Martians, Go Home by Fredric Brown
Ballantine Books, 1976 (Original copyright 1955)
Price I paid: none
Luke Devereaux was a science-fiction writer, holed up in a desert shack waiting for inspiration. He was the first man to see a Martian…but he wasn’t the last!
It was estimated that a billion of them had arrived—one to every three human beings on Earth—obnoxious green creatures who could be seen and heard, but not harmed, and who probed private sex lives as shamelessly as they probed government secrets.
No one knew why they had come. No one knew how to make them go away—except, perhaps, Luke Devereaux. Unfortunately Devereaux was going slightly bananas, so it wouldn’t be easy.
But for a science-fiction writer nothing was impossible…
This book sure did give me a lot of stuff to think I’d potentially be able to make fun of before I read it. I mean, it has so much going against it from the start. Look at that cover, for one!
It seriously looks like a young adult novel. Now I’ve said this before and I stand by it: I have nothing against young adult literature. Some of my favorite reads are still young adult novels. But I think a distinction is called for.
See, there are YA novels that become popular because they’re genuinely good in some fashion. Maybe I don’t see the appeal in some cases, but I can’t deny the popularity. Then there are the YA novels you see in schools. The kinds of things your 7th grade English teacher had on a shelf in her classroom, the area she called the “library” and told everybody that they are always welcome to “check out” a book because “reading is cool.” You end up looking over it and find
- Rip-offs of Goosebumps
- A bunch of books that won the Newbery award and feature stories of children whose friends or families or pets die
- An inexplicable copy of Raptor Red by Robert Bakker which you read even though you’ve read it before because you are, after all, in middle school
This looks like something you’d see there, probably in the Goosebumps rip-offs. For one, there’s the way the title is formatted so that it looks like it’s chalk on a green chalkboard. And there’s that Martian that, despite being by Kelly Freas, is just too cutesy to be interesting.
All-in-all, this book should really be about some kids in a middle school that play host to some Martians. Maybe only the kids believe that the Martians are there and they have trouble convincing teachers or parents of their existence. Hijinks ensue.
I guess I’m describing some kind of proto-Invader Zim but without any of the elements that made Zim awesome.
So with all of that in mind, I think I was justified in thinking that what I was about to read would be pretty bad. I was very, very wrong.
And seeing as how this book is by Frederic Brown, I suppose it’s not surprising that I was so wrong. I looked him up and then I was ashamed that I had to look him up. Dude is awesome. I’d read one of his stories before without knowing it: “Arena.” The story eventually was “adapted” into an episode of classic Star Trek, namely the one where Captain Kirk fights the Gorn. I say “adapted” because I think the real story is that somebody wrote that episode and then somebody else realized how extremely close it was to the short story so they gave Brown credit so they wouldn’t get sued. Brown was also one of the three people to whom Stranger in a Strange Land was dedicated. All told, a highly respected and respectable member of the science fiction community.
Still, when I read the back jacket of Martians, Go Home and saw that the main character was a science fiction writer, I got a little worried. I think lots of authors eventually write a story about an author and they don’t often turn out all that good. It’s like the mantra “write what you know” just turns into “well, I’m a writer, I know about writing” and then you get something pointless and masturbatory. Like the author is suffering from writer’s block and figures he or she might as well try to break through it by writing a story about an author with writer’s block who meets an alien or a ghost or a talking fish and then they learn a lesson and end up writing a story within the story about the experience. Ugh.
As it is, though, we don’t get much of that. Our author-hero does suffer from writer’s block at the beginning of the story, but that clears up in time for him to face down the Martian menace that threatens his world.
Our hero, Luke Devereaux, has an annoying name to have to type. I know it’s a pretty common name but that is way too many vowels. Anyway, at the start of the story Luke is chilling out in a shack loaned to him by a friend, trying his damnedest to write his next novel. He’s in a dire situation, since his publisher has already given him three advances on his next book and he knows he needs to produce something, anything, to make it worth their while. He’s on the verge of a new story, something about Martians, actually, when there’s a knock on the door.
Lo and behold, it’s a Martian! It’s a pretty standard Martian, too. The art on the cover of the novel really nailed that one on the head. He’s a Little Green Man, something like two or three feet tall, and he’s an asshole.
All he does is mock Luke and his efforts, tells Luke that his girlfriend is cheating on him, and offers little to no explanation of what he wants or even why he’s there. He demeans humanity, berating us for being stupid and backward, and then just leaves again.
Martians have an ability they call “kwipping,” which is just teleportation. They can also see through things and are insubstantial, so nothing is safe from them. About the only saving grace is the fact that they can’t directly interact with things on Earth, but that doesn’t stop them from standing in people’s way so they can’t see or yelling in their ears so they can’t hear. It seems that their entire M.O. is just to be as huge a nuisance as possible.
Luke soon finds out that he’s not alone in this encounter. In fact, there are something like a billion of these Martians all over the Earth, just kwipping about and getting in the way.
Society collapses. No one can get any work done. National secrets are exposed by Martians who just kwip into ultrasecret vaults, read the contents, and then go tell the folks on the other side of the Iron Curtain. The entertainment industry takes the biggest hit, since nobody can record radio or television shows or make movies or plays without Martians just showing up and ruining everything. It’s complete and utter insanity.
A lot of the book features Luke trying to make a living for himself in this post-apocalyptic landscape. Perhaps the most notable example is when he meets a psychologist who has determined that the chief means of saving humanity while making a couple bucks on the side is to serve as a psychological consultant.
See, the Martians are doing more than just ruining the economy. They’re driving people, quite literally, insane. Crime is way, way up and the cops can’t do anything about it. The book makes a point of saying that the crime in question that’s way up is, on the whole, crimes of passion. Basically people get to the point where they can’t take it anymore and do terrible things. The world is off its collective rocker.
So this psychologist figures that he’ll find a group of people who can develop a means to cope with the Martians in a healthy way. He’s just about to explain this to a group of new disciples, including Luke, when a Martian shows up and just wrecks the whole thing.
See one of the things about the Martians is that they’re inveterate tattle-tales. Why ruin people’s lives with lies when you can ruin them with the truth? The Martians know all and see all, so the thing they do to this poor psychologist is point out, to the audience, all his flaws and shortcomings in his career. This drives the shrink over the edge, thus invalidating his own claims to be able to teach people to deal with this exact sort of thing, and everybody leaves a little disappointed.
We get little vignettes throughout the book whenever the author feels the need to give us some context. There are stories of people who are incapable of doing the horizontal Disco Duck because Martians show up whenever they’re ready to get down and dirty. There are stories of broken-up poker games and a glimpse inside the affairs of the President of the United States, who is so completely in over his head by this point that he can’t bear it. The narrator even tells us that this president is actually a pretty good guy and really doesn’t deserve this to be his legacy.
One of the best things about this book, actually, is the narrator. While the times when the book focuses on Luke it’s a pretty straightforward third-person narration, there are times when it breaks away into a first-person narrative, breaking the fourth wall and inserting little bits of commentary that are, on the whole, pretty great. At one point we have a vignette about a thief somewhere in England who got foiled by some Martians. The narrator goes “We’ll let him tell it in his own words,” whereupon we’re beset by this paragraph of rhyming slang and British expression that is almost entirely impenetrable. It breaks off mid-sentence with the narrator going, essentially, “Okay, maybe not. I’ll take it from here.”
In so many books that would have been annoying and distracting, but in this one it was absolutely great.
Back to Luke, though. After a bit of wandering he meets an old buddy of his from the publishing industry. This friend points out that while science fiction is doing really poorly these days since it, well, has basically come to life, stories about down-to-earth heroes doing pretty mundane things are doing really well. Namely, things like mysteries and westerns. I’d’ve expected mysteries to have taken a hit since I can imagine these Martians kwipping into the room and telling the reader whodunnit, but I guess I’m wrong. The upshot of this is that Luke, who wrote a single western novel early in his career that he’d basically forgotten about, is back on the bestseller lists and his publisher wants him to write more westerns and is prepared to give him a lot of money to prove it.
So inspired, Luke sits down to write a new novel. Filled with energy and excitement, he starts typing just in time for a Martian to show up and scare the bejeezus out of him.
Luke is down for the count, folks.
He actually wakes up in a psychiatric hospital. His ex-wife, Margie, shows up because she hears about it. Margie’s a nurse so that actually makes sense. She explains to Luke’s doctor that Luke was always a bit jumpy while he was concentrating on writing. Any noise would send him into a rage so she learned to tip-toe around the house while he was working. It was one of the things that drove them apart, although she admits that it was far from the only thing and that there were mistakes made on both sides and that she’s actually been thinking about him a lot lately and blah blah blah
The upshot of all this is that having a Martian show up on Luke’s typewriter just as he was getting into a groove drove him insane. But it’s a good insane, apparently!
This is actually the part of the book I liked most. It was so well thought-out. Since the Martians are insubstantial and the only way they interact with people is by getting in their field of view and yelling at them, Luke’s insanity has taken the form of not being able to see or hear them. He just completely disbelieves that they exist. And because of the way they are, for all intents and purposes, they don’t.
There’s a bit more to it than that, but Luke, in his insanity, is now more capable of living his life than most of the rest of humanity.
As the book winds down we see that several people have been attempting to find ways to get rid of the Martians for good. One of these attempts, by Secretary-General of the United Nations Yato Ishurti, takes a dark turn. Ishurti figures the way to get rid of these guys is by getting every man, woman, and child on the planet to let the Martians know that we’ll never be a threat to them, his figuring being that this is the reason they’re holding us back so much. After a truly inspiring speech where he convinces every person on Earth to yell that yes, they agree with these statements, a Martian shows up, tells Ishurti to screw himself, and disappears again. Ishurti, knowing his failure, commits ritual suicide then and there.
One guy is convinced that the Martians are incapable of lying and that this is their weak point. His plans are foiled when a Martian shows up and says “Yes, I am capable of lying,” and then kwips out again. Logic bomb!
As the book winds down, though, there are three different stories going at once. There’s a guy in Chicago, a janitor whose education spans the gamut up to the eighth grade; a witch doctor in Africa; and Luke. All three of them think they have a way to get rid of the Martians. The janitor in Chicago creates a device in his basement that he thinks will do the trick, the witch doctor creates some powerful juju, and Luke things that if he goes back to the shack from the start of the book and thinks really hard about how the Martians aren’t real, it’ll convince everybody else as well.
The very end of the book features all three of these plans happening at the exact same time and, sure enough, the Martians leave. It is never stated which one, if any of them, actually did the trick. And that’s the end.
My summary of this book really does not do it justice. I really hope there’s a way I can convince you to check it out for yourself. I just absolutely loved it.
For one, the writing was so crisp, so quick, and so clear that I managed to knock this book out in a few hours, tops. It helps that I was genuinely interested in what was going on and I really wanted to know if it would ever be revealed why the Martians were here to drive us crazy in the first place. Yet, when the answer was never actually given, I didn’t especially mind. It was pretty well-in-keeping with the Martians to never reveal anything about what their plans were. Maybe they didn’t have plans. Maybe they were just jerks being jerks.
And yet the book was more about the problems of humanity than anything. The Martians couldn’t actually do anything to hurt us. They were insubstantial. The worst they could do was block your view of something or make it hard to hear somebody else. Well, they could also tell you uncomfortable truths about things or reveal your secrets to somebody else. I guess that was the absolute worst thing. But really, the Martians weren’t dangerous. They were just annoying.
And yet it’s not danger, or even threat of danger, that brings humanity to its knees in this book. It’s just being annoyed. People get so completely irritated that the economy of the world collapses and people go insane. That’s not only hilarious, it’s also really accurate, I think. I’ve worked a lot of retail in my day, and I can tell you how people become absolute animals when something stupid doesn’t go their way. Oh no, I was out of a particular size of Evian water, even though I have every other size available? Sure, why not just yell at me like I’m some kind of inhuman monster, lady.
Multiply that by, oh, two or three times and you get the theme of this book. Ultimately it’s not death or destruction that holds back our species, it’s a million little irritations that we just can’t get rid of. Luke is the great answer to that question, though. If you can’t get rid of the problems, you learn to deal with them. Even if it means pretending they aren’t there. Luke was genuinely happy once he found out that the Martians were “gone.” Imagine how happy we’d all be if we managed to convince ourselves that the useless and petty annoyances in our lives were gone, or at least not actually a problem.
For such a funny book, that’s a pretty serious theme I’m reading into it. And in a way it’s ironic, since the whole point of this blog is to read things for the express purpose of finding out what it is about them that annoys me…
8 thoughts on “Martians, Go Home”
Ever read What Mad Universe?
I can’t say that I have, but it looks like a lot of fun! I’ll be on the lookout.
And now, having read the blog archive from start to this, I’ve actually purchased a book because it was featured here. I’m looking forward to reading this one.
I am delighted to hear that!
Short version: this is a surprisingly good book.
After your review, I expected to be annoyed at the ambiguous ending since I think that’s often a cop-out for a writer being unable to create (or uninterested in creating) a coherent model of their world. ‘X-Files’ and ‘Lost’ are obvious examples here. But, no; the ambiguity was well-managed and even commented on in the author’s postscript.
The book has been re-issued as part of the SF Gateway project, which brings vintage SF out as e-books, so I was able to get it on iBooks (incidentally, all of Doris Piserchia’s works are on iBooks from SF Gateway too …).
I remember reading this one back in the ’70s. Now, the Martians seem kind of like internet trolls for the pre-digital era.
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Oh yeah, good call! There’s probably an essay in that, about how books can gain relevance in ways the author couldn’t have dreamed.
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Back in the ’60’s – ’70s I read Fredric Brown’s SF (loved this one) but I neither knew nor cared about the rest. Now, it turns out I can just start any of his books and it’s likely to be great. Screaming Mimi? < The actual basis for the great giallo film “The Bird With the Crystal Plumage” (and a decent 1958 film too.) Madball? < Brutal noir set in a traveling carnival. Night of the Jaberwock? < He somehow manages to bend a noirish crime thriller round Lewis Carroll…
Heck, I’ll probably read the unpromising sounding “Ed and Am Hunter” series.
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