Investigating the Wild West on Mars

From Come on Back Jesus

Willie Nelson


Investigating the Wild West on Mars


Illustration of a warrior waving a sword with a young woman cowering behind him

Cover Art A Princess of Mars

Frank Schoonover


Ray Bradbury died. There were on the day of his death a number of eulogic articles by various writers on his influence. The ones by Neil Gaiman (“A Man Who Won’t Forget Ray Bradbury”) and Margaret Atwood (“Margaret Atwood on Ray Bradbury: the tale-teller who tapped into the gothic core of America”) were for me especially moving. I felt when I heard the news much the same way I felt when I heard John Lennon had died, though Lennon’s death was much more untimely. Perhaps my reaction is generational, because I grew up reading Bradbury when he was seen as unliterary and people who knew about such things looked at me like I was wasting my time. It would not be that many years later before he would be viewed differently as a writer and the time spent reading him would be looked at differently. There was also reprinted in The Guardian an interview Bradbury gave in the 1990’s (“From the archive: Ray Bradbury: a 1990 interview on life, love and Buck Rogers”) that gave insight as well into his work, his beginnings, and his beliefs as a writer. I especially enjoyed his description of the phone calls he made after the first moon landing.

Bradbury wrote what was known as “pulp fiction.” It was called pulp fiction because it was published in cheap paperbacks or equally cheap magazines that used the lowest grade of paper available at the time. The acids used in making this paper would cause the paper to slowly “burn up” over the years so that a book bought when I was a child in the 1950’s would be so darkened by the passing of time, it looked as though it barely survived a fire, as to be almost unreadable. There is an irony in this if one considers that one of Bradbury’s most famous novels is about burning books. But he was a passionate advocate of the “pulps” and the kinds of stories they told. In an interview he gave to the Paris Review (“Ray Bradbury, The Art of Fiction No. 203”), Bradbury points out that many of those responsible for landing that man on the moon were attracted to science and to space travel by the Martian novels of Edgar Rice Burroughs. (The original interview was ended before it was completed and resumed and completed many years later by Bradbury’s biographer Sam Weller, which, appropriately enough, was also the name of a very memorable character from Dickens’ The Pickwick Papers).

The stories may not have employed a “literary imagination” or a literary language, but they aroused passions, they got the people that read them excited about space travel and about story telling. Paul Krugman, the Nobel Prize winning economist, said recently on The News Hour that his interest in economics had it origins in the novels of Isaac Asimov, I suspect Asimov’s Foundation stories, but Krugman does not identify any story by name. Michael Chabon in many of the essays in his book Maps and Legends makes the same point about his experience with Burroughs and the pulps.


Greek vase with an image of one man treating the wound of another man

Achilles tending Patroclus wounded by an arrow

Painting attributed to the Sosias Painter


About the time of Bradbury’s death the Orange Prize was awarded to Madeline Miller for her novel The Song of Achilles. Charlotte Higgins and Elizabeth Day in articles written for The Guardian, “Madeline Miller’s Orange prize win captures the prevailing literary mood” and “Why the tale of Achilles and his lover still has the power to move us,” argue that Homer is still read today because he arouses many of the same passions that the pulps aroused in Bradbury and others. Higgins and Day also point out that Homer, at least to modern readers, does not seem to take sides. Through much of the poem we empathize with the Trojans and their hero Hector. The pictures above and below, that illustrate events from The Iliad, capture moments from the poem that appeal more to the emotions than the intellect. I think sometimes that Homer and writers like James Jones would have much to talk about and in many ways they tell the same kind of story. The sands of Iwo Jima resemble the walls of windy Troy.

The point is, that it all begins with the power of the story. In a review of Saul Bellow’s letters (“Wise Guy”) it is worth noting that in those letters Bellow makes some of the same points about fiction working first on the emotions that Bradbury makes. Bellow criticizes other writers of his day who let the “ideas” take too much control and in the process weakened the stories that they told, that they became too polemical in his view. Though Bradbury says he writes about ideas and is attracted to ideas he also points out the story must come first. The story does not exist to tout the ideas, but to give them a place to live, where they can be showcased, but not talked about, where, like children, perhaps, they can be seen and not heard.


Photograph of a parcment page from "The Illiad" with Greek writing and an image of two armies fighting

Iliad VIII 245-253 in codex F205 (Milan, Biblioteca Ambrosiana), late 5th or early 6th c. AD



But what about the pulps themselves? They come in many forms, there is science fiction, there is detective fiction (both of the hard-boiled and the drawing room variety), there is the western, and there is fantasy (which spent much of the 20th century renting rooms from science fiction, but has since found a room of its own). Are these books important; will they survive; do they deserve to be remembered? Whatever one thinks of them they raise important issues. Whatever the outcome of that detective novel may be, whether it is written cynically or idealistically, it arouses our sense of justice. The song at the beginning, Come on Back Jesus, evokes John Wayne and his western persona. If people will not be moved by the words of Jesus, perhaps John Wayne can, using a different approach, put them in their place.


Illustration of a man, a cowboy type, sitting in an open window holding a rifle and looking vigilant

Hopalong Takes Command

Frank Schoonover


Whatever the quality of the films or the books on which many of them were based, the western captured important aspects of the American character and the value it places on the rugged individual and fair play. These films and novels, as does much of pulp fiction, establish the American code of chivalry, cowboys are our Knights of the Round Table, the western saloon our Heorot. I think Shane in many ways is not unlike Beowulf and the “man who shot Liberty Valance” is not unlike Sir Gawain or Lancelot. It is difficult to know what will survive. But in many ways, Oedipus the King is a murder mystery, Le Morte d’Arthur is high fantasy, Gulliver’s Travels is science fiction. Whenever I read Gulliver’s Travels I am enchanted by the floating island, even though the people that live there are idiots they have accomplished something remarkable, something that piques the imagination and makes me want to build things.

At the end of the day, much that has survived as myth and folk tale would feel right at home in the pulps, many of these ancient stories have found a home in modern fiction that is often dismissed as escapist. But the stories still capture us and that is why we read, we read to be taken prisoner and held captive for as long as possible. And when we are finally released we begin the search for another captor. Is this all escapism? Is this a desire to find a refuge from the world as it is? There is some truth to this, we are looking for relief, we are looking for a few moments away from all that troubles us. But this is in fact a kind of nurture, it heals. It is also the nature of these stories often to renew hope, to help us work through the problems we are seeking to escape. Often in reading we do not avoid our problems but find their solutions.


Japanese woodblock of two women looking over a child inside the house while two others talk outside the house

Hand painted page from a book set depicting The Tale of the Bamboo Cutter

17th Century


The paintings above and below are from a 17th century story from Japan called The Tale of the Bamboo Cutter. It is about a man who harvests bamboo and in cutting down a stalk of bamboo finds inside a child, a very small child. He takes the child home and he and the child have many adventures. It turns out the child was from the moon. At the end of the story there is an “E. T. phone home” moment and a carriage comes to return the now grown up child to the moon. Everyone is heartbroken, but the young woman is happy to return to her people. We also learn from this story, which is often an element of folk tales and myth, how Mt. Fuji got its name. Of course there is little science here, but then there is little science in H. G. Wells or Edgar Rice Burroughs. It is “science fiction” because it involves a trip to the moon. But trips to the moon have been commonplace throughout literary history. Lucian and Cyrano de Bergerac made trips to both the moon and the sun. Bradbury was less concerned with how folks got to Mars than he was with the spirit of exploration that took them there.


Japanese woodblock of a group of people watching a flyihng coach prepare to take off for the moon

Kaguya-hime goes back to the Moon

17th Century


I know that when I read a story I want to be swept away as much by the language as I am by the events of the story itself. It is important to me that a story be well written and well told. I think of Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler as the Hemmingway and Fitzgerald of detection. I don’t think it surprising that the same actor who in films played Hammett’s Sam Spade also played Hemmingway’s Harry Morgan. Much of this comes down to what we value in stories. I enjoy Virginia Woolf’s To The Lighthouse that takes place mostly in the minds of the novel’s characters. It is a novel in which nothing happens, or at least not much. There is a lot of talk; we meet some frustrated human beings who do not seem to manage life well. But, for me at least, I care about the characters, I want to see them grow and get better. I enjoy the settings of the novel, though “enjoy” may not be the right word to describe these settings. Many, though, Bradbury not unlikely was among them, find the story tedious and uninteresting. We are not all captured by the same things. That is important to remember as well. Just as writers must be free to tell the stories their imaginations give to them, readers must be free to read the stories that touch their imaginations. And it does need to be remembered that many of the least “respected” stories, at least from a literary point of view, have inspired some of the most earth shattering events.


The Shared Wonder of Film

Beeban Kindron

TED Talk


The film clip talks about the power of film as a vehicle for telling stories and the importance of these stories. Film is in many ways America’s “Globe Theatre.” Americans told and wrote stories long before the movie camera was invented. But films are in many ways our favorite way of telling stories and of preserving many of the stories that were told in our literary infancy and adolescence. More people probably know Moby Dick from the film than from the book. I prefer the book to the movie because there are things that Melville does with language and the development of his story that film cannot do, and I want those things that Melville offers that the film cannot. Still, the film makes most of Melville’s points and who can forget that the same actor that played Ishmael in the movie was also the admiral that on television went on a Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea.


Photograph of desert landscape with wind formed mountains

Monument Valley, Utah, US

en:User Solipsist


Part of what attracts us to the pulps is the wilderness. In the case of the hard-boiled detective stories that wilderness is the moral wilderness of many cities. In the case of the western it is a more literal wilderness that is often still troubled by the moral ambiguities found in the city. Life is often about standing up to things that must be stood up to. It is Philip Marlowe saying no to a bribe. It is the Virginian reminding the man across the table to smile when he says what he says. It is Montag refusing to burn another book. In many ways the red earth of the American Southwest is not that different from the red soil of the plains of Mars. Explore, seek justice, be true, brave, and kind. That is the lesson of the pulps, at least of those that have endured.


Photograph of Martian landscape

The Viking 1 Lander sampling arm created a number of deep trenches as part of the surface composition and biology experiments on Mars

Roel van der Hoorn