Ray Bradbury: THE MARTIAN CHRONICLES

THE MARTIAN CHRONICLES is Bradbury’s best and best-known science fiction book, given that we allow it to be called science fiction at all (this has always been debatable). The only contender for this position, a book which certainly leads it on high school student summer reading lists, and thus Amazon.com bestseller lists, is FAHRENHEIT 451. More on that book in another post.

(As an aside, my strategy for determining whether a given title is science fiction or fantasy, for lists I’m compiling for sfadb.com, is to compare the number of citations for any given title from sources that claim to list *only* science fiction, vs. the number from sources that claim to list only fantasy. For the vast majority of books, the tallies go heavily one way or another, and by this analysis, the two Bradbury titles just mentioned are definitely SF. This strategy is, in effect, a formalization of Damon Knight’s dictum “Science fiction is what we point to when we say it.” Coincidentally, I read Knight’s nonfiction collection IN SEARCH OF WONDER recently, and blogged about it here.)

THE MARTIAN CHRONICLES is a “composite novel” or fix-up, a book composed of 14 or so stories written in the late 1940s – written separately, without any necessary notion of combining them into a book – and then assembled with the addition of various bridging passages or “interchapters” to comprise a history of humanity’s settlement of Mars, the destruction of the native Martian race, the break-out of nuclear war back on Earth, a mass exodus of human settlers on Mars returning to Earth, and the status of the last few humans on Mars recognizing *themselves* as the Martians.

As mentioned in an earlier post, Bradbury wrote other stories in the 1940s set on Mars than went into this book. As with the later DANDELION WINE, the process of assembling the book seems to have entailed selecting those stories that were more or less consistent, and which supported the larger frame story about the history of human exploitation of Mars. In addition, many of the non-chronicled Mars stories had premises which were simply inconsistent with those that were included – to take an example, the story “Dark They Were, and Golden-Eyed” (from 1949, later collected in A MEDICINE FOR MELANCHOLY) had a human family stranded on Mars when atomic war breaks out on Earth. They come to care less and less about Earth, and more and more about their surroundings; gradually their skins turn dark, their eyes turn golden, and they *become* what a later Earth expedition perceives…. are native Martians. But this idea of transformation isn’t present in any of the stories that were captured in the CHRONICLES. One could identify a similar issue with virtually any of Bradbury’s Mars story not included in the book.

The stories in THE MARTIAN CHRONICLES can be grouped into three phases. The early chapters describe four expeditions of Earthmen to Mars: the first three fail; the fourth one survives, and discovers that the Martian race has been largely exterminated by contamination by the earlier expeditions. The middle section describes the migration of humans from Earth to Mars, the creation of settlements, and several ambiguous interactions with the few surviving Martians. The final section describes the breakout of atomic war on Earth, the migration of most settlers on Mars back to Earth, and what happens to the very few left behind.

I think this must have been the first Bradbury book I read, at age 15 or so, and I was charmed by the elegant descriptions of the casually exotic. Here from the first story, “Ylla,” the story of the failed first expedition, told from a Martian couple’s point-of-view:

They had a house of crystal pillar on the planet Mars by the edge of an empty sea, and every morning you could see Mrs. K eating the golden fruits that grew from the crystal walls, or cleaning the house with handfuls of magnetic dust which, taking all dirt with it, blew away on the hot wind.

And when I first read the book, I was profoundly tickled by conceits like this, a reaction by Mr. K to his wife Mrs. K’s report of her dream about a man from the third planet, named Nathaniel York: “A stupid name; it’s no name at all.”

The second expedition is told in “The Earth Men,” in which the characters are named Mrs. Ttt and Mr. Aaa and so on; it tells of four Earthmen who land in a rocket on Mars and encounter various Martians who are unimpressed by their presence and too busy to talk to them, finally redirecting them to what the Earthmen realize is an insane asylum. It seems there are many Martians with delusions they are from other planets, including Earth. Skeptical readers immediately detect unanswered questions and inconsistencies from story to story. The insane asylum idea is cute, but why are there so many insane Martians? A bit more editing or rewriting (RB apparently spent a good deal of time revising stories for inclusion into books like this one) might have included the suggestion of the Martians having been psychically infected by the incidental contact of the first expedition in “Ylla.”

“The Third Expedition” is a famous story all by itself, also known as “Mars Is Heaven!” and included in the first SCIENCE FICTION HALL OF FAME anthology (though the original story didn’t include discussion of the previous two expeditions; those passages were added in to the version in the book). This story describes the familiar situation of humans landing on an alien world and finding it exactly like Earth – such as we later saw in Twilight Zone, and Star Trek. Here we come to understand that this illusion — created by the Martians, complete with local copies of the crewmen’s relatives, parents and brothers, who invite them to dinner and to stay overnight — is a trick, to overcome and defeat the invaders. (Like most SF of the 1940s and ‘50s, this and other stories here assume the existence of telepathy and various similar mental powers.)

The town in this story, I note, is the depiction of Bradbury’s Green Town (the setting for the DANDELION WINE stories), set on Mars.

The key story of the entire book, I think, is the one about the fourth expedition, “And the Moon Be Still as Bright.” The Earthmen of this expedition are depicted as crude tourists (or ‘ugly Americans’) who have no appreciation for what has been destroyed, and further despoil the environment. They discover that the nearby Martian cities are dead, some for thousands of years, but others much more recently, dead only in the past week, leaving thousands of cinder-like corpses. And the Martians died of chicken-pox (cf. H.G. Wells)! One of the crewmen, Jeff Spender, is much affected by this tragedy, and disapproves of the other men’s casual disregard, their disposal of trash in the canals. He perceives that this lack of respect will ruin Mars. He quotes Byron (thus the title), as a partying crewman vomits on the tiles of an elegant Martian library. He takes off into the hills for a couple days and then returns on a murdering spree, apparently with the idea to destroy this fourth expedition and prevent further trips from Earth. He has a confrontation with Captain Wilder, and makes his case with he’s learned from the Martian towns. The Martians were as good as anything human; “They stopped where we should have stopped a hundred years ago.” He talks about art, and religion.

They knew how to live with nature and get along with nature. They didn’t try too hard to be all men and no animals. That’s the mistake we made when Darwin showed up. We embraced him and Huxley and Freud, all smiles. And then we discovered that Darwin and our religions didn’t mix. Or at least we didn’t think they did. … So, like idiots, we tried knocking down religion. … If art was no more than a frustrated outflinging of desire, if religion was no more than self-delusion, what good was life? Faith had always given us answers to all things. But it all went down the drain with Freud and Darwin. We were and still are a lost people.

The Martian cities had statues, symbols; they didn’t ask why they lived, they just lived their life. “They blended religion and art and science because, at base, science is no more than an investigation of a miracle we can never explain, and art is an interpretation of that miracle. They never let science crush the aesthetic and the beautiful.”

In other stories (not in this book), like “The Man,” RB seems remarkably naïve and credulous about religion, but these passages display a relatively sophisticated take on the strain between the verities of religion and the revelations of science, and in this story at least, RB identifies this tension with the conflict between Earthmen and Martians.

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I read this book in January 2018, and in March I read David Seed’s Ray Bradbury, a volume in the “Modern Masters of Science Fiction” series from the University of Illinois Press, the series edited by Gary K. Wolfe. Given the series’ purview, Seed discusses only Bradbury’s science fiction in detail, mentioning the fantasy stories and detective novels only in passing. Curiously to me however is that Seed discusses the numerous Mars stories, those in CHRONICLES and the dozen or two others (those others written in the ‘40s, and yet others written, or at least not published, until later), and never acknowledges or points out that most are *inconsistent* with each other, or at least inconsistent with those in the book. I think this is because Seed isn’t concerned with what the stories portray at face value, but more about how they relate to the symbols Seed perceives Bradbury is preoccupied with. He may be right; but I prefer to take the stories at face value, and see what they suggest about what Bradbury thought plausible (so to speak) about what would happen if Earthmen, of whatever types, encountered Martians, of whatever types.

One insight I appreciate from David Seed’s book is that Bradbury was consciously influenced by literary writers of his time – as we’ve seen in many of his short stories that exemplify them: Thomas Wolfe, Ernest Hemingway, John Steinbeck. In particular, Bradbury was impressed by the structure of Steinbeck’s THE GRAPES OF WRATH, with its ‘interpassages’ or asides from the personal story about the Joads. (I read GRAPES OF WRATH decades ago but have not looked at it since.) These were the inspirations for the short chapters written for CHRONICLES, to bridge from one story to the next and imply the individual stories were examples taken from greater narrative, a whole history of the settlement of Mars of which we were only seeing selected passages.

And as I reread MC just now, I was actually quite impressed by these interpassages (many of which I didn’t remember). A striking one is “The Musicians,” about human boys who hike out to the dead Martian town and play at being musicians – by playing the bones of the dead Martians, like xylophones – before the Martian towns will be burned clean by the Firemen (a F451 angle!). Bradbury manages to link those earlier expeditions to the stories about the settlements; he even somehow justifies the presence of the story “Usher II” (a FAHRENHEIT 451 story!) to the overall narrative by suggesting that Earthly cultural prims have arrives on Mars. David Seed feels this story in particular doesn’t belong.

In fact, “Usher II” was left out of the UK edition of this book, which was called THE SILVER LOCUSTS; while later editions of MC in the US added or dropped a story or two, discussed below.

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A key point about this book, for any contemporary reader, and many a critic of the 1950s, is this: Bradbury’s Mars isn’t the least bit realistic. Not realistic even for its time. Earlier pulp writers, like Edgar Rice Burroughs, portrayed a Mars that his hero from Earth could be transported to, without any kind of issue, about, say, the atmosphere. Bradbury’s Mars is based on those early pulp stories, as well as early astronomical reports, by Percival Lowell, that claimed the existence of canals.

So is the book SF? In some way, yes, because everybody treats it as such. (Which may simply mean that most people don’t know, or don’t care, that his depiction of Mars is wildly inaccurate, and was so even when he first wrote the stories.) And it’s science fiction, I think, because Bradbury treats Mars as a real place that humans might venture to and occupy; it’s not a fantasy place with no connection to our contemporary world. Bradbury’s Mars may be idealized, even fantasized, but it’s still a location in a science-fictional, not fantastic, universe.

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Back to those stories added to or dropped from later editions. One story in the first edition, “Way in the Middle of the Air,” was taken out at some point, likely in the 1970s; it’s still in my 1968 era Bantam paperback, in the photo here. When you read it you’ll understand why. (It’s preserved in Bradbury Stories: 100 of His Most Celebrated Tales, published in 2003.) It depicts a southern town in which all the “niggers” are being drawn to the promise of settlement and a new life on Mars, and somehow having the wherewithal to build their own rockets and abandon their masters and bosses. It’s told from the point of view of a white man offended by the very idea that their kind should have such initiative, and especially that with all them leaving, he’ll have no one to lynch tonight (!). At the end of the story, all the blacks having left for Mars despite his protestations, this white man tries to salvage his pride by nothing, to his friends, that at least the departing niggers called him “Mister.”

Obviously, MC would not have survived the decades with this story in it, that would have drawn condemnation for those words, as other books like TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD have done…

At the same time, two stories were added to later editions that were not in the first – because, for one thing, they were written later than the book’s publication of 1950. A relatively incidental one was “The Wilderness,” first published in F&SF in 1952, which depicts two young women packing to go to Mars, from Independence MO, to meet their husbands who’ve already settled there. As in the previous story just mentioned, there are explicit parallels between the trips to Mars and the Conestoga wagons that took so many people from the east into the western US, in the 19th century.

And one other later-written story, “The Fire Balloons,” first published in Imagination in April 1951, is one of the most significant religious stories Bradbury ever wrote. Two Episcopal fathers depart for Mars, one who’s written a book about the problem of sin on other worlds. He wonders, mightn’t there be new sins on Mars, sins humans wouldn’t recognize? When they arrive on Mars, the locals tell them about the two races of Martians: one pretty much dead (as we’ve gathered in earlier stories), the other not at all human: round luminous globes of light, spheres of blue fire. The two fathers walk into the hills, and quickly find them—these globular creatures remind them of the July 4th fire balloons, lifted aloft by candles. When a landslide suddenly happens, the fire balloons lift the two men away from danger. So are they real, do they have souls, and free will? Peregrine is anxious to prove this so, to the point where he steps off a cliff to see if the fire balloons will save him – and they do. The two fathers then prepare a ‘church’ to attract them and teach them human religion. The fire balloons come, and they speak: they are the Old Ones, the old Martians, who forsook material life, free of bodies and ills, to live forever. “We have put away the sings of the body and live in God’s grace.” They have no need of the humans’ church. They depart. And the fathers think there must be a Truth on every planet, all parts of a Big Truth, all adding up to a whole Truth.

This is an extraordinary story, given Bradbury’s attitude in stories like “The Man,” in which he assumes that the verities of Christian religion must apply to every planet everywhere – and that a spaceship landing on an alien planet would expect to find a small town there, with bands playing, just like small town Illinois. That story is embarrassing on both counts.

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Two of the finest stories here are “Night Meeting” and “The Martian.” They are both about ambiguous encounters with the few surviving Martians, once humans have firmly settled onto the planet. In “Night Meeting” Tomas Gomez drives into the hills – after stopping at a gas station (! How did this gasoline get to Mars?) – to a dead Martian town, and sees a green insect-like machine approach, carrying a Martian with golden eyes, named Muhe Ca, who touches Tomas’ head so they can understand each other’s speech. But they cannot touch – they pass through one another. They both think they are real, and the other is a phantom; the Martian thinks his cities are alive, a festival is about to happen, the streets are clean, the canals are full of wine! Tomas sees everything dead, except for the new towns the humans have built. Are they future and past, overlapping? They agree to disagree, and move on. It’s a spooky story that focuses the ambiguity that David Seed identified; are the Martians real at all? Is this just a symbolic passing of the torch? Or, as I prefer to think, does this story represent a kind of simultaneous existence that are both true, without understanding the other?

In “The Martian” settler LaFarge and his wife live in a house along a canal, and miss their son Tom, long dead. A scratching at their door reveals a small boy… who looks like Tom, who assumes the character of Tom so completely and innocently the couple stops asking questions. When they go to town, though, the boy, the Martian, is affected by the presence of other people, all wanting their own lost ones, and dies in a confusion of changing identity. It’s heartbreaking not just for the human couple, whose illusion is taken away from them, but for how this is evidence that the Martian race has been literally subsumed by the desires of an invading race – and is thus destroyed.

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“Usher II” is a Fahrenheit 451 story – that is, a story about the rebellion against those government officials who would suppress imagination and fantasy and horror. In this story William Stendahl has constructed a new House of Usher, after Edgar Allan Poe’s original, on Mars, full of hidden machines to portray characters from stories by Poe and others. An official arrives, an Investigator of Moral Climates, who tells him he must tear the house down. This happened on Earth, how imaginative books were burned, and Hollywood was told only to make realistic works, by the likes of Hemingway.

Stendahl has the investigator killed by a mechanical ape, and then holds a grand party for all the local cognoscenti, and has them killed, one by one, by the various mechanical contrivances in the house, to be replaced by robot duplicates of themselves. The story ends with a replay of Poe’s “Cask of Amontillado” scene, of the victim being walled up in a cellar, crying, ”For the love of God, Montresor!” After which, his point having been made, Stendahl and his architect flee, as the house collapses behind them.

This is a problematic story on a couple grounds. First, the threat of moral rectitude hasn’t actually happened, wasn’t even that real in the 1950s. That is, society hasn’t banned Poe and all the others; except perhaps among the extreme religious right, who disapprove even of Harry Potter. If anything, popular entertainment continues to revel in fantasy, horror, and gross depictions of violence (with the related issue of gun violence in the US, though similar depictions of horror and violence in countries like Japan have not resulted in anywhere near the same rate of gun violence).

Second, does this reaction against governmental ban, against what are simply *stories*, really sanction murder? What was Bradbury reacting to? The disapproval of comic books, at the time, in the 1950s (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Seduction_of_the_Innocent)? Or as in F451, the alarm that mindless TV was replacing imaginative books?

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Three later stories in the book. In “The Off Season,” Sam Parkhill, the jerk from “And the Moon Be Still as Bright,” has set up a hot dog stand with his wife at some crossroads in the middle of nowhere, expecting traffic from the thousands of new rockets and settlers expected from Earth. Confronted by aethereal Martians, he reacts in the worst way, until the Martians inform him that something has happened back on Earth – and he sees in the sky, the Earth changes color, catches fire, seems to explode.

(I wonder if this remote desert setting is a response to Bradbury having lived in Arizona for a time. The setting here of “two dead highways” in the middle of the desert recalls the desert landscape that I knew, growing up…)

“The Silent Towns” is the one embarrassing story that remains in current editions of TMC. It’s set in a deserted Martian town where everyone has left, except for one Walter Gripp, a miner who would come into town every two weeks looking for a woman to marry, and was in the hills when everyone else left to return to war-torn Earth. Now, he tries phoning other towns, trying to find anyone left alive on the entire planet. And he finds one! A Genevieve Selsor, whom he rushes to meet, and eventually meets, and sees that she’s a fat, pale woman obsessively eating candy, who’s made a wedding dress in anticipation of their meeting, and who is thus hopelessly self-centered and shallow. Walter flees, and never answers the phone again. The story’s an Adam and Eve replay with a bad joke at the end: that the woman is so fat and homely that the man can’t stand her. Even before this era of ‘fat-shaming’ attitudes about political correctness (which just means not offending other people unnecessarily), even for its time, this is just a dumb, crude joke.

“The Long Years” depicts an expedition from Jupiter returning to Mars after many years, and finding a family, a Mr. Hathaway with his wife and kids, two daughters and one son, on an otherwise desolate planet. The captain and crew realize something is wrong – the kids should be older by now. They realize that Hathaway’s family died 19 years ago, and he has somehow recreated them, via Martian technology. Hathaway himself dies; the faux wife and children remain.

This is a better evocation of the last remnants of humans on Mars than the previous story, though it complicates matters by introducing the notion that Hathaway, a tinkerer who wired up the nearby town, also constructed robot versions of his family. It might have been more consistent to have them be remnant Martians, playing their roles as in “The Martian”; but then the story would have been repetitious.

Both of these stories recall episodes of The Twilight Zone, and the recognition that Rod Serling, that show’s producer and lead writer, often repurposed ideas he’d read in published SF stories for the scripts he wrote for his show. “The Silent Towns” evokes the very first TZ episode, “Where Is Everybody?” (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Where_Is_Everybody). And “The Long Years” recalls the TZ episode “The Lonely” (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Lonely_(The_Twilight_Zone)), about a robot companion for an isolated man.

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The final two stories in the book are each classic in their own right.

“There Will Come Soft Rains” depicts an automated house in the aftermath of an atomic war on Earth. Its residents are all dead, but the house keeps functioning automatically: the robot mice come out to clean; the sprinklers come on; bridge tables emerge; baths are fixed. The house even reads a poem, one containing the title.

But a tree branch falls, and sets off a fire, and the house burns. Leaving only the robot voice announcing the date.

The key vision is the outside wall of the house, which shows the outline of five people, silhouettes from when the bomb went off. As in Hiroshima.

In a sense, this is another F451 story, depicting what RB feels is the horror of mechanized existence.

And finally, “The Million-Year Picnic,” ironically one of the earliest Mars stories RB ever wrote, in 1946, back when he had a completely different conception of what his Mars book might be. In the context of the book, it tells of a family that has left Earth’s atomic war and fled to Mars. They expect another family to arrive soon. The father promises his boys that the Martians aren’t dead, and the family takes a trip up the canals, leaving their own rocketship behind. The father recalls the old way of life, left behind: “Life on Earth never settled down to doing anything very good. Science ran too far ahead of us too quickly, and the people got lost in a mechanical wilderness, like children making over pretty things, gadgets, helicopters, rockets; emphasizing the wrong items, emphasizing machines instead of how to run the machines. Wars got bigger and bigger and finally killed Earth. That’s what the silent radio means. That’s what we ran away from.”

This is Bradbury’s take on what was happening in the mid-20th century.

The story ends with one of the most beautiful and moving scenes in all of SF literature:

“I’ve always wanted to see a Martian,” said Michael. “Where are they, Dad? You promised.”

“There they are,” said Dad, and he shifted Michael on his shoulder and pointed straight down.

The Martians were there. Timothy began to shiver.

The Martians were there – in the canal – reflected in the water. Timothy and Michael and Robert and Mom and Dad.

The Martians stared back up at them for a long, long silent time from the rippling water…

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