telepathy to brainwash each other.  Many don’t care that the humans have arrived and find it more of an annoyance.  They send the captain and his crew here and there until finally a smart Martian welcomes them and sends them into a room to wait for him to return.  The crew was dumfounded, how could the the aliens not acknowledge that they have actually travelled through space?  This was a major accomplishment! The crew ment many Martians in the room they entered and soon realized that each one of the Martians were delusional.  The smart Martian was a psychologist, he returned and conducted interviews with the humans and determined that only the Captain was real and the other crew members were holograms to trick those who met him.  Then the psychologist asked the  Captain to take him to the rocket as he suspected this was also a hologram, and he could prove that the space travel was fake.  After exploring the rocket, the psychologist knew it was the best mental projection he had ever seen.  The Captain’s brainwashing telepathy was unlike he had ever seen before.  He knew if the simply shot the Captain the rocket and crew would disappear- but it didn’t.  It was the best projection he had ever seen, even when dead, the Captain’s brain power still made him see the rocket and crew! So he shot each crew member, and he still saw it all in front of him.  The only other explanation he could think of was he, himself, was projecting the imagery, so he took his own life to stop it.

The third rocket’s crew landed in a small town on Mars.  Each crew member recognized the village as their own hometown.  Each happened to see a deceased loved one they recognized in their fake hometown.  The friends and family explained that they didn’t know how they got there, but they had died on Earth and showed up there.  They tried their best to make it more like home.  This Captain was very leery of it all, but dropped his guard when his brother showed up and took him to visit their parents. They had a wonderful meal and the captain held his mother close and danced in the living room with her for hours.  At bedtime, the two brothers lay in the same room, when the Captain had a quick thought that it might be a trick… He decided to sneak back to the ship to wait for the others.  The Captain crept across the floor toward the door when the brother took him out.  The following morning, the entire town of Martians held a service to bury all the dead human explorers.

Further into the book, similarities between the real pioneers and the characters in MC are more apparent.  A Johnny  Appleseed character saw a need for oxygen production in the early days of humanity on the red planet, so he devotes himself to the task.  A husband and wife build a business selling hotdogs at an intersection of two major roads.  Priests believe the Martians need saved so they join the adventure and send missionaries.  Bradbury said Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath was a major influence on the Chronicles and with the mass migration the states saw in the 1930’s, one can find many parallels between the two works. The Martian Chronicles was a very imaginative work 70 years ago, and can still captivate audiences today.

The venture, Mars One, plans to turn The Martian Chronicles into reality with a mission to create the first permanent human settlement on Mars.  You can find out more here.

 

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Lord of the Flies – William Golding

William Golding’s 1954 novel, Lord of the Flies, resonates as a cornerstone of required reading in schools over the last fifty years, winning the Nobel Prize in 1983.  While it plays out well as a captivating story, it also serves to teach young students about using symbolism in writing.

Ralph and Piggy find themselves together after their air transport makes a crash landing on a deserted island during a wartime air transport to keep the children safe.  Piggy annoys Ralph but he decides he might be helpful in some ways, on an island with no adults.  They find a large conch shell and Ralph blows it because Piggy has asthma and shallow breaths won’t make the shell bellow. Soon, a large group of children gather around the boy with the conch and they begin a meeting in which Ralph is elected leader over another confident boy named Jack, which builds jealousy in the latter.  Ralph assigns Jack and his choir boys as hunters to try to capture meat and food. Others are assigned to build a fire for a rescue signal, and others are to build shelters.

Nothing seems to go right.  While Ralph and Piggy have the right ideas, most of they boys are looking for adventure and fun, and half of them are ‘littl’uns,’ too small to be much help in any way.  The boys used Piggy’s glasses to light the first fire, which burned a large section of the forest, and seemed to have also killed one of the young boys. The first shelter the group built was pretty good, but the second had fewer helpers, and the third only had a couple of the boys, so each one was progressively worse.  Jack’s jealousy kept building and when Ralph was angry about all of the boys hunting instead of minding the fire, Jack started trying to talk the boys into choosing himself for leader, which was unsuccessful.  A few days later, Jack saw his chance when most of the boys were expressing their fears- ghosts, monsters, and beasts.  Jack offered to keep them safe, besides, weren’t the boys all tired of all the rules Ralph was trying to push on them?

Two tribes formed and by luring with roasted pig along with the fear of violence to keep them, Jack pulled most of the boys to his side of the island. In their first hunt, as a new tribe, they killed a big female pig with small piglets suckling.  They put her head on a stake to offer to the much feared beast nobody had actually seen.  Simon, one of the boys sleeping near the pig’s head became entranced in his thoughts, projecting his own voice into the fly-covered head. The Lord of the Flies told him that the fear they felt was close, in fact, it was inside each of them… Simon ran away to escape the head, finding another secret, the boys need to know.  He ran to Jack’s tribe and they saw him in the darkness as a beast. Their fears came alive and they beat the boy to death.

In a couple of night raids, Jack’s tribe had stolen fire, then stole Piggy’s glasses to take all of the power to their tribe through the ability of making their own fire.  The four remaining boys of the original group, Sam and Eric, Ralph and Piggy walked together to the boys fort to ask for the glasses back, Piggy was practically blind without them.  A fight escalated, and an accident happened.  Not really an accident, the wild tribe hoped to cause damage, but it seemed they really didn’t understand the falling rock killed Piggy. Sam and Eric were captured and forced into the new tribe, and Ralph became a hunted boy.  Through the next day, Jack’s tribe systematically hunted Ralph, spreading through the island and walking it together, being sure not to miss a hiding boy.  They also started a fire to push Ralph out, and at the last moment, Ralph ran and darted out of the forest toward the beach, where he found a sailor who had come ashore to check on the fire. He took the boys onto their warship,  the boys were safe.

Symbolism:  Ralph projected the ideal society with rules and order. Piggy served as his brain trust, no power, but good ideas if they were heeded.  Jack represented the opposite end of society- evils, lack of morals, acting on emotions.  The large female pig symbolized sex and desire.  The head on the stick, or the Lord of the Flies, represented subconscious thought, or what some psychologists term the Id. At the end of the story, the sailor stumbled upon the boys fighting a battle to the death, while they were then safe from themselves, the sailor would be taking them on a ship in war time, to essentially fight an adult battle to the death, a sort of transfer of boys to men fighting.

 

Twitter: @83mrlong

The Quick and the Dead – Louis L’Amour

The day finally came when the McKaskel family set out upon the Santa Fe Trail. Duncan, his wife, Sarah, and their son Tom had only known the city life back East.  Both parents were educated and Tom was eager for adventure as any teenage boy would be.  Little did they know how much adventure they would find.

All of the education they gained in life would not be enough to secure their survival on the dire trail.  Within the first week the horses were stolen, surely they would have had to turn back if- the hero, Con Villain hadn’t shown up.  He was only passing through, and the pretty Sarah sure makes a great cup of coffee.

The McKaskels weren’t sure what to make of Con.  Was he just waiting for the right moment to rob the family himself?  Little by little, Con earned their trust. First of all, he never had to follow Duncan to the outlaw’s town to retrieve the horses.  He especially didn’t have to shoot the man in the barn aiming to shoot Duncan in the back.  Con didn’t even have to stay with the McKaskels when the Indians came to visit.

With his help, the family gained a different knowledge.  Learning what had not been written in the books they read.  The horse thieves followed them on the trail and Con always helped the McKaskels stay a step ahead.  One night, they were split up by the outlaws and Sarah figured they might not ever see Con again. If it were true, would the family make it on their own?  Would they overcome the struggles of the trail or would they become like the thousands of unmarked graves on the dangerous route?

A classic Western, The Quick and the Dead has been made into movies and is one of Louis L’Amour’s most popular works.  The suspense found between the pages keep them turning to find out if the family survives, if Indians attack, if outlaws return, and if Con Villain would be their savior, or a wolf in a sheep’s skin…

Twitter: @blookworm

IG: @83mrlong

 

Once There Was a War – John Steinbeck

The Nobel Award winning author, John Steinbeck often created themes of domestic economic struggle with such titles as East of Eden, Cannery Row, and Grapes of Wrath, but in the very center of his career, he took his pen to the European Theater of World War II as a war correspondent.  Later in his life, Steinbeck looked back at his time during the war and compiled several of the newspaper pieces he wrote into a book called Once There Was a War.

Steinbeck’s introduction started as nearly a paradox by saying the most famous war was mostly forgotten by the men who fought it.  He explains that the trauma, the urgency, the peril was experienced and acted on with instincts of war, and a fighter might not remember exactly how many barrels of the enemy were trained at them as they ran across fields, but perhaps, they also might forget at times, due to the fear that grips them as each step the soldier took was escaping death, while many of the comrades were not so lucky.

Steinbeck also adds that during times of war, many of the media are censored.  Partly because the soldier’s missions are treated as top-secret, any news the enemy might receive of an upcoming attack, or position of the allies could put many men in danger.  With somewhat tongue-in-cheek, Steinbeck adds that any news of less successful missions might reflect on commanding officers, so to protect their egos (and the correspondents), the failures, and the officers names were often struck from the record by censorship.  With America’s values of freedom of speech, someone today might think that the censorship then was unfair, but the correspondents did their best to follow the rules- nobody wanted to lose a shot a nice job in journalism after the war, and least of all, none of them wanted to be blamed for losing the war.

Steinbeck joined the war in 1943 and spent about a year in the action.  Through the book, the reader gets a first hand account of sailing from the US to England on a troopship, life at a bomber squadron in England, life in Tunisia, and missions to Italy.  The correspondent’s accounts give the reader, the ups and downs, the little-known pieces of war life, not known to someone living 75 years after the event.

My favorite pieces in the book were about a private named Big Train Mulligan.  Big Train was a driver in the army, he was a smart man and the soldier life suited him. He would do anything that was asked of him, but he also decided he loved his position as  driver in England better than any other option.  He loved it enough that he seemed to always mess up details when he was in line for a promotion, but not quite enough to lose the job.  That was the kind of guy he was.  He could have gone far in the army, he could have been an officer and led many men, but Big Train wasn’t interested in being responsible for other men, he just wanted to do his job.  He drove officers to and from appointments, and waited for them at the car until they required a ride to the next place.  Big Train somehow always attracted women as he waited at the cars, and he kept a big address book where he wrote each woman’s information into it.  When he drove the officers to a cramped house with tattered sheets and stiff beds, Big Train always had a woman from his book nearby where he would stay in a soft and comfortable bed and have a home cooked meal.  The women would stop at the car and talk to Big Train and he would reach into the officer’s belongings and pull a pack of cigarettes out for the girl, sometimes chocolate. The ladies loved the guy for this.  When the officers returned from the meeting to find their personal cigarettes or chocolates gone, Big Train would just explain that the woman was there and it seemed like the gentlemanly thing to do to offer her whatever he could find, and the officer agreed completely and no feelings were hurt.

Whether you’re a fan of WWII, Steinbeck, or just want a good book to read, this one fits the bill.  There was a nice range of emotion- fear, disgust, sadness, joy- this has it all. As we lose many WWII veterans to time, it is nice that we have these accounts Steinbeck has left us. Stories like these and from the veterans I’ve spoken to always send a chill down my spine and remind me of the enormous amount of respect these men and women earn.
Twitter- @blookworm

Nathaniel’s Nutmeg – Giles Milton

In the times of European colonization, the Spice Islands were a hot spot of trade.  The small archipelago is found surrounded by the Philippines to the North, Indonesia to the West, Papua-New Guinea to the East, and Australia to the South.  The islands are protected by reefs and steep, rocky coastlines, but their soils produced a wealth of spices, mainly nutmeg.  In the Sixteenth Century, European nations were pointed in the direction of these islands by traders near India.  Portugal, Spain, Holland, and Britain were the major countries pushing to find the source of the spices, which would reduce their cost and increase their profits, if the ships could survive the journey in between monsoons, hurricanes, and a murderous reef protecting the shoreline.

Nathaniel’s Nutmeg took a strong focus in the English accounts of the period, but also provided a lot of Dutch perspective as well. These were the two main forces battling for control of the small islands.  Stories in letters from the time and company records were used to research and piece together the perilous adventures the seamen made.  While both sides were apt to brutality, this account puts the brunt of accusation on the Dutch, who even forced false confessions of an English uprising through relentless torture in Amboyna.

The book’s namesake, Nathaniel Courthope, a British subject, held control of the island, Run. For over four years, his forces starved as the nearby islands were controlled by the enemy Dutch forces.  With three ships left in the harbor, guns unloaded to fortify the island, two sailed away to secure provisions and were captured by the Dutch.  Nathaniel was trapped.  He attempted to sneak over to a nearby island to rally some troops and he was ambushed in the middle of the night in his small boat, never to be seen again.  The handful of British men left on Run gave up the island to the Dutch unopposed.

Much of the world’s history has been involved in the tale of these small islands. The book delved into the stories of adventures to find the fabled shortcuts to the islands, the Northeast Passage and Northwest Passage.  It told the story of the creation of the East India Trading Company, and the Dutch East India Trading Company, better known as the Seventeen.  It also told of how the Dutch and British came to a final agreement to settle ownership of the spice laden island of Run.  British forces captured New Amsterdam in the late Seventeenth Century, and both sides agreed to hold the respective colonies they acquired and to give up claim for the lost land in the Treaty of Breda.  This gave the English full sovereignty of New Amsterdam, which they quickly renamed New York and the rest is history.

The book was well researched and told of many aspects of the adventures seeking fortune in the spice trade.  With over two hundred years of stories, it was at times difficult to follow all of the names of the merchants and captains, along with the names of the distant islands, some now so small and insignificant they are hardly mentioned on maps. Even so, I really enjoyed learning about this subject and the book was a good source for that.

*******7/10

Twitter: @blookworm

Wake Up, Sir! – Jonathan Ames

Just after I completed college, a friend attempted to introduce me to ‘Bored to Death,’ an HBO series starring Jason Schwartzman.  I just couldn’t get into it- a whiny lead and his misfit friends, a 60-something ‘New Yorker’ editor and pot-addict, Ted Danson, and a lazy, self-depreciating cartoonist, Zach Galifaikis.  Several years later, I saw the series on Amazon Prime and revisited to give it another try.  It hit me, surprisingly, and I binged through all three seasons in about a week.  I’ve watched it all the way through again since then.

I was pleased to find a book authored by the same writer of the series at a thrift store earlier this year.  In my mind, Schwartzman played the lead again, along with all the eccentricities that were included.  Written as a first-person narrative, the book ‘Wake Up, Sir!’ is a week long adventure that explores the hero’s struggles with alcoholism.  Alan Blaine is the lead.  He’s working on a novel that explains his odd relationship with his former roommate, an older man who escorts rich old widows in NYC.  Blaine is thirty years old, orphaned, and living with his aunt and uncle and Montclaire, New Jersey.  He has an affinity for sports jackets and wine. Recently, Blaine had won a lawsuit after slipping on ice and put the money to good use, hiring a valet named Jeeves (a nice nod to the Wodenhouse character).  The novelist’s first book was met with mediocre success, and he has his sights on making a bigger splash with his second work. Tired of avoiding his NRA-card-carrying uncle, Blaine decides to bring Jeeves to upstate NY and spend time writing in a Hasidic community, Sharon Springs.  The aunt and uncle were in agreement, and casually mentioned that they had planned on asking him to leave due to his excessive drinking. On the way, he called to check in with his aunt, but his uncle told him an artist colony Blaine had applied to had accepted him.  With changing plans, Blaine made a shorter visit to Sharon Springs.  The hotel he planned to stay in had a massive fire, but Blaine charmed his way into an undamaged double room where Jeeves could join him.  A curiousity had overcome him while calling his uncle and he returned to the phone booth in a drunken state later that night to call ‘Debbie,’ the name from a hand written advertisement that stated she likes her have her ‘kitten’ kissed, along with a phone number.  Well, Debbie showed up, with her boyfriend.  The boyfriend was a giant of a man, referred to as ‘Hill’.  Hill beat up on Blaine and broke his nose, but then Blaine kicked Hill’s knee and punched him in the ear, dropping him and allowing for a brisk escape for the hero.  The next day, Blaine and Jeeves showed up to the Rose Colony with two black eyes and a broken nose.  This appearance intrigued the fellow guests and he quickly made friends, and enemies.  Though Blaine swore off alcohol after the violent episode, he continued to indulge nightly as it was practically a ritual with the artists at the Rose Colony.  Each night brought further escalating malady, until Blaine found himself in the biggest scandal of the colony’s history.

This was a fun read, the main character posed many interesting questions in his thoughts: Why are Jews always persecuted?  Why are the Hebrews in so much popular media, but in so few numbers; what if roles were reversed with the Chinese?  What do you call the erotic infatuation with another human’s nose?

I hope to someday find another book by Ames in the future, but until then, Bored To Death will be on queue.

The Great Train Robbery – Michael Chrichton

Author of the world famous ‘Jurassic Park,’ Michael Chrichton penned the novel ‘The Great Train Robbery’ about the 1855 heist.  This was a major event in England for several reasons. First, the trains were a new technology in Victorian England, nobody had thought to make such a daring robbery on a train line.  Second, the plan was well thought out and spanned a period of over a year in preparations. Third, it took nearly a year of detective work to track down the mastermind of the event.

Chrichton did his research well on this event and presented a narrative of the event from the perspective of the criminals, not unlike Capote had done for the Kansas crime novel, ‘In Cold Blood.’ The leader, Edward Pierce, was continually described as ‘the red bearded man.’ He had the appearance of a gentleman and was little suspected to be a criminal, as most believed Victorian criminals were of the lower class.  Pierce created a master plan to rob the London train heading to the coast with a load of gold intended to pay troops in the Crimean War.  While he collected information, he also rounded up necessary men and women to aid the heist.  As he hired the men he needed, he told no one of the impending robbery details, just what their particular job would be.  He hired Robert Agar as a lock picker early in the the preparations and left him in the dark as they worked together to bring the plan together.

The robbery entailed robbing the trains on the go, in a special guarded and locked car, sat two state-of-the-art Stubb’s safes which had two locks apiece, requiring four keys to get in.  The four keys seemed the most difficult part of the preparations.  Two were locked in a cupboard in a guarded office, two others were each held by managers of the bank employed to supply the gold shipments.  One man was seduced by a young prostitute to obtain the key, the other was burglarized at home during the night, the key being in his wine cellar.  The other two keys in the guarded office took an elaborate scheme.  Pierce hired a boy to act as a thief, who ran into the office and broke a ceiling window in a failed attempt to escape.  Pierce’s cab driver  was a large brute with a noticeable white scar on his forehead, acted as a policeman to chase the boy and take him away safely without real repercussions.  Later that night, a man Pierce had hired for his climbing ability and agility climbed through the roof into the room to unlock the door.  Agar then waited until the guard went to the bathroom and ran into the unlocked room and made wax copies of the keys, returning to his hiding place on the platform before the guard returned. Several months later, after careful planning, Agar and Pierce were ready for the big day.  Agar was disguised as a corpse in a coffin to be loaded into the guarded car.  Agar had met the guard a few months before as he practiced unlocking the safes, the guard had been payed off, and was believed to be no threat to the operation.  Pierce boarded the train in the second class cars and had one all to himself.  During the route, he climbed onto the roofs of the speeding train and walked to the guarded car, where he unlocked the door from the outside.  The gold was bagged and thrown off the train to Pierce’s awaiting cab driver. Bags of lead shot replaced the weight of the gold and the safes were locked up again, every one returning to their original places as well.  The train delivered the safes to a ferry crossing the English Channel, then were transported to Paris to pay the troops.  It was in Paris it was discovered that something was amiss.  The train blamed the Parisian government, the ferry blamed the train, and the British and French governments blamed each other. After such careful planning, nearly everything went according to plan.

Over a year later, a lady-friend of Agar’s was caught robbing a drunk man and when begging and bribing didn’t get her out of police possession, she gave up information on Agar’s involvement in the robbery. Agar was apprehended, which led police to the train guard, and to Pierce.  The trial was a national event, however, overshadowed by the Indian uprising against British troops on the Indian peninsula. Pierce was cool, calm, and collected the entire trial, explaining in detail his plan and the execution of the robbery.  Upon sentencing, Pierce was taken into a police cab, to be taken to jail.   The guards woke up and reported that they don’t remember anything but a large man with a white scar on his forehead beating them.  Pierce, his mistress (who was involved in the robbery) and the cab driver made a clean escape and were never heard from again.