Tuesday, July 21, 2009

The Martian Monocles

by Rhys Hughes

It's true we know more about the surface of Mars than the bottom of the ocean, but not for want of trying. The problem with diving so deep is that the pressure is enormous and only the strongest bathyspheres can survive a journey right down to the abyssal plain. Many vessels and explorers have been crushed over the years attempting to plumb the ultimate limits of the deepest marine trenches.

Every time a bathysphere implodes somewhere far under the seas of Earth, the most advanced beings on Mars shed big oily tears in sympathy, but not because they assign a high value to human life. No. They aren't even aware that those bathyspheres are crewed. Such misunderstandings are normal between the life forms of different worlds and only rarely can an authentic connection be made.

The Martians in question resemble giant eyeballs that have fallen out of colossal heads and a legend says that when they all weep together the ancient dry riverbeds of the red planet fill to the brim with doleful water, but in fact there aren't enough of them to produce sufficient liquid for that. What is true is that the eyelids that slam like shutters to protect them are the same colour as the desert.

These eyeball beings are clairvoyant and that's how they know about the bathyspheres on Earth. They see images in their minds that are almost as clear as the pictures they focus on for real. They dislike being stared at and are instantly aware when anyone or anything tries to study them from afar, and that's why it took so long to detect them. They aren't exactly shy but they do value their privacy.

The moment a telescope is trained on them or a probe passes overhead the eyelids close and they remain very still, so nothing can be seen but the endless desert with its scattering of spherical rocks. When the intruder has gone, the rocks turn back into eyeballs. They move by rolling like globes and they derive nourishment purely from photons. In other words they eat whatever they see, just like fat men.

It was only by accident that humans first made contact with them and the circumstances of that encounter are so unlikely they are worth telling again. A habitual sleepwalker on one of the first exploratory missions got out of his hammock in the middle of the night, suited up inside his rocket, opened the airlock and walked off alone. He was still fast asleep when he blundered into a group of eyeballs.

Because his eyes were closed all the time, and his conscious mind was switched off, the Martians didn't telepathically pick up his vibrations or take evasive action until it was too late. The astronaut woke up as soon as he hit the ground and then it was pointless for the eyeballs to pretend they still didn't exist. So Mars and Earth were introduced to each other. Formal trade links were rapidly established.

Unfortunately, it turned out that the Martians had nothing the humans wanted, and the humans only had one resource the eyeballs valued at all. Books. To be precise, the books of one author, Ray Bradbury. Try as they might, the humans couldn't interest the Martians in any other writer, not even Isaac Asimov, Frank Herbert or Kim Stanley Robinson. So crates of Bradbury titles were rocketed to Mars.

As those rockets took off from the launch pads of Earth, the heat of the departing exhausts turned winter days into summer, melting snowdrifts and baking nostalgic cakes in ovens not yet lit. But that doesn't concern us now. Every Bradbury volume was reprinted and small-press magazines from the 1940s were trawled in an effort to retrieve those numerous short stories that the author had disowned.

The Martians devoured these works, but because the eyeballs were so big and the typeface in the books so small in comparison, severe eyestrain was the inevitable result. Soon every Martian was myopic. They bumped into each other constantly as they trundled over the desiccated continents and irritation turned to anger, then anger became a desire for revenge. An interplanetary incident was inevitable.

Disaster was averted by the resourceful owner of a spectacle shop who recalled an old fable about a Spanish lens grinder who made an enormous monocle for a cyclops. This was lucky, as nobody else seemed to know that story. He saw no reason why the spectacle factories of Earth couldn't make monocles for the Martian market. His idea was taken up by various governments and rapidly implemented.

Soon the eyeballs could see clearly again and the wearing of monocles even imparted to them an aristocratic air they hadn't possessed before and the reissuing of the entire Ray Bradbury back-catalogue was resumed and everything should have been fine, but a new problem arose in the wake of the solution. That's often the way. While wearing their massive monocles, the Martians were no longer able to roll.

An eyeball is a spheroid and spheroids move like balls, but a monocle is a disc and its flat surface impedes that kind of motion. Anger became a desire for revenge again. A second interplanetary incident loomed and it seemed that two worlds would be forced to engage in mutual destruction with futuristic rays because of a retrogeneric Ray, which sounds neat but isn't. All because of short sightedness!

Fortunately, the owner of the spectacle shop was also a transportation expert. Neat coincidence, that. He quickly grasped that the dry riverbeds of Mars could be utilised as roads, as twisting freeways that would enable joined eyeballs facing away from each other to employ their monocles as wheels, eating up the Martian kilometres on the transparent rims of those vision rectifiers. An ingenious solution.

Although the Martians were loose eyeballs and hadn't lived in sockets for aeons they still possessed residual optic nerves that dangled like short tails from behind, just as the coccyx of humans is a residual tail. A pair of friendly Martians could splice these nerves into a flexible but strong axle, and that's what they did, rapidly acquiring a taste for high speed cruising and irresponsible driving while blinking.

The owner of the spectacle shop had become an unofficial ambassador to the red planet and he warned the drivers to take more care, to cut their speed, to keep their eyes on the road, but the third part of that advice was a joke, because no matter how inept they were they couldn't do otherwise, and soon enough there was carnage everywhere and a third interplanetary incident was on the verge of erupting…

At this point the owner of the spectacle shop gave up. He couldn't be bothered to avert another apocalyptic war. It was somebody else's turn. He concentrated on relocating his entire stock into a subterranean bunker and living in close confinement with many wives. History doesn't record his name, partly because history no longer exists, but rumour maintains it was Yrubdarb Yar. Sounds foreign to me.

It just remains to explain the significance of the Martian empathy for bathyspheres. They think that bathyspheres are the true dominant form of life on Earth because of their shape, so when they implode under the sea and a perfectly round bubble of gas escapes and breaks the surface, the Martians believe they are observing a soul leaving its physical body and ascending to the realm of eyeball ghosts.

Bio:Rhys Hughes is the author of 495 short stories and many
books, including

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