"Way in the Middle of the Air," "The Naming of Names," & "Usher II"


Back on Earth, in June of 2003, a group of white men are sitting on the porch of a hardware store. News has come that all the Black men and women in the American South have banded together to emigrate to Mars. They have built their own rockets. The white men are shocked. The Black people walk by in a stream of humanity on their way to the rocket. One of the men on the porch, Mr. Teece, tries to stop one of them, Belter, who owes him $50, but a crowd gathers and pays off the debt. Then, Teece's employee at the store, Silly, rides up to leave, but Teece tries to make him stay because of his work contract. The other men, however, force Teece to let him go. Teece thinks of how all his nights of lynching are over, and he grabs his rifle and goes in a car to chase after the exodus. On the way, he notices bundles of their possessions left behind, and he has a wreck trying to run over the piles.

The years of 2004 and 2005 are the years of the "Naming of Names." Many things are named after men from the first four expeditions to Mars. The new names are not descriptive like the old Martian ones. As geography is pinned down, so too are other areas of life--a wave of "sophisticates" has arrived to regulate life on Mars.

Back on Mars, in April 2005, a man named William Stendahl has constructed a recreation of the House of Usher (from Edgar Allan Poe's story, "The Fall of the House of Usher"). It is very gloomy, filled with mechanical bats, apes, and vampires. Stendahl is bitter that the government has made tales of fantasy illegal. A former B-movie actor named Pipes has helped him create the robots. A man named Garrett, an official Investigator of Moral Climate, soon arrives to condemn the house, but Stendahl has a robotic ape kill him, as in Poe's "The Murders in the Rue Morgue." Stendahl has invited the top politicians responsible for the censorship of fantasy to a party at the house that night, at which they are systematically killed while robots replace them. Each death is an allusion to a certain censored story. It turns out that the earlier Garrett was itself only a robot, and when the real Garrett shows up, Stendahl takes him below into the cellar and seals him in an alcove, as in Poe's story, "The Cask of Amontillado." Knowing that the government will soon arrive, Stendahl and Pipes escape in a helicopter as the house disappears below a bog, as in the original "The Fall of the House of Usher."


"Way in the Middle of the Air" stands out as being one of the only long stories in the novel that takes place on earth, the other being "There Will Come Soft Rains," which is about a house, not people. Also, it explicitly directs a contemporary political problem, that of racism in America. Keep in mind that the story first appeared in 1950, well before the Civil Rights movement. In some ways, this story brings out some of Bradbury's weaknesses, because the characters are no longer so fantastic, and we can compare them to real life models. For example, Teece's racism seems wooden. The story also provides an opportunity to point out another weakness of the novel--its lack of continuity. The mass exodus of Black men and women is never mentioned again. Especially when the war starts on Earth and Mars is practically evacuated, one wonders if they returned, and why.

"The Naming of Names" alludes to the garden of Eden, when Adam named the animals. It is ironic that, for Bradbury, the naming of names represents a controlling, life-strangling government.

Reading "Usher II," one wonders at Bradbury's obsession with banned books. The novel that followed The Martian Chronicles by only a year, Fahrenheit 451 (1951), was all about the censorship of books, borrowing its title from the temperature at which, supposedly, books would burn. Bradbury seems to enjoy exacting a fictional vengeance on anyone who would ban books, and this story is a juicy example. Most of the deaths are allusions to stories by Edgar Allan Poe, who has often been cited as one of Bradbury's chief influences. The story itself is an example of how certain people came to Mars looking for a fresh start where they could invent something new, and how the impulse to conquer the wilderness with a replica of pre-existing civilization destroyed such dreams.

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