The vision(s) of Ray Bradbury

Among the amazing body of work produced by Ray Bradbury, one of his earliest – and arguably one of the best – was The Martian Chronicles. Originally published as a series of science fiction magazine entries beginning in 1947, and then as a book in 1950, it envisioned a possible future for mankind taking place, coincidentally enough, in the period of time we’re living through right now. It covers the time span from January, 1999, when mankind launches its first rocket to Mars, through August of 2026.

The book says a lot, not only about the future of science, but that of society and how it was viewed in the post World War 2 era. While most of the episodes take place mostly or entirely on the red planet, the June 2003 chapter (Way in the middle of the air) is set back on Earth and depicts the departure of tens of thousands of black people from the deep South in America. (Warning: some of the language included is completely unacceptable in the modern era, but keep in mind when this was written.)

Did you hear about it?”
“About what?”
“The niggers! The niggers!”
“What about ’em?”
“Them leaving. Pulling out. Going away; did you hear?”
“What you mean, pulling out? How can they do that?”
“They can. They will. They are.”
“Just a couple?”
“Every single one here in the South!”
“No!”
“Yes!”
“I got to see that. I don’t believe it. Where are they going – Africa?”
A silence
“Mars.”
“You mean the planet Mars?”
“That’s right.”
“They can’t leave. They can’t do that.”
“They’re doing it anyways.”

The men in question include Samuel Teece, proprietor of the local hardware store. He attempts to stop a couple of his own “employees” from catching a ride on the rocket ships by demanding that one of them pay $50 he owes before leaving, (which is paid off after a flood of former plantation workers heading for the ships pass the hat around) and another for having signed a five year contract of indentured servitude. The white men are left to wonder who is going to pick their crops in the fields and “what they’re going to do at night.” The latter is a reference to the fact that Teece is a member of a group known for going on night rides to assault and lynch black men.

What’s truly amazing in the actual present day is the conflicting visions that Bradbury had of the distant future as a young man living in the late 1940’s. On the one hand, the author was an incredible visionary, seeing a future of men walking on Mars fourteen years before Yuri Gagarin made the first manned flight into space and more than two decades before we walked on the moon. He got a few of the scientific details wrong, such as believing the sky on Mars would be blue and there would be a thin, but breathable amount of oxygen there, but for the most part he was extremely prescient.

But for all of his ability to glimpse the future of science, the author envisioned a 21st century where virtually nothing had changed from the Jim Crow era. White men still relied heavily on the poorly paid labor of uneducated blacks, they freely slung around the n-word and kept minorities in a state of indentured servitude.

Perhaps the greatest irony of Ray Bradbury’s conflicting visions is how we managed to thwart them both. On the one hand, race relations – while far from perfect – advanced at lightning speed rather than remaining stagnant. But on the science front, Ray failed in the other direction. He pictured us in 2011 as having already had permanent colonies established on Mars for a dozen years. In reality, we just shut down the shuttle program with no definite plan for getting Americans back into space. I leave it to the reader to determine how much of a success or failure we’ve been in both areas.