Ever since middle school, I've loved Ray Bradbury's book "The Martian Chronicles." It's a landmark collection of sci-fi short stories about man's colonization of the Red Planet. When I was in the 7th grade, my English teacher played our class a recording of Leonard Nimoy reading what became my favorite of the stories, "There Will Come Soft Rains," and I was hooked.
That's my copy above, a somewhat bedraggled hardback I bought in a used book store in Key West in 1990 or so. It's not a dated edition, but I'm guessing it's from the '60s or early '70s, with that tawdry cover.
As originally published in 1950, the book's action took place in the years between 1999 and 2026. In early 2000, I went to Barnes & Noble for a new copy to replace the one above. But I was annoyed to find that the newer edition, from 1997, shifted all the dates in the book ahead by 31 years. Thus, man's arrival on Mars was said to occur in 2030. That edition also eliminated one of the stories. (Wikipedia, which obviously wasn't available at the time, now details those revisions more fully.)
I felt so betrayed by the changes that I decided against replacing my original. At the time, I was writing for a newspaper in Sarasota, Fla., and I penned a column about the episode:
(Don't worry -- you don't have to read it. I'm kind of appalled at how long it is, actually.)
Basically, I argued that changing the dates violated the spirit of the book. There was poignancy in the fact that not only hadn't we made it to Mars by 1999, we'd even ceased manned flights to the moon. The book's messages of warning to humanity -- about the still-very-real danger that we could all but exterminate ourselves -- were still germane, even on the old timetable.
My column ran not only in our local paper but was sent out to other papers owned by the New York Times Company. A few days later, to my surprise, I got a message from an editor at a sister paper, who happened to know Bradbury. The editor told me that he'd sent Bradbury my column, and Bradbury, who was 79 at the time, wanted to talk to me. Gulp!
Several days later, Bradbury called me at my desk. He was very congenial but quite frank in his explanation of why the stories had been updated in the book's newer edition. He wanted people to continue looking toward the future, he said, rather than become discouraged that we hadn't progressed as quickly as he'd first envisioned.
He also said he'd eliminated the missing story because he felt it didn't really fit with the book. It was a story in which race played a significant element, and I suspected he removed it because its racial language and depictions were dated. He said there was "nothing politically correct" about the change. I remain skeptical even now, but who am I to say?
In any case, this episode was one of the most exciting of my journalism career. It's odd that although I called the publisher when I wrote the first piece to get an explanation for the revisions, I never thought to call Bradbury, a writer I idolized. He seemed as remote and untouchable as if he were on Mars himself, rather than simply living in L.A.
I was happy to talk to him, even belatedly -- one of my literary heroes! I still wish he and his editors had left the book alone, though.