Sunday, February 1, 2015

On Book Challenges, Science Fiction, and the Trouble with Memory

I’ve been participating in a 26-book challenge for 2015: one of the items on the list is to re-read a book I love. I decided to revisit Ray Bradbury’s The Martian Chronicles. I read this book dozens of times during my childhood. During the summer, when most families were on vacation, I would spend every day at the library. We couldn’t afford to go on a lot of trips, and hey – a good book is even better, because it can take you anywhere!

Yes, I was that kid. What, you’re surprised?

During those visits to the library, I would pick up books indiscriminate of subject, author, or even targeted age group – if it looked interesting, it was going home with me. If on one of those trips I couldn’t find anything that interested me, I would check out The Martian Chronicles. There was something about it that always drew me in: his poetry-like writing, its subject matter about adventure and exploration, perhaps even the allure of visiting another planet.

It wasn’t until recently that I finally purchased my very own copy of The Martian Chronicles. And I hadn’t read it since I was a child. Perhaps just like those old toys and childhood games, we leave them behind when we make it to adulthood, until at some point we reminisce over them. So, I decided it was finally time to return to the Martian landscape that had so enraptured me as a child.

Like many things from childhood, my memory of it turned out to be a bit fuzzy, and my reaction to the work was quite different. While I found the first few stories fascinating as a child, my adult eyes were horrified at the treatment of the early astronauts. Not that I was fragile as a child, but still – I was amazed that I so loved a book where fear and misunderstanding led to the deaths of many people.

I mean, I’m that kid who bawled and covered my eyes when I was forced to watch a pet snake eat a mouse.

Memory is an interesting thing. Though in the past (and even today), psychologists have thought of memory in terms of technology (e.g., video camera, computer), social psychologists understand that memory is malleable, to say the least – and painfully biased, to say the worst.

We really think of memory in 3 stages: acquisition (obtaining the memory), retention (storing), and retrieval (calling it up). Bias can occur at various points in creating and storing memories. Of course, our strongest memories are for recent events – though even they can become biased – which results in some contamination of the present with the past. We may misremember important people in our lives being present for events they couldn’t possibly have attended, because they are such an important part of our life now.

Our view of the future is also biased by the present. Not just in terms of our own life circumstances, but even in terms of what the future will be like technologically and socially. If you look at artists’ renditions of “the future”, you’ll see that they are highly colored by the present. For example, this vision of the future from the 1950s:

Though this picture shows technological advances, some of which we've seen - flat screen TVs, web-cam, and so on - it still reflects societal values of the 1950s. The women are in the kitchen, preparing dinner, the husband comes home (in his helicopter).

Even Bradbury’s view of the future is colored by his present, and this is perhaps what struck me most in my re-reading. In The Martian Chronicles, obviously, there is “futuristic” technology – hovercraft, rocket ships that can take off and land as easily as an airplane, food tablets, and so on.

But socially, the situation is not futuristic at all. Who are the astronauts? The early explorers? The big thinkers? Men. Later, after the planet has been settled, they talk about sending the women: their wives and girlfriends.

But what might Mars have looked like if Bradbury had written his masterpiece very recently instead? Perhaps the early explorers and astronauts would have been groups of men and women. Perhaps the settlers would send not just for wives and girlfriends, but husbands, partners. We might see blended families, gay marriages… At least, when I think of what 2030 will be like, that’s what I hope to see – a society more accepting of love in all forms, and one in which gender does not determine one’s place in society.

This is not to criticize Mr. Bradbury – simply to recognize his influences. This is a flaw with many works of science fiction. While they may be able to predict advances in technology, changes to society are usually much harder to predict, and as a result, the social aspect of science fiction is often a reflection of the time the work was written.

But even more, re-reading this book gave me an interesting perspective about memory. We don’t always get to re-experience something from the past again, but when we do, we often notice some inconsistencies. Classrooms revisited as adults “seem smaller”, places that frightened us seem harmless, and our favorite stories seem, well, different. Sometimes better, sometimes worse, and sometimes just different.

I enjoyed getting to revisit Mars, now as an adult. Who knows? Maybe one day I’ll return and get something new out of it again!

Thoughtfully yours,