“Something is wrong. I don’t mean with you or me or with any person. I mean in general." --Ragle Gumm

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Crash Landing on Martian Time-Slip

Reading Martian Time-Slip is like crashing onto a planet you didn’t know was there. It’s Mars all right but not the Mars of centuries-old fantasies, or the warrior god of an ancient civilization, or the Mars of telescopic and  robotic information. It may not even be a planet. It’s probably not. But it may be real. Indeed it must be real if you really crashed, even though the something you were flying in didn’t know it was there. Never mind.

This Martian landscape only casually includes linear time, predictable cause and effect, existential integrity for individuals— the usual suspects. What it does include big time is transient realities, temporal self-looping, bear hugs between insanity and truth, the sliding of realities from one person to another, the transposition of time into existential horror. All the things that will break Earth-reality into pieces. Earth-reality and Mars-reality are incompatible. 

Predictable is safe. Unpredictable is real.

Jack Bohlen is a repairman for the colonists. On Mars things are constantly breaking down. He flies all over the colony in his helicopter fixing them. Simple really. Except Jack is schizophrenic. Now and then, his mind craps out and he suddenly sees things as an organic/mechanistic sludge of tubular whatevers that become his reality. Time stops. He freaks. Can’t handle it. He tries to sort things out on Earth where it first happens, but that doesn’t work so he emigrates to Mars. Imagine running off to Mars in order to escape relapses into schizophrenia! Of course, the Mars he thought he was running to was created by the reality-mongers on earth. They are uploading people from Earth to Mars to get rid of them. Perhaps his schizophrenia is a natural response to the way things are. 

Take Jack’s father Leo, for example. He space travels to Mars to stake out land in the FDR Mountains which he knows the UN Coop will be buying in order to construct a living complex for thousands of people. The results are predictable. Leo’s greed as a land speculator makes the whole project more expensive than the people who end up living there can afford. Eventually the colonists leave in droves and the colony collapses. Never mind. Leo is rich. Small potatoes? Right. But this vision of things carries the grand imprint of “reality.” Earth- reality, that is.

For Jack schizophrenia is a desperate, uncontrollable escape from Earth-reality represented by his father's blindness to the greater plight of human existence. His role in repairing things is not confined to material objects; he also is being drawn into Mars-reality through his connection to the autistic child Manfred Steiner and eventually puts the colonists on the road to accepting Mars not just as a different place as but as a different existential condition. That connection is driven by his relationship with Arnie Kott.

Arnie is a big shot on Mars. He is head of the Water Works Union but functions more as a vainglorious thug who thinks he can have anything he wants. Earth-style. He is the fulcrum around which the plot-reality turns. He wants to horn in on the big boys on earth by getting hold of the land Jack’s father has already staked out by co-opting an autistic boy and having Jack get him see into the past and future to make Arnie more powerful, maybe more powerful than the UN boys. But it doesn’t work out that way because Arnie did not tell Jack what he wanted to use the autistic child Manfred for and Leo’s already got the land. So Arnie makes Jack his enemy and gathers Manfred to his bosom in order to exploit his autistic condition for his petty pursuits. 

Which take him deep into the FDR Mountains to Dirty Knobby where with Manfred in toe he slips into his recent past so that he can buy up the FDR mountains before Leo arrives on the scene thereby gaining control over everything in his Mars world including all of his petty pursuits, one of which tracks him down in earth-reality and shoots him dead right there on the Manfred-Dirty Knobby spot. In fact, when he was rummaging around in the past, Arnie made sure not to upset the cart that made this guy want to kill him in the first place. Earth-reality takes its revenge, even on Mars. Nevertheless, in the end, Arnie got one door of the Mars-reality open: “I was thinking of something Arnie said before he died,” Jack says. “I was there with him. Arnie said he wasn’t in a real world; he was in the fantasy of a schizophrenic.”  

Earth-reality has Arnie at the center of things on Mars with Jack and Manfred circling around him. In Mars-reality, Manfred is at the center of things with Jack and Arnie circling him. Then when Arnie is taken out, it’s just Manfred and Jack. Soon enough, though, there is only one.

If you crash land on Mars hard, you might crack open enough of the landscape to find Manfred Steiner, not the child Manfred whom his father abandoned and of whom his mother was afraid and whom Jack understood in his schizophrenia or the one who sent Arnie back in time or the one who drew a picture of the future fate of the UN living complex as well as his own or the one who turned upside down the public school that brainwashed the colony children into believing they still lived on earth so that those in control would not have to face the fact that Earth-reality was not simpatico with the Mars-reality and the fissures it makes in the cold density of human existence. 

Not that Manfred but the one at the end of the story, the old man surrounded by Bleekmen, the aboriginal Martians who hold him together, mind, now coherent, and mechanistic body, the one with pumps, hoses, and gears which Jack sees and the one Manfred sees and now has become when they squeeze into the deepest fissures of the Martian landscape—the Manfred come back from his reality refuge in the future into his living room of the past, now, to thank Jack for believing in him and to say goodbye to his mother who in an instant is stripped bare of her motherly veneer and rushes hysterically into the night believing that she gave birth to the monster god of Mars not knowing that Manfred now in his grotesque union of Earth and Mars realities embodies the final compassion that is only Mars' to bequeath.

In the last desperate struggle, Leo and Jack rush after Manfred’s mother knowing that if they do not bring her in from the night and have her take her first step on the real Mars, none of them will survive long enough to realize that Manfred is the madness of Mars become safe but safe only after a long journey into the dark caverns of the planet which only the Bleekmen know about and in which Manfred lives. Manfred in all his distortions is the Bleekmen’s god, their twist in reality which specifically negates the madness that is the Earth-reality crash landed in the desert of its own existence. -- John Lentz

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