We’re picking and choosing our way through Ray Bradbury’s The Martian Chronicles. We just finished the story “The Earth Men.” Even when we read the whole thing like a novel (which we’re not doing this time: I think we’ll only read 4 or 5 this time – and this time we’re doing all the reading in class), I always start with this story. The kids always wonder why we start on p16, but EMen, as we call it, has much more of a hook than “Ylla,” the jealous husband story that begins the book (after the scientifically implausible 1-pager, “Rocket Summer”). And since most of the short stories weren’t originally intended to be connected in a novel, we have some wiggle room on the selection and the order.
Now of course telepathy – the key element of the story – is just as scientifically implausible as a rocket changing the weather, but it’s a lot more fun to speculate upon. After Mrs. Ttt (which we shorten to Mrs. T – some of them even chuckle when we meet Mr.T – “I pity the fool”) says, “I not speaking, I’m thinking. Telepathy,” I stop and ask,
“How many of you would like to be telepathic, and be able to hear other people’s thoughts?”
Almost all the hands go up.
“What if you couldn’t shut it off?”
“Well, you can’t really shut off your hearing. Although most of you are pretty good at selective listening, you do hear everything within range. So with telepathy, it looks like it’s kind of a similar thing. The captain seems to be hearing Mrs. Ttt in his head. Imagine walking through the quad at break, especially one of those assembly schedule days, when you’re out there with the gluey eighth graders too. OMG. Just having to hear what’s going on in all your heads right now…I know that would drive me batty right quick. And after a while, it might get to the point where you couldn’t tell your thoughts from those of the people around you. Try going to a stadium, or NY City.”
Most of the hands go back down.
Of course they get fascinated with the spider toy the little girl is playing with.
“I want one. What is it?”
This is one of the beauties of a good writer like Ray. I point out to the kids that a good fantasy/sci fi writer won’t have a lengthy introductory description of all the ins and outs of the fantasy world: “On Mars, they are all telepathic and read minds. They live in stone houses and fly around in fire-birds. They…” This is what the kids usually do in their writing. “His name was Jimmy, and he had three brothers and lived with his dad. He liked to surf and skateboard. He was 5 feet tall and weighed…” and like that. What a good writer does is tell the story, and fill us in on the background as we go. Ray throws in the spider toy to show us a glimpse of Martian life, as he’s telling the story of these poor Earth Men who can’t prove they’re really from Earth and not insane. The kids also get grossed out (which they love – another irony of seventh grade behavior) when the little girl wipes her nose-picking finger on her leg.
Actually what we start this story with is the Emily Dickinson poem #435.
Much Madness is divinest Sense–To a discerning Eye–
Much Sense–the starkest Madness–
‘Tis the Majority–
In this, as All, prevail–
Assent–and you are sane–
Demur–you’re straightway dangerous–
And handled with a Chain–
“So, if the majority of us decide that Miguel here is insane, guess what? He is.”
“I am not!”
“Now, now. It’ll be OK.”
Only one more day until break. And not a moment too soon. I might NEED a chain tomorrow.