Transcript: Discussion of "Mars is Heaven," by Ray Bradbury
The Exorcist meets The Time Machine meets Blue Velvet. Walter and I discuss Bradbury's classic warning about Martians with white picket fences
Edited for length and clarity, discussion from America This Week about Ray Bradbury’s “Mars is Heaven”
Walter Kirn: We picked this strange story, or maybe I confessed picking it. It’s a story that was written in 1948 by the late Ray Bradbury. I picked it because the theme is spectacle and the theme is enchantment and the way that people are seduced by illusion. In Mars is Heaven, a crew of space explorers lands on Mars and finds, to their surprise but also their great delight, that Mars is a 1927 picket fence, small American town. It’s an apple pie barbershop quartet kind of place where beautiful young maidens and vigorous young boys and wise old pipe-smoking dads all sit around and exude the very best of Protestant white Americana.
Walter Kirn: They land on this ship and they see the white steeples of the churches and they see the green lawns of the nicely tended bourgeois houses and they’re like, “We’re home. Oh, my Lord! Earth is hardly a shadow of this beautiful, nostalgic, perfect New England landscape and peoplescape.” The captain of the ship says, “Before we get off the ship and explore this perfect utopian small town that seems to be full of even our long-lost relatives, could it be a trick?” And everybody looks at him and says, “Nah, look at it, man. It’s so appealing. The grass is so nice, the sky is so blue, the whitewashed buildings are so gleaming, and the people look so friendly. Let’s go.” And so off they go.
.Matt Taibbi: But it turns out it is a trick…
Walter Kirn: Well, they go out and the captain finally overcomes his own reservations and says, “It does look pretty comfy out there,” and people start seeing long-lost relatives. The title is a double entendre. It suggests that Mars is heavenly in that it’s this perfect world, but it also suggests that Mars is where you go after you die. Because when they get out and they start exploring the town, they all bed down that night in their beds and the captain’s lying in his bed in... I can’t remember the house, but he’s met his old relatives and it’s sort of like Mars is a bed and breakfast. Imagine Mars is a bed and breakfast in Bennington, Vermont. That’s kind of what the idea of this story is. He’s lying there, and he says, “This place is so damn perfect. Everything’s so wonderful here. It’s so reassuring. It can’t be real.”
He gets up in the middle of the night to get a glass of water to try to escape the bed and breakfast and someone comes in and challenges him, says, “Where are you going?” And he says, “I’m getting a glass of water. I’m thirsty.” Said, “No, you’re not thirsty.” “No, I really am.”
Matt Taibbi: [laughs] “No, you’re not.”
Walter Kirn: “No, you’re not.” And as soon as the captain meets that resistance, he knows, “Oh, my Lord, I was right. I just walked into the ultimate honeypot. I just walked into my own imagination and delusions of what a wonderful, welcoming place could be,” and no one survives. The ships are dismantled. The Lilliputians take apart the big tech and throw it to the ground. Remember, in this story, they are actual Martians. They are inhabitants who put up this illusion. For me, this story is about all kinds of things, but in the context of what we were talking about earlier and what’s going on right now, it was about the way in which we can enter a very hostile world, a world that may be “alien,” and are so seduced by our illusions and our hopes and our dreams and our memories that we stop looking at reality.
Walter Kirn: In some ways, I think we are, in America, a lot like the people in this space crew in that we pretend the world is the same. We pretend we’re still in the same place, we’re being kept safe by the guardians of civilization, the scientists and the intelligence officers and the valiant leaders of business and so on, but in fact, if our eyes were to open, we might be standing in a very hostile desert of some kind, facing opponents who don’t maybe want the best for us.
Matt Taibbi: This story also made me think of – Remember the Harlan Ellison story? Is it Harlan Ellison who wrote A Boy and His Dog? They made it into a movie eventually, I think with Don Johnson, way before he was a star. But basically, it’s post-nuclear America, but underground, there is this white picket fence version of America that is still existing, except it’s totally impotent. When one of the people who’s from the surface, Don Johnson, accidentally goes down there, they have to milk him for his seed to keep repopulating the society.
The metaphor there is that this vision of America that we still have with the white picket fence and the church in the middle of the square and all the friendly people who have folksy nicknames and the barber who has a friendly word for us and knows just what to say as we sit down in this chair and all that, that’s all an illusion. It’s all gone. It’s dead. It lives on only as this weird delusion that persists in the mind of a country that is veered off in a pretty weird direction.
Anyway in Mars is Heaven I love the ending.
In the morning, the brass band played a mournful dirge, from every house in the street came little solemn processions carrying long boxes. And along the sun filled street, weeping and changing came the grandmas and grandfathers and mothers and sisters and brothers, walking to the churchyard where there were open holes dug freshly and new tombstones installed, 17 holes in all and 17 tombstones. CAPTAIN JOHN BLACK, ALBERT LUSTIG, and SAMUEL HINKSTON.
So, these were the 17 travelers to Mars, and even their discovery that this is a ruse and that they were going to be massacred gets papered over when it becomes part of the fake legend in the end. Which is what we do. We don’t stop and make sure that everybody knows that there was this terrible screw up in our history. We just keep moving and pretending.
Walter Kirn: American Horror, which became rather gothic in the Edgar Allen Poe version, really goes back to one central motif, which is that the Puritan small town is a very fucking scary place.
Washington Irving, Nathaniel Hawthorne, et cetera, the 1950s Twilight Zone series also had an episode in which a perfect little American town became a kind of hive of irrational prejudice and paranoia. So what Bradbury was saying was firmly in the line of what I might call Puritan horror, which is that underneath these white exteriors are very black hearts. And we never seem to get over that theme. On the other hand, we never seem to get over the theme that it’s a wonderful place and that it’s utopia. We oscillate between the two. The scene that you just described of the funeral for the Mars explorers in the fake small town is a take on Our Town by Thornton Wilder, when they all go out to the cemetery.
And so, I think what Bradbury created here was a very clever and sort of angular critique of the kind of town that’s on Mars. It’s not just a story about illusion and delusion and self-delusion. It’s a story about that American utopia. Because it’s a lot like the Plymouth colony or something, these people coming to this new place. He plays a sort of time travel trick, in which the Mars explorers like early ocean voyagers on the Mayflower or whatever, come over. And he fast forwards to the kind of towns that they ultimately built and the New England that they founded. And suggests that it’s a dangerous place. And once again, I like to do something that professors of literature don’t do much anymore and situate everything in terms of its historical context.
What was dangerous in 1948? What was the most dangerous thing in the world? What was the thing that could annihilate everybody?
Matt Taibbi: The bomb.
Walter Kirn: Sure, it’s the bomb. And have you ever been to Los Alamos? Have you ever actually gone there? I drove in there one night a few years ago, late night. And it’s a weird town because it’s a bedroom community. People all live in Santa Fe or other places, and they come there to work in the Sandia labs and stuff during the day. The first place I came to was called the Trinity Church. Now Trinity has another meaning for Christians and for scientists. The Trinity site was where the first atomic bombs exploded, but it’s also the nature of the deity in Christian religion. And so here was a white picket fence out in the middle of fricking New Mexico, and I won’t get into it, but New Mexico has an interesting history. It was first explored by Puritan explorers from Harvard University. There’s a Thoreau, New Mexico that was founded in 1890s.
Walter Kirn: These people went out on expeditions to look for the native ruins and so on, as anthropologists do. But in any case, Los Alamos, New Mexico, the home of the atomic bomb, is very much like this town that’s described. You wouldn’t guess. It’s not a place of adobe. It didn’t have anything. It was a place where American scientists went and created a kind of synthetic home in which they could do this research. And as I say it, one of its central monuments is this little white church. And I think that Bradbury at that time, and from what I know about his career and his sentiments and his obsessions, this doesn’t seem unwarranted, was saying that moving this small town Puritan Ethic across the universe from place to place, trying to reconstruct it, was ultimately dangerous in some way. That this self-image had in it the seeds of some kind of monstrous self-deception. And that wherever it goes... Imagine if in 2001 a Space Odyssey instead of a monolith going from Earth to the moon to Jupiter, we had a white steepled church going from one to the other.
And so I think he was putting a parentheses around and questioning the somewhat utopian and New England style invention of this ultimate weapon. I think that was part of the semiotic mix.
Matt Taibbi: You’re right. We were perennially moving back and forth between worshiping the white picket fence and using it as an object of ridicule and satire. I always think of the David Lynch movies that repopularized this idea that beneath the veneer of American normalcy, which was coming back into vogue at that time, the ‘70s and ‘80s version of the white picket fence neighborhood was the Californian neo community that was portrayed in Poltergeist by Steven Spielberg.
Walter Kirn: Blue Velvet could have been a Washington Irving or Nathaniel Hawthorne town. It was absolutely the green lawn and white picket fence place. Yeah, it’s a motif that we keep coming back to. It’s as though we have this meditation aid called the Village Square. And we’re always looking at it. And some are enchanted, and some are apprehensive. But our political rhetoric is so infused with this shortened past that even now when you’re talking about the disinformation effort, for example, we hear people saying things like, “We have to make the town square a safe place. We have to protect the square.” Because our defense industry and our intelligence industry is entwined historically with New England, which it is, with its universities and with its old wealth and so on.
Matt Taibbi: Its defense contractors.
Walter Kirn: These are images that are forever potent. And we’re going to run back and forth between pillar and post as to how haunted and/or inspired we are by the New England village for probably the remainder of our history as a nation, however long that is.
Matt Taibbi: I definitely lean more towards The Scarlet Letter/The Lottery version of America, where actually there’s something sick and cannibalistic in the middle of us that we can’t quite get rid of. And it’s this urge to constantly purify and purge the town of whatever the conception of evil or dirt or contagion is at the time. That’s not really the theme of this story, though.
Walter Kirn: Here’s something that’s going on now that wasn’t going on when Bradbury wrote his story. We’re actually talking about going to Mars. We actually think we have a plan to practically affect that ambition. Our richest man has really become synonymous with the Mars agenda. So let’s talk about it for a second, in light of the other themes that we’ve discussed today. I’m getting very professorial and pedantic, I don’t know what it is today. But what will be the makeup of the first Mars mission? Will it contain Republicans? How are we ever going to settle on the perfectly virtuous? Remember back when, it didn’t matter who the astronauts were. They just had to be the fittest people who could hold their breath the longest and not throw up in zero gravity. But now I’m sure that no Martian mission will be launched without deep reflection on who is on it and what they symbolize and their social media histories.
Imagine if the Mars mission goes up and they’re about halfway there and somebody reveals on earth, “Wait, the captain tweeted once that X, Y, Z.” We’ll probably have a self-destruct button in the thing, and we’ll start over. The Mars guy once gave to Ted Cruz. And then, let’s say that we do overcome the challenges of getting the perfectly representative and pure crew on that first colonization mission. When we get there, what kind of architecture is it going to be? Is it going to be these neutral science-fiction-illustrator glass domes? At some point though, someone’s going to want to remember home a little bit, make something that’s a little familiar. Do they dare?
One thing that’s so funny about this Mars is Heaven story, is that Bradbury could still rely on the idea that this small town was a universally accepted and desirable, at least superficially desirable landscape. But in the new Mars mission, if somebody tries to build a Protestant chapel or something that looks like one or put up a white picket fence, there’s no way, that’s not going to happen. Our Mars mission is going to have to somehow synthesize all the most politically correct and attractive traits of humankind. I don’t think we’ll ever be able to decide on it, frankly. I think we’ll probably have wars over the first building on Mars, if we even survive the controversy over who should man the first ship.
Matt Taibbi: I was fascinated as a little kid by all the different utopian projects in the United States, from the Shaker colonies, to the Fourierists, to the Phalanx, to the Amish, to the Mormons. There are a million of these things, and it’s a prominent part of both our literature and our background. I grew up not far from Plymouth. The Puritan ethos is still very much alive in Massachusetts. They just can’t quite get that urge out of themselves to try to build something that’s absolutely perfect, has no imperfections or stains. That’s why the white picket fence freaks me out, because it’s built into Americans that we have to make everything perfect. We can’t leave that little piece of overgrowth or weed or whatever it is, even in the next yard. It’s not acceptable. We have to go over and trim it immediately. And we’re constantly correcting and overcorrecting.
Walter Kirn: What is the disinformation industry? Just Salem witch trials, algorithmic and automated, really. The people who brought you the witch trials, bringing you the disinformation complex is the least surprising development or historical progression ever. Even the COVID thing that we were talking about earlier, even the world of bio-weaponry and bio-defense has a New England angle. There was a Harvard professor who got arrested going back and forth between China and Harvard. Our academic self-image is really encoded in that New England landscape and culture. And that’s the reason it propagates so thoroughly, I think, because our first institutions of higher learning and higher culture are there. And they continued to be prestigious. Who would’ve guessed that Harvard University would be able to defend its turf so successfully, so wonderfully successfully through so many changes. Before there was a United States, there was a Harvard, and frankly there was a Yale too and others.
But they really, of all the American institutions that have risen and fallen, Detroit, the great manufacturing behemoth, Chicago, the broad shouldered city, and all other institutions that have come and gone, those Ivy League universities have held their own. They’ve got richer, bigger, more influential. They are now in defense. They are in every form of industry and commerce. They’re not shrinking violets hanging back there doing academic studies anymore. They’re muscular research facilities that are at the very heart of American power. And here’s to them in some horrible way, because they’ve gone from strength to strength. And the bell tower, maybe our symbol shouldn’t be the little white chapel, but the bell tower of the Ivy League University. Because it continues to be, in a weird way, the center of our power and our prestige and our self-image. And it’s where everything from bio weapon research, to disinformation research, to Facebook in the dorm room at Harvard, all comes from.
Matt Taibbi: The mania over masking, don’t you think that there’s a little bit of Scarlet Letter in that too? The fear that someone is stepping out of line somewhere. It’s still going on, because people like to wear it as a cultural signifier.
Walter Kirn: Here’s the reason why witch trials, panics and spy hunts are perpetually amusing, especially to the Puritan who has traditionally repressed his sexual drive and needs other forms of entertainment: they are fun. Let’s think back to the experience of a little kid at the time of the Salem witch hunts. You got to peek through people’s windows. You got to gossip about their liaisons in the woods. You got to run around. You were a junior detective, and everybody turns into a junior detective in a witch hunt or a moral panic. Everybody gets to turn somebody in, find a clue, overhear a damaging conversation. And then there are the punishments and the hangings that ensue. There are the trials themselves. And that general air of intrigue and excitement that replaces maybe an inadequate sexual life, or a lack of accomplishment, or even maybe failure of other ambitions.
So witch hunts are fun and Puritans know that, and they’re especially fun for them. And so why not have a permanent ongoing top to bottom all the time, completely justified in the name of anti-racism or anti anti-feminism – it’s not fair that they should be these periodic things that happened only in the 1950s, and then again now. They should happen every day from morning till night. There should be the opportunity to turn somebody in, discover guilt, sneak around, get concealed information, and also then watch on a sort of lag the people who got turned in last week get their punishment. And so witch hunt nation is fun nation. They call it a panic because it’s named after the god Pan, and what’s the god Pan? The god of fun.
Matt Taibbi: I never thought of that! This is our version of fun. If the Roman version of fun is an orgy, a gigantic pile of writhing naked bodies sunk in limitless sexual pleasure, ours is…
Walter Kirn: Snitching. Finger pointing. And then in the end, you get just as you have the orgasm at the Roman orgy, or maybe many of them, if you’re lucky, you have the hanging at the end of the witch hunt. And the scream that comes up out of you, “Yes!” So America, just admit what turns you on. And admit that the reason you’re doing all this isn’t as high-minded as you think, it’s because you want to go “Yes,” at that hanging and jump up and run out and find somebody else to hang.
Matt Taibbi: We’ll all admit it. See you next week.
Walter Kirn: See you.