Another classic read and appreciated: The Martian Chronicles

I think I’ve been semi-subconsciously avoiding The Martian Chronicles for years and years, imagining somehow that I wouldn’t care for it. I’ve always been aware of its fame and reputation as one of “the” classic works in the field. But I’ve also long been aware of Bradbury’s reputation for throwing science and realism out the window and turning Mars into an almost fantasy setting. Then, too, there’s the fact that I’m usually not much of a fan of short stories. So I was prepared, and half expecting, to find this book not very appealing. But as I was reading this “book of stories pretending to be a novel” (Bradbury’s description), I was pleasantly surprised to find that I did, in fact, enjoy it very much.

I do admit, it took a little while to get in the right frame of mind to accept what Bradbury was offering here. But it quickly became apparent that this was not a rigorous depiction of a possible future, but rather a poetic and metaphorical setting for probing into human nature. And I can accept that, especially since that poetry and metaphor are used so charmingly. So, Bradbury doesn’t explain how humans can amazingly breathe Martian air, but he does tell us about humanity’s behavior in a new landscape. He doesn’t explain why any average Joe can fly a rocket with no training, but he does explore the reasons why people would want to get on a rocket and leave for a new world. He doesn’t give us any technical details behind the native Martians’ marvelous technology, but he does tell us about their spirit and the things they valued as a people.

It’s impossible not to notice the deep contrast Bradbury draws between humans and Martians. This is, of course, to show us ourselves both as we are and as we might wish to be. The Martians are generally a quiet, peaceful, thoughtful, philosophical people with refined yet simple tastes, living in harmony with their world. Humanity is presented as pretty much the complete opposite, and Bradbury seems pretty cynical about our species’ many shortcomings. The explorers and colonists who come to Mars are arrogant, obnoxious, self-centered, and disrespectful of the native culture. They come to the planet as despoilers, using native buildings for target practice and dropping their trash in the canals. Even more, when the humans bring along chicken pox that wipes out most of the remaining Martians, someone comments on how the “native problem” has been solved. Many times in these stories, one is reminded of the real history of colonial powers and the way they treated native peoples. The few human characters who object to this treatment of the planet and its natives are ignored, or killed, or otherwise disposed of (such as the rocket captain who it transferred to the outer solar system for 20 years so he can’t make trouble). This, too, rings true; those who point out our species’ flaws are often shunned or silenced by the majority who don’t want to hear the truth. And that reminds me, Bradbury has even more pointed remarks about majorities:

Who are we, anyway? The majority? Is that the answer? The majority is always holy, is it not? Always, always; just never wrong for one little insignificant tiny moment, is it? Never ever wrong in ten million years?

Another of the big themes is humanity’s self-destructive tendencies. In one of the earlier stories, someone comments on how “Earth men have a talent for ruining big, beautiful things.” By the end of the book, man have done exactly that on a vast scale, ruining the Earth itself in nuclear holocaust. One story, “There Will Come Soft Rains” (from the Sara Teasdale poem of the same name), is a very moving look at the aftereffects of annihilation. It’s about an automated house that continues going about its robotic functions (cleaning, cooking) even after everyone is dead; all the while, the only trace left of the family that lived there is their flash-shadows on an outside wall, recording the moment the bomb went off and they died. It’s one of the most touching stories in the whole collection.

Another nice story is “Night Meeting,” in which a human and a Martian meet one night in the desert. The human points out his town, but the Martian can’t see it; likewise, the Martian points out the city he was approaching, but the human can’t see it. They are totally unable to perceive each others’ realities. This is a great (although not very subtle) statement on how difficult it can be to see things from another person’s viewpoint.

There is a very interesting exchange in “The Fire Balloons.” Two of the first priests on Mars have an argument over where their efforts should be spent: on eradicating sin in humans or in the Martians. During the debate we have this question and reply:

“Can’t you recognize the human in the inhuman?”
“I’d rather recognize the inhuman in the human.”

This seems like a good description of what The Martian Chronicles is all about. I think Bradbury’s purpose was to explore both the human and the inhuman in the human — our good points and bad, our glories and our tragedies, our virtues and our evils. Although it does seem the evils receive a somewhat lengthier treatment.

From a stylistic perspective, there’s a lot of good stuff here: some beautiful descriptive passages, some wonderful metaphors, and a lovely use of language throughout. Bradbury is a highly skilled writer, and it shows on nearly every page.

My single criticism of the book is that Bradbury occasionally puts forth that tired old nonsense about science and religion needing each other, and about how we have lost our way by embracing the former too much and the latter not enough. He singles out Darwin and Freud specifically for disapproval, for some reason. Whatever, Ray. Everyone’s entitled to their own strange beliefs.

Overall, a very good read. I think I would have enjoyed this even more when I was a teenager, and wish I’d read it back then. Better late than never, though.

2 responses to “Another classic read and appreciated: The Martian Chronicles

  1. The primary story I remember from my reading of the Martian Chronicles is the one where the Martian psychologist encounters the humans who have landed and decides that they are all suffering from a psychic delusion with real-world manifestations, and eventually kills them. After killing them and seeing that their ship is still present, he kills himself believing that he has caught their peculiar brand of madness. I liked it because it demonstrated the flaws of the martians as well as those of the humans, and compared the two. How many humans would kill themselves for fear of spreading any disease or epidemic, let alone a non-fatal one?

  2. Yeah, that was a good one too.

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