Matthew Kresal revisits the 1950 science fiction short story collection by Ray Bradbury, The Martian Chronicles.
Since its publication more than sixty years ago, Ray Bradbury's The Martian Chronicles has been a seminal work of literary science fiction. It has spawned a number of adaptations for radio, stage and screen. Reading the book it isn't hard to see why that is, thanks to a combination of imagination and Bradbury's almost poetic prose.
It's worth noting that (like Asimov's I, Robot) this isn't really a novel so much as a short story anthology that is built around a series of stories written in the late 1940s. Beginning with the launch of a space mission that briefly turns winter to summer, Bradbury takes the reader to the red planet through a series of tales that introduces a number of different characters, both humans and Martians, and takes them on a sweeping (though quite episodic) journey through decades of future history. What the years are will differ depending on which edition you happen to be reading (1999-2006 in some, 2030-2057 in others) but they tell the tales and the story that tell is the same one. There's a larger narrative in place that tells the story of Martian colonization but with only a couple of exceptions, characters rarely reappear in more than one story.
If one can accept the almost anthology nature of Bradbury's narrative, there's plenty to enjoy here. All works of “art” are the product of the time in which they are created in and The Martian Chronicles is no different. Bradbury's Mars is very different from the planet that we've come to know thanks to decades of space probes, with a civilization, canals and an atmosphere that seems largely breathable to humans. Many of the social norms and morality of the period are also present in many of the stories with characters smoking shortly upon arrival on Mars and small towns more reminiscent of those of oft re-run 1950s TV shows than anything likely to be founded on Mars one day. The threat of a nuclear apocalypse hangs over much of the book as well, something which may serve to date it for some readers. Yet that's just window dressing really.
Indeed, while elements of the various stories can almost be quaint at times, Bradbury's tales can be as relevant today as they were decades ago. The questions that are raised about colonization, commercialization, and indeed about human nature itself are just as thought provoking now as they were then. Stories such as —And the Moon Be Still as Bright, The Off Season and many of the stories in the early and middle parts of the book deal with the themes of colonization and commercialization especially. Other tales deal with prejudice both on Earth and Mars, others draw parallels between immigrants to Mars and immigrants in the past (The Wilderness), while others draw parallels with some of Bradbury's later and best known works (Usher II for example). All of the tales are interesting and well told no matter how long or short they are.
Above all else, there is an almost poetic beauty to the tales. Now matter how quaint they may seem, Bradbury's prose shines through. From tales of an unlikely encounter in the desert (Night Meeting) to a brief look as colonists watch events playing out on a far away Earth (The Watchers) or the haunting nature of the last two stories in the volume (There Will Come Soft Rains and The Million-Year Picnic), Bradbury brings the different characters and settings of the tales come to life sometimes vividly and sometimes with spare but effect choices of words. It's a master class of good writing in any genre.
Despite its age and some occasional moments of dated quaintness, The Martian Chronicles continues to be just as readable today as it was decades ago. While it presents a vision of a Mars that doesn't exist, the combination of imaginative stories told well in a sweeping narrative remains engrossing and fascinating with its timeless tales of colonization, commercialization, and indeed the power of human nature for both good and ill. The result is a rich, entertaining and thought provoking book that has become a timeless classic and a must read even today.
Matthew Kresal lives in North Alabama where he's a nerd, doesn't
have a southern accent and isn't a Republican. He's a host of both the
Big Finish centric Stories From The Vortex podcast and the 20mb Doctor Who Podcast. You can read more of his writing at his blog and at The Terrible Zodin fanzine, amongst other places.