March 2000 (“The Taxpayer”)—April 2000 (“The Third Expedition”)
Summary: As Earth (so some fear) moves closer toward atomic war at home, a third expedition to Mars is mounted, with a crew of 17 men commanded by Captain John Black. One of the crew dies in transit. The survivors touchdown in what, impossibly, appears to be the Midwestern American town of Green Bluff, Illinois in 1926. Although Black and his men at first believe they have somehow returned to the Earth of their past, the residents of Green Bluff who take them in convince them that they are, indeed, on Mars. The locals are able to persuade them of this because they all appear to be the dearly departed from the astronauts’ pasts: parents and grandparents, siblings, friends, and loved ones who have mysteriously been granted a second chance at life on Mars. As Black lies awake in bed in what seems to be his parents’ house, however, he realizes—too late—that the experience of Green Bluff is a powerful hallucination induced in their minds by Martian hypnosis. The false reality has lured the crew into a trap, and all 16 men are murdered. (The Martians do, at least, give them a burial the next day before returning to their own lives; but, even as they do, the illusion of Green Bluff begins to fade away.)
Analysis: How appropriate that Black and his crew find themselves in Green Bluff, since the town does ultimately prove to be a “bluff”—a falsehood, a trick. (Incidentally, no such town exists in real life. Green Bluff is a complete fiction, both on and off Bradbury’s page!) “The Third Expedition” may strike some modern readers of science fiction as predictable—it very much feels like an episode of “The Twilight Zone” (the 1950s and 60s television science fiction anthology for which Bradbury did write one episode), complete with the requisite “twist” ending—yet readers should recall that, as a recent article about Bradbury by Nathaniel Rich in the online magazine Slate observed, all of the author’s “best stories have a strange familiarity about them. They’re like long-forgotten acquaintances—you know you’ve met them somewhere before… The stories are familiar because they've been adapted, and plundered from, by countless other writers—in books, television shows, and films. To the extent that there is a mythology of our age, Bradbury is one of its creators” (Rich, “Mythologist of Our Age,” Slate, 10 May 2010; http://www.slate.com/id/2252825/). Certainly this story stands among one of Bradbury’s strongest. It is marked by his characteristic, loving attention to quintessential details of Americana: e.g., “There were white houses and red brick ones, and tall elm trees blowing in the wind, and tall maples and horse chestnuts. And church steeples with golden bells silent in them” (p. 33). As one astronaut marvels, “The detail. It fills me with such feelings that I don’t know whether to laugh or cry” (p. 34). Bradbury draws on these details of an idealized American past to create a nostalgic tone. Ironically, however, the third expedition discovers, as the cliché has it, “you can’t go home again.” Granted, this discovery should not be interpreted as the book’s final judgment on the human future; however, Bradbury may be arguing that a second chance and a new beginning for humanity will not simply be granted magically, in the wish-fulfillment manner of Green Bluff. Humanity must, instead, earn it, win it, even prove worthy of it. The species cannot depend on the “divine intervention” to which Hinkston attributes the existence of Green Bluff (p. 34). Captain Black’s theological misgivings about Green Bluff—“Was God, then, really that thoughtful of his children?” (p. 45)—prove well-founded.