“The Day After the Day the Martians Came” by Frederik Pohl – Classics of Science Fiction

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After reading a story about hunting down God and another story about vicious attacks on women, Frederik Pohl anti-prejudice story seems downright pleasant. It is a breezy tale about how people recycle all their old ethnic jokes when NASA brings home a Martian.

“The Day After the Day the Martians Came” reminded me of how things were back in the 1950s and 1960s. People often retold jokes they had heard, and many of them depended on ethnic stereotypes. I seldom hear people tell a joke anymore, and I can only remember one that I heard that I retold in the last few years. It went something like this:

A young guy is out hitchhiking, and he gets a ride with an old man driving a new car. The young guy doesn’t know how to strike up a conversation but finally says, “Aren’t you afraid of giving rides to hitchhikers? They might be a serial killer.” And the old man laughs, “Oh no, I’m not afraid. What are the odds of two serial killers being in the same car?”

Now, that joke is based on a stereotype, but until people start feeling sorry for serial killers, I assume it will be politically correct to use them in a joke. That’s the thing about humor, it usually has a target, and it’s often about cruelty or pain, or someone being the butt of the joke.

Essentially, Pohl’s story is a civil rights tale. It was written during the peak years of the Civil Rights movement. However, its punchline conveys a stereotype about black people. “The Day After the Day the Martians Came” is well-intended, but simplistic. It lacks sophistication.

The setting is a hotel where reporters are staying to report on NASA bringing back a Martian. The hotel is managed by a man, Mr. Mandala, who sounds like he’s from India, who bosses around two black men, one who is the bell captain. Pohl doesn’t use the old word bellboy here. It describes a lobby that is overflowing with reporters who all take turns making up jokes about Martians. We are told Martians are quite ugly and look a lot like seals. All the characters are based on stereotypes. The reporters sound like they came out of the 1940 screwball comedy, His Girl Friday.

It seems rather odd that Pohl is satirizing joke tellers for using stereotypes when his story depends on stereotypes. I wonder if Pohl was aware of this on meta level. I don’t think so. Science fiction evolved out of pulp fiction magazines, and the best pulp fiction writers were brilliant at typing out stories fast and furiously. They depended on stereotypes and caricatures. And like movies from the 1930s and 1940s, readers and audiences loved a good character creatively based on a type, such as a newspaper reporter.

For Pohl to have explored this situation in a deeper way, he would have had to create a unique individual reporter observing a unique individual Martian and realistically portraying unique individual humans reacting to the Martian with specific prejudices regarding specific physical details and characteristics. Something James Joyce or Flannery O’Conner or even Raymond Chandler might have written. I think some New Wave writers knew this in theory, but not in practice.

I’m afraid people will think I’m picking on Dangerous Visions. Ellison claims its stories point to a new way of writing in science fiction, but so far, I don’t think the first three stories have demonstrated a new kind of writing. I think science fiction will change in the decades after the 1960s, but I’m not sure it has changed much in 1967.

James Wallace Harris, 5/19/24

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