The Martian Chronicles, by Ray Bradbury
When I read Ray Bradbury’s The Martian Chronicles as a teenager I thought it was a novel about Mars. Reading it as an adult it was obvious that it’s really a novel about postwar America.
Bradbury is one of the greats of American science fiction. If you read him though you’ll quickly notice that there’s almost no science in any of his stories. That’s because what Bradbury wrote about was people. He wrote about them using science fiction, horror, fantasy, and sometimes using no genre trappings at all but his interest was always firmly in us rather than in imaginary places that we might one day discover.
The Martian Chronicles is a melancholy collection of linked short stories which collectively show the history of the human colonisation of Mars. It opens with our first ill-fated expeditions, each slain by the native Martians, and builds in a macabre retelling of the American West as we wipe them out by sheer force of demographics. As we populace Mars with hot dog stands back home on Earth nuclear tensions build.
For Bradbury our tragedy is our lack of imagination. A few of those who come to Mars do so with the desire to understand. They want to know how the natives lived before the humans came. They want to live free of assumptions about how life should be lived. Most though just want the same as they had at home but with more elbow room. First come the explorers. Then the builders. Then soon afterwards the bureaucrats tidying a new world into old routines. As one early explorer reflects:
“When I was a kid my folks took me to visit Mexico City. I’ll always remember the way my father acted—loud and big. And my mother didn’t like the people because they were dark and didn’t wash enough. And my sister wouldn’t talk to most of them. I was the only one really liked it. And I can see my mother and father coming to Mars and acting the same way here.
Soon after one of his fellow crew-members is doing “target practice in one of the dead cities, shooting out the crystal windows and blowing the tops off the fragile towers.”
The enemies here are fear and conformity. Bradbury’s sympathy is always with those seeking to escape. One of the later tales is set in the American South. The African-Americans are leaving. They’ve pooled their money to buy rocket ships. They’re giving each other lifts to the launchpads in their few cars.
As they make their great progression down the streets of dusty towns the bewildered whites they’re leaving behind look on puzzled and offended. The whites try to stop them, calling on debts and obligations, but where one African-American owes a white man money the rest chip in to pay it. They have cleaned the pans, bathed the children, swept the houses and now they’re going.
As they leave one white man tries to keep at least one from reaching the rockets. He fails, and as the boy he sought to stop departs that boy calls back asking what the man will do with his evenings now. The man is one of the KKK, his evenings will feature no more lynchings to break the tedium of his small existence.
He looked at the silent, empty road. “We’ll never catch them now, never, never.” As far as he could see there was nothing but bundles and stacks and more bundles neatly placed like little abandoned shrines in the late day, in the warm-blowing wind.
Bradbury has a marvellous turn of phrase. His tone here is elegaic. The stories are shot through with compassion but at the same time there’s a dark undercurrent. The early tales show that the Martians are really no better than we are. Not that different at all in fact. They fear us when we arrive, hate us for not being them.
Once they’re safely dead we make myths of them:
The captain shook his head. “There’s no hatred here.” He listened to the wind. “From the look of their cities they were a graceful, beautiful, and philosophical people. They accepted what came to them. They acceded to racial death, that much we know, and without a last-moment war of frustration to tumble down their cities. Every town we’ve seen so far has been flawlessly intact. They probably don’t mind us being here any more than they’d mind children playing on the lawn, knowing and understanding children for what they are. And, anyway, perhaps all this will change us for the better.
What I love about Bradbury is his poetry. Poetry of language and of concept. In one tale a man driving down a deserted desert road late at night meets a Martian driving a strange vehicle the other way. The Martians though are long dead, and this one seems to have no knowledge of what a human is.
They find they can talk, but where the man sees ruins in the distance the Martian sees vibrant cities. Time has come unstuck and for a moment these two travellers have overlapped. The man tells the Martian that it is from the past, that it’s people and cities are gone, but it doesn’t believe him. It knows that when it gets to its destination there will be life and laughter and passion and wine.
Perhaps the man is from the past the Martian argues. What sense does it make to say the Martians are dead when it has family waiting for it just down the road?
No sense at all. They each pass on their way. Both are right. The Martians are gone, but in their own time what mattered was not that one day they wouldn’t be but that while they were they lived. It’s the living that matters. Not the long absence that follows.
In the stone galleries the people were gathered in clusters and groups filtering up into shadows among the blue hills. A soft evening light shone over them from the stars and the luminous double moons of Mars. Beyond the marble amphitheater, in darkness and distances, lay little towns and villas; pools of silver water stood motionless and canals glittered from horizon to horizon. It was an evening in summer upon the placid and temperate planet Mars. Up and down green wine canals, boats as delicate as bronze flowers drifted. In the long and endless dwellings that curved like tranquil snakes across the hills, lovers lay idly whispering in cool night beds. The last children ran in torchlit alleys, gold spiders in their hands throwing out films of web. Here or there a late supper was prepared in tables where lava bubbled silvery and hushed. In the amphitheaters of a hundred towns on the night side of Mars the brown Martian people with gold coin eyes were leisurely met to fix their attention upon stages where musicians made a serene music flow up like blossom scent on the still air.
Later stories are less optimistic (if a story featuring a dead civilisation can be called optimistic). They include for example the originally separately published tale There Will Come Soft Rains which tells of the last day of an automated house continuing to operate long after its human owners have been left as nothing but a nuclear-burnt outline against one of its walls.
It’s a long time since I’ve read Ray Bradbury. As a teenager he was among my favourite authors (a fact I’d long forgotten). The story of his I’d best remembered doesn’t appear here. It was titled The Wonderful Ice Cream Suit and wasn’t science fiction at all. It featured six poor Mexican-Americans who see a beautiful suit that none of them can afford and who put all their savings together to buy it as a group.
Each day one of them wears the suit, and that night tells the others what he did in it. As the sixth day approaches though the first five worry, because the man who has it next is a notorious slob.
I won’t say where that story goes, but it’s full of affection and quotidian miracle. Bradbury could find wonder in dead Martian cities, but he could find it too in the joy a poor man finds wearing a good suit. Bradbury cared for those who found joy in life rather than those who sought to control it. I have a huge fondness for him and for his work. The Martian Chronicles is science fiction, but it’s not about the future. It’s about his present and about human frailty and failure. That’s why it’s still in print after 61 years.