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Thursday, May 5, 2016

The Best Stories in the World: Ylla



This is really just an excuse to include The Martian Chronicles, but that's more than one story. So..."Ylla." I've read this story a lot, maybe once every couple of years. I just keep coming back to it, to the despair and hope it captures. It's a reminder that someone's dream may be someone else's nightmare. Not kidding about the nightmare part--you ever see The Honeymoon?

See, there's this martian couple, and the wife keeps having this dream about a space ship landing, and the man who emerges. It begins like this:

They had a house of crystal pillars on the planet Mars by the edge of an empty sea, and every morning you could see Mrs. K eating the golden fruits that grew from the crystal walls, or cleaning the house with handfulls of magnetic dust, which, taking all dirt with it, blew away on the hot wind. Afternoons, when the fossil sea was warm and motionless, and the wine trees stood stiff in the yard, and the little distant Martian bone town was all enclosed, and no one drifted out their doors, you could see Mr. K himself in his room, reading from a metal book with raised hieroglyphs over which he brushed his hand, as one might play ah harp. And front the book, as his fingers stroked, a voice sang, a soft ancient voice, which told tales of when the sea was red steam on the shore and ancient men had carried clouds of metal insects and electric spiders into battle.

From that you can probably tell whether or not you'll like Bradbury's stuff. He certainly doesn't hold anything back, in terms of his style. That one paragraph establishes tone, history, and setting while hinting at character.

Soon enough, we learn that Mrs. and Mr. K are not happy these days. Their problem seems to stem from Mrs. K--Ylla--who is restless, waiting for something that's just not happening. She's tired of their life, I guess, and Yll neglects her. So she dreams of a man, obviously from Earth (at six feet he's a giant to the Martians, and his blue eyes are an absurdity to them, who have eyes of gold). The couple discuss her dream, dismissing it and at the same time Ylla wonders if it could be true that someone from Earth will come. She begins singing strange songs, talking in her sleep, dreaming the man in the rocket. And Yll becomes desperate, trying to pay attention to her like he should have before. He's jealous.

On the day her dream has predicted that the man from earth will arrive, Ylla says she's going to visit a friend beyond the green valley--the location the rocket is supposed to land. Yll makes an excuse to keep her home, then goes out "hunting." Ylla, at home, becomes agitated, waiting for something to happen. She feels it: "There was a warmth as of great fire passing in the air. A whirling, rushing sound. A gleam in the sky, of metal."

She dismisses it as a trick of the imagination. Then...

"A shot sounded."

There's more, of course. But it's better to read it in full then to endure my butchering summary.

Yeah, Bradbury has written better stories, more iconic stories ("Sound of Thunder" anyone?), but it seems trite to include one of them. "Ylla" doesn't get as much attention, though you can read an excerpt at raybradbury.com. It's also been adapted to theater, television, and radio. Martian Chronicles is my favorite of his books. Lots of good stories there, many of which were published independently. "Ylla" was originally titled "I'll Not Ask for Wine" and published in Maclean's in 1950. That's from Wikipedia, so make of it what you will. Like I said, there's not much on the Internet about this one.

So what makes it one of the best in the world?In thirteen pages, Bradbury combines just enough world building with character work and a satisfying conclusion. Maybe "satisfying" is the wrong word. It's more like a punch in the gut.

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