In the fourth grade, I remember looking back at myself as a third grader and thinking, “Man, I was so dumb.” Third grade me didn’t read “adult” novels or draw with pencils.
When I was in sixth grade, I remember reading my journals from fourth grade and reflecting on my fourth grade self thinking, “My handwriting was horrible. I was so naive about girls.” (I probably didn’t think the word “naive” and that thought about girls continues to this day.)
In eighth grade I thought about how innocent I was in sixth grade, when I didn’t know or fear death yet. In high school, I looked at the middle school me and regretted not reading classic literature. In college, I remember thinking about thinking about how immature I was before I drank, dated women, or knew the pain of death.
This feeling--about how ignorant I was when I was younger--came up again when I re-read Ray Bradbury’s The Martian Chronicles a few years ago. Again, I had to ask myself, “How jingoistic was I in eighth grade?”
When I first read The Martian Chronicles, it offended me on two levels. First, I was a fan of Arthur C. Clarke and his world of hard science fiction on grounded in scientific reality. In a Ray Bradbury story I’d read years earlier, the characters from Shakespeare all live on Mars. This soft science fiction made no sense.
But more than the fantasy, the politics of The Martian Chronicles really offended me. The short story collection opens with Americans landing on Mars and giving the Martians...chicken pox. And they all die.
To my eighth grade self, this all seemed incredibly unfair. (Develop some antibiotics, you stupid Martians!) The Martian Chronicles was obviously anti-American, or more specifically, very anti-colonialist or anti-Western. At the time, I was naively pro-America, pro-West. Eighth grade me believed America had never lost a war, and the concept of fighting wars unjustly didn’t make sense. All those endless textbooks lecturing us on how many Indians died when the Europeans colonized the Americas, well, it wasn’t my fault! I didn’t do it. And how should we have known so many would die of common diseases? I didn’t want to be blamed for America’s past sins.
But now I’ve grown older. When I re-read The Martian Chronicles a few years ago, I understood it. There is a sadness to the book--and though the analogy is a bit obvious--pitying the Martians is a way of learning to deal with what we did to Native Americans and, hopefully, preventing it from happening again.
Like I said, I’ve grown older and, possibly, wiser. My point of view has changed. I know loss now. I live in an age of war. And more importantly, I respect the sad tragedy of unintended consequences. (Isn’t that the morale of the Global War on Terror?)
More importantly, I now realize that if you love something, you must question it, challenge it and make it better. For me, that means questioning America and its sometimes ugly history. It means learning about slavery, the massacre of the Native Americans, and keeping women from voting until the 20th century. It means learning from our nation’s mistakes...but you can’t learn from those mistakes if you refuse to admit that that past exists.
It means that I now respect books like The Martian Chronicles which do just that.
(Also, The Martian Chronicles is fantastically written. Just read the first chapter. Now that I’m older, I can finally appreciate that.)