“The Exiles” by Ray Bradbury

What happens to fictional literary characters after a reader puts a book down? If through being read they had gained a type of existence – albeit temporary – how long does it last and by what means can it be sustained? I’ve actually pondered this question for years. I even once encouraged my second book club to come up with a “dramatis personae” of those character’s we’d thus far encountered – in hopes of “keeping them alive” a little longer. This idea was met with little interest, though. It turns out that Ray Bradbury was one of what I’m sure are many others who have contemplated this topic. In fact, he published a short story about it back in 1949…

The Exiles

I first read this story in August, 1994, singling it out for special recognition with two asterisks beside it in the table of contents of my trusty Norton Anthology of Short Fiction. When I started reading it again here in 2012, I had wholly forgotten the plot and most details, but upon re-reading I can see why I liked it. Indeed, I probably liked it more this second time around. Originally published on 9/15/49 in Maclean’s Magazine under the title, “The Mad Wizards of Mars”(see photo below)

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Bradbury envisions a future in the year 2120 where books dealing with horror and the supernatural have been banned or removed from circulation and destroyed. In this future, an exploring spaceship is headed to Mars and encounters “difficulties.” It is of little surprise to the reader, though, since the story opens on a shore of an empty Martian sea with Shakespeare’s three witches from Hamlet chanting incantations and practicing sympathetic magic in an attempt to destroy the approaching craft and its crew. You see, in this story, the planet Mars is where the fictional characters of supernatural literature – and even their deceased authors – have continued to exist “in exile.”

Recent years have been rough for them, however, as the destruction of their works on Earth has continued to weaken their power as the years have passed. They see the spaceship’s approach as a final siege of their very existence and something that must be stopped no matter the cost. One of these inhabitants (this one an author of supernatural tales) of Mars puts the premise of this tale rather eloquently:

“I wonder who I am. In what Earth mind tonight do I exist? In some African hut? Some hermit, reading my tales? Is he the lonely candle in the wind of time and science? The flickering orb sustaining me here in rebellious exile? Is it him? Or some boy in a discarded attic, finding me, only just in time!”

One can clearly see in this story some of the themes later fleshed out in Fahrenheit 451, which was published about three years after this story. One can also catch some glimpses of the technophobic side of Bradbury (somewhat shocking for a writer of sci-fi and fantasy). Indeed, one cannot find many of his works in electronic format, because he actively resisted their publication via that medium. I looked in vain (so far at least) for a copy of this story on line to link to here, but alas… This should not stop you from seeking it out in your neighborhood bookstores or in a collection of his shorter works. If you’re a fan of literature, you won’t be disappointed.

(“I went to the library three days a week for ten years.” – Ray Bradbury, 1920-2012)

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4 Comments

  1. Dale said,

    July 2, 2012 at 1:17 pm

    This story sounds fantastic! I couldn’t find it in the anthology of Bradbury’s that I have, under either title. But I’ll find it somewhere. As far as libraries go, I think I can say the same as Bradbury.

    Like

    • Jay said,

      July 4, 2012 at 4:56 pm

      Knowing you, I think you’d really like this one…

      Like

  2. Nancy said,

    May 10, 2014 at 4:55 pm

    I have a Kindle collection of Bradbury short stories and just read this under the name of The Exiles. I thought it quite clever. I like how he imitates the style of writing of the characters, like repetition of words for Poe, reminding me of Poe’s poetry. Then used Dickensian language for Dickens. I also was reminded of Jasper Fforde’s Book World where characters from books need their books to be read.

    Like

    • Jay said,

      May 11, 2014 at 9:28 am

      Hi Nancy,
      Thanks for the visit and comment. This is not only one of my favorite Bradbury stories, but one of my favorite short stories overall. Thanks for the heads up on Jasper Fforde’s work. I’ll have to check that out.

      Books “living on” in the minds of readers makes an appearance at the end of Fahrenheit 451 as well, albeit in a different manner.
      -Jay

      Like


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