“Mariana” by Fritz Leiber
from Science Fact/Fiction, eds. Farrell, Gage, Pfordresher, Rodrigues
Scott, Foresman and Company, 1974
Originally published in Fantastic Science Fiction Stories, February 1960
Price I paid: $6.56
cw: depression, sui
I return once again to the realms of Fritz Leiber!
Truth is, I almost skipped this one. I read it, sure, without even considering not doing so, but once I had, I almost moved on to the next story to write about it instead. Why would I choose to do that? Well, couple reasons.
For one, this story is hella short. This review will almost certainly be longer than it is. Not the first time that’s happened, but something about that makes me feel a little weird.
The main thing, though, is that I didn’t think I’d have anything to say about it. It’s a fine story, well told and pretty spooky, and I was afraid that those words were pretty much all I’d have to say about it.
But then I got thinking and no, I think I do have some things to say about this story that go deeper than that. I can’t promise that I’ll be able to tie it all back into a critique of capitalism, but by god, you know I’ll try.
The story revolves around a woman who shares her name with the title. Mariana doesn’t seem to be very happy. When we meet her she lives on an inhospitable rock of a planet with a real jerk of a husband named Jonathan. Jonathan is certainly verbally abusive and nearly physically abusive on at least one occasion. This is definitely part of the point of the story, and I’m having trouble figuring out what it means. I think it might be one of those “it’s been over sixty years” things, but I’m not so sure.
One day while her husband is at work, Mariana notices a strange panel of controls that she’d never seen before. The house they live in is very futuristic and highly automated. There is a robot butler and maid. There are all sorts of controls for things ranging from the tv to the force of gravity. Mariana knows about all those controls, though. This one’s different. It’s labelled trees.
The house is surrounded by pine trees on all sides. Mariana hates them but has never said anything to Jonathan about it.
She mentions the panel to Jonathan who pretty much dismisses it. He says it was hidden so that she didn’t fiddle with it and break something. Jonathan has a low view of his wife’s intelligence.
He does explain that he knows that the trees aren’t real. They’re being broadcast, which is pretty wild. Radio trees! What’s wilder is that they’re still quite solid. It’s “alternating matter,” and it’s also “over your head,” he says to Mariana.
God, they are such an unhappy couple, and sitting here from the vantage point of 2022 I look back and think no wonder the boomers are so messed up. This isn’t a new revelation to me. Recently I’ve been watching I Love Lucy and while Lucy and Ricky aren’t Baby Boomers themselves, the show was certainly watched by that generational cadre as they grew up, and the relationship that couple has is horrifying. They’re constantly lying to each other, gaslighting one another, insulting each other, and just generally being as far from what I’d consider a happy couple as I can imagine. And then there’s Fred and Ethel who manage to be that much worse! Jesus.
What I’m getting at is that I don’t know whether Leiber is trying to depict this as an aspirational marriage or not. This gets more complicated later.
Mariana finally builds up the courage and flips the switch labeled trees. Sure enough, all the trees around the house disappear. All she can see is a nearly infinite expanse of bare rock with a single road running off into the distance, the one that Jonathan uses to travel to work and back.
Jonathan comes home and is not “as furious as she had feared” but does belittle her some. What’s bothersome is that the switch seems to be stuck. She can’t turn the trees back on, and even the label seems to have disappeared. Now instead there is a second switch labeled “house.”
Jonathan is upset at the idea that he’s been sold a radio house instead of a real one. Mariana hits the button entirely by accident, causing the house to disappear. This enrages Jonathan, who advances on Mariana and grabs her by the shoulders.
But then she notices that a third switch has appeared, labeled “Jonathan.” She flips it, and he disappears.
The fourth switch is labeled “stars,” which she also flips. The stars disappear. Mariana sits alone in a dark expanse of rock.
The fifth switch fills her with dread and terror. It’s actually already flipped off, and it’s labeled “doctor.” After a while she flips it, and awakens to find herself in a hospital bed.
And here’s where things get a little weird for me and I’m not entirely sure I get what’s going on. A disembodied voice tells her that she has interrupted her “wish-fulfillment therapy.”
Wish-fulfillment? To be stranded completely alone with no purpose in life and an abusive husband? What is this?
The voice continues that if “you now recognize your sick depression and are willing to accept help, the doctor will come to you.”
Alternately she can return to the therapy and follow it to its “ultimate conclusion.”
Okay, so it seems that Mariana has depression. As it so happens, I also have depression. I’m struggling to connect my experience of depression with what is depicted in this story.
Let me also take a minute to state that if you also have depression and need to seek help, I thoroughly encourage you to do so. I know it can be hard. I know that the motivation to do anything at all can be zero sometimes, even when you know that it’s what you need. I know that you might not feel like you deserve help, or that you don’t have it “that bad” or that “others have it worse.” I know all of those feelings and have struggled with them.
I also know that our medical system absolutely sucks when it comes to mental health and seeking help for it. It’s a cruel joke to find that one day you’re well enough to seek help and that your insurance won’t cover it, or that there are no therapists available in your area, or that it’s all just out of reach for a whole host of reasons. I know that too.
But I also know that depression lies and tells you that it’s hopeless, that you’re hopeless, that you’re awful, a burden, better off gone. And I want to reiterate that this is a lie. You are a singular precious human being who deserves to thrive in joy, and I hope you can find a way to make that happen.
I’m not any kind of a doctor or therapist or whatever, but if you want to reach out to me, you can do that using the Contact Me form linked at the top of the blog. I can’t do much, but I can listen, and I know that can help sometimes.
Anyway, back to the story.
My speculation is that Mariana’s “wish-fulfillment therapy” is just allowing her to wallow in the misery she thinks she “deserves.” And this comes to a head with the last line of the story, one you might be expecting, but I’ll get to that in a minute.
What’s really confusing me is that Mariana seems to have a deep terror of seeing the doctor. Is it a fear of admitting that she’s sick, that she needs help?
I think a lot about Senator Thomas Eagleton (D-MO). It wasn’t long after this story was written that he was briefly the vice-presidential candidate for George McGovern in 1972. It turned out, however, that Eagleton lived with depression and had been hospitalized for it several times in the 60s. Once the news broke, he was dropped from the ticket, and the fact that he had even considered having a mentally ill person for a running mate certainly didn’t help McGovern’s campaign. It’s hard to say whether it cost him the election because McGovern got his ass handed to him, but it was probably a factor and the Nixon campaign was certainly not squeamish about using it.
Eagleton was a straight white cis man with enough education and money to be a senator. He bounced back fine and kept his congressional job until 1987 when he retired and became an adjunct professor. His story is sad, but he was fine in the end.
A woman like Mariana at the time this story was written would probably not be so lucky. We don’t know much else about her real life, whether she has a family and a decent upbringing or even what race she is, but the bare fact that she’s a mentally ill woman is probably more than enough reason for her to fear the doctor. He’ll probably try to cure her by sticking an ice pack up her uterus.
So I guess it’s not all that hard to see why she flips the switch again to get rid of the doctor and finds herself back in the vast expanse of rock and darkness, and that the bank of switches is still there with one last switch available, one marked “Mariana.”
Well, I don’t want to be too flip about it, but that’s depressing.
I guess part of why I’m having trouble understanding exactly what Mariana is dealing with is the fact that my own depression doesn’t tend to manifest suicidal tendencies. I’m also a white straight cis man in the year 2022. I know that she probably exists in some kind of future year, but she also exists as a woman in the circumstances Leiber understood women to be in from his own past and present. Though neither Leiber and I are women, he does at least have a leg up on part of the perspective here. I’m only an observer from the future who could maybe stand to educate himself a little more.
But more to it, I guess I just don’t understand what the point of the whole “therapy” was. If the idea was to eventually let Mariana make herself unalive, why didn’t they just do that? Why the whole charade? Why make it so that she didn’t know that there was a fantasy situation where she’d get to live with an abusive husband?
I also don’t know what Leiber’s experience with depression may have been like and I can’t find any references to it. I do see that he had some tragic circumstances in the late 60s that led him down a path of substance abuse, from which he eventually recovered, so I certainly wouldn’t be surprised to learn that he lived with depression of some variety. So my question is, was this story one way for him to put into words, to concretize, he own feelings of hopelessness and despair? It’s a possibility but I won’t dwell on it too much without him being here to say his part. Diagnosing people remotely, especially across swaths of time, with mental illness isn’t my cup of tea.
So anyway, yeah, it’s a fine story, well told and pretty creepy, but also potentially deeply personal, so I’ll give it a thumbs up. I can’t say it grabbed me by the emotions and dragged me into the valley of wisdom, but that’s not something to expect from every story, and I don’t know that it would be Leiber’s bag anyway.