The Martian Chronicles is a collection of Ray Bradbury’s stories about the human colonization of Mars which were previously published in the pulp magazines of the late 1940s. The stories are arranged in chronological order with the dates of the events at the beginning of each story. In the first edition of The Martian Chronicles, published in 1950, the events took place in a future 1999-2027, but a reprinted 1997 edition pushes all events forward to 2030-2057. Because it’s a story collection, The Martian Chronicles has an episodic feel which has been made more fluid by connecting the stories with short vignettes, similar to the structure of Bradbury’s collection The Illustrated Man.
In the first story, “Rocket Summer,” we visit a small town in Ohio while the first human exploratory spaceship takes off for Mars. Bradbury explains in the introduction to The Martian Chronicles that this small-town mid-America feel was influenced by Sherwood Anderson’s novel Winesburg, Ohio: A Group of Tales of Ohio Small-Town Life which Bradbury admired and hoped to emulate.
The next two stories, “Ylla” and “The Summer Night,” show us what the Martians are like. They’re humanoid in form with brown skin and round yellow eyes. Like humans, they live in houses and towns, eat and drink, sleep, age, read books, study science, desire love, become jealous and irritable, and commit murder. (I find it amusing that the Martians have the same kinds of depressing marriages we see in Bradbury’s stories set on Earth.) But the Martians are telepathic and the humans’ approach is causing them to quote our poetry, sing our songs, and adopt other aspects of human culture without understanding why.
The first spaceship was unsuccessful, so a second expedition was launched a few months later (it seems reasonable for Bradbury to expect that by 1999 we’d be able to get to Mars a lot faster than we actually can). In “The Earth Men” we learn the fate of this crew and we learn that Martians, just like Americans in 1950, have to live with bad psychiatry and insane asylums. Stephen Hoye, the narrator of Blackstone Audio’s 2009 version of The Martian Chronicles, was particularly brilliant with this story.
Next comes “The Taxpayer” in which an Ohio man is trying to get on the third expedition to Mars (the second one failed). This very short vignette tells us that things are going badly on Earth and that an atomic war is expected in about two years. “The Third Expedition” (originally published in Planet Stories as “Mars is Heaven!”) describes what happens when the third doomed mission lands on Mars. This story doesn’t quite work with the chronology of The Martial Chronicles because it portrays astronauts from 2030 growing up in the small Midwestern towns of early 20th century America. It also ironically highlights the biggest problem with The Martian Chronicles when one of the astronauts asks “Do you think that the civilizations of two planets can progress at the same rate and evolve in the same way?” Clearly the astronaut doesn’t think that’s possible, but in these early stories, Bradbury’s Martian culture is just too much like ours. Even so, “The Third Expedition” is a clever little horror story and one of my favorites in the collection.
“And the Moon Be Still as Bright” is the story of the fourth, finally successful, expedition to Mars. The Martians have mostly died of chickenpox — humans, in our blundering way, have inadvertently killed them off. Most of the men of the expedition don’t care, eager to begin exploration and colonization, but Captain Wilder and an archaeologist named Spender regret that humans have destroyed such a beautiful civilization, like they destroy everything else they touch. There’s a lot of social commentary about 1940s American culture in this story.
The next several stories are about the rapid spread of humanity on Mars. “The Settlers” and “The Shore” describe the type of people who came to Mars from Earth, “The Green Morning” follows a Johnny Appleseed type of character who plants trees to increase oxygen levels, and “The Locusts” and “Interim” describes how men and women made Mars look just like another Earth. In “Night Meeting,” we learn that “even time is crazy up here” when a colonist from Earth meets a Martian who seems to be in a different time-stream. This story also reminds us that civilizations both rise and fall and that perhaps it’s best that we don’t know the future of our own civilization.
I especially liked the next story, “The Fire Balloons,” in which a group of missionaries prepare to bring the Gospel to the Martians. They don’t know what the Martians will look like and must consider how a different culture, and even a different anatomy, might dictate the types of sin a society is prone to. (It seems unlikely that the missionaries don’t know what the Martians look like by now, but we must keep in mind that The Martian Chronicles is a story collection, not a novel with a continuous story.) When the missionaries meet the Martians, they have even more theological questions to deal with. “The Fire Balloons,” has a beautiful ending.
Male explorers and settlers have been the main characters so far but “The Musicians,” a story original to The Martian Chronicles, shows us what boys do for fun on Mars, “The Wilderness” features two women who are getting ready to emigrate from Earth, and “The Old Ones” focuses briefly on the elderly. Those first courageous men won’t be forgotten, though; in “The Naming of Names” we learn that they’ve been immortalized — many places on Mars have been named after them. These human names, and other industrial-sounding names, have replaced the nature-focused names used by the Martians.
In “Usher II” Bradbury returns to one of his favorite pet peeves — book burning. A man who has left Earth to get away from the “moral climate” police is angry that they’ve now shown up on Mars. To get back at them for outlawing Edgar Allen Poe’s work, he uses his fortune to build his own House of Usher and he invites them all to a party. This story is entertaining, but I’m not sure that Bradbury makes his case. After what happens, I think the moral climate police will feel they have even more grounds for banning Poe.
“The Martian” is a terrific horror story which shows us what becomes of one telepathic Martian when humans, full of painful memories and wanting to start over, arrive on his planet. This is one of the best stories in The Martian Chronicles.
The next few stories, “The Luggage Store,” “The Off Season,” and “The Watchers,” tell of the nuclear war on Earth that was predicted in earlier stories. It can be heard on the radio and seen from Mars and soon the colonists get an urgent message: “Come home.” And so they go back to Earth.
“The Silent Towns” tells the story of Walter and Genevieve, living hundreds of miles apart, who assume they’re the last humans left on Mars. This story is entertaining, but highlights the rampant sexism so often found in the science fiction written for pulp magazines. Where does Walter decide is the most likely place to find a woman? The beauty shop. (Genevieve, what the heck are you doing in a beauty shop on a deserted planet?) Then, after driving for hundreds of miles to find her, Walter rejects and runs away from the last woman on Mars because she’s overweight. Really.
Bradbury is back to doing what he does best with the next two stories. “The Long Years” tells of Hathaway, one of the crew of the Fourth Expedition, who stayed on Mars with his family when the rest of the colonists left. When Captain Wilder, his former commander, returns to Mars after exploring other planets in the solar system, he finds Hathaway and wonders how his wife and kids stayed young while Hathaway kept aging normally.
“There Will Come Soft Rains” returns us to Earth where the atomic war has wiped out most of the people. An automated house (common in Bradbury’s stories) still stands in California, going about its daily routines as if the family who lived there is still alive. This story was inspired by Sara Teasdale’s post-apocalyptic poem “There Will Come Soft Rains” in which we see nature taking back the Earth after humanity is destroyed. This imagery in this excellent story is chilling and unforgettable. Unforgettable.
After all of the destruction that humans brought upon themselves (we nearly obliterated the population of two planets), the last story, “The Million-Year Picnic,” offers a bit of hope as two families escape the devastated Earth and plan to start over. To ensure that humans don’t make the same mistakes we made before, they burn books, maps, files and anything else that contains the sorts of ideas that may have led to our destruction. (A little ironic, I think. Apparently, Bradbury thought it was noble to burn some of our literature.)
Whenever I read Bradbury, I’m struck by his lofty visions, in the early 20th century, for future technological developments and space exploration. He envisioned a degree of achievement by the 21st century that we’re not even close to yet. However, at the same time, it seems that he didn’t foresee how much American social culture would change even during his lifetime. Thus, in most of his stories set in the future we find the juxtaposition of robots and rockets with the same sexism and racism experienced in 1950. Fortunately, the nuclear world war that he and many SF writers imagined has also not happened. Perhaps we can give Bradbury some of the credit for warning us so vividly.
The Martian Chronicles is some of Ray Bradbury’s most-loved work and foundational reading for science fiction fans. If you’ve never read it, or haven’t read it recently, I encourage you to try Blackstone Audio’s version.
I really didn’t like The Martian Chronicles when I first read it last year. Considering its legendary status in the genre and its very high ratings by other reviewers I respect, I was really looking forward to finally reading this classic SF tale. But what I discovered was a series of loosely-connected vignettes with some connecting material that seemed fairly superfluous. While I found the first few stories actually featuring Martians very well written and intriguing, once the Martians went offstage and were replaced by an endless series of annoying, hokey Midwesterners from 1950s America, my interest died more quickly than the Martians themselves.
However, I knew I must be missing something. This is considered one of the greatest works of mid-20th century science fiction, and is highly regarded even by the literati outside the genre. So I decided to try the audiobook version, which is narrated by Scott Brick (there are several versions available on Audible). I’m glad I did.
Ray Bradbury’s lyrical, melancholy, poetic writing is ideally suited to narration with the right voice. The stories take on added emotional weight when you can hear his beautiful descriptions of the Martian landscape, empty crystal cities, rocket ships lifting off from Earth, and the silent viewing of nuclear holocaust from space. The imagery is powerful, and the events of the stories are humorous, tragic, melancholy, and ironic by turns.
After a second exposure, I think I understood the themes of the stories better as well. Initially I thought Bradbury was again wallowing in nostalgia for a long-lost Midwestern America of the 1920’s (like he did in Dandelion Wine), particularly in stories such as “The Earth Men,” “The Third Expedition,” “The Martian,” and “The Long Years.” On further reflection, his critique about the American dream of space flight, colonization of outer space, conquering of alien races, and striving to remake the alien into our own image became much clearer. His tone is far more ironic than I first recognized, and his vision of America’s foolhardy confidence and arrogance in colonizing Mars is expertly achieved with parallels to American’s treatment of the American Indians in their colonization of the Western frontier.
“Ylla” is the opening story and the most impressive. It’s about an older Martian couple in a strained marriage. It’s the only story told entirely from the Martian perspective, and details the tragic events triggered by the arrival of the First Expedition to Mars. It is filled with universal truths and the savagery that can lurk underneath the surface of any relationship.
“The Earth Men” is an incredible mix of irony, horror, and humor. The Second Expedition to Mars successfully makes contact with a Martian town’s inhabitants, only to be thoroughly ignored. The Earth Men become increasingly frustrated by the indifference of the Martians, until they are finally granted attention by a particular Martian. However, although he is receptive to their claims of being from Earth, his reasons are far more sinister than anyone could have anticipated.
“The Third Expedition” tugs at the nostalgia strings in a very subversive way. The Third Expedition touches down in a different location, hoping to escape the mysterious fate of the first two Expeditions, which were never heard from again. But instead of finding golden-skinned Martians with almond-shaped eyes, they encounter their loved ones from the past impossibly living again in a perfect recreation of their childhood homes. Things are not what they seem, as the Earth men again discover.
“—And the Moon Be Still as Bright” and “The Settlers,” in which a member of the Fourth Expedition in entranced by the mysterious beauty of the lost Martian civilization, and disgusted by the crudity of his fellow American astronauts, who cannot appreciate what he says. He turns on them with tragic consequences, saying “we Earth Men have a talent for ruining big, beautiful things.”
Unfortunately, the other stories lost a lot of momentum for me. There is a lot of filler material here, and it was hard for me to relate to some of the stories. Although I enjoyed “The Fire Balloons,” “Usher II,” and “The Martian,” the other stories that followed were fairly unimpressive.
In particular, I thought “The Silent Towns” was a very sexist and insulting depiction of women, as the last man on Mars finds the last woman on Mars after nuclear war on Earth causes Earth Men to leave Mars. Instead of an Adam and Eve story, he discovers the last woman to be overweight, homely, trivial, and all-around pathetic. Bradbury really does seem to have a condescending attitude towards women, and we can’t just excuse that as being a product of the times. The housewives of Fahrenheit 451 are equally contemptuous, and it’s disappointing to see this in such a beloved writer.
And here is a “Book Chat” by Bill and Jana:
Hi all. We thought we’d try something a little different around here. When Jana said she was planning on reading The Martian Chronicles, I (Bill) mentioned I’d been thinking lately about rereading some Ray Bradbury and wondered about maybe having a little conversation about the shared experience. Nothing formal, no particular goals or constraints, not a shared review as we’ve done in the past — just a pair of readers bouncing some reactions off each other.
Bill Capossere: I can’t recall which Bradbury title it was I first read, though I know that I immediately fell in love with it, such that by high school I owned and had read (and re-read) his four best known novels and ten of his nineteen collections out by then. I kept up with him through the 80’s, buying new ones and re-reading the old ones, but it’s been some years now since I’ve cracked a Bradbury book and so I admit to having some trepidation. That’s always the fear in re-reading a beloved work/author — because you can’t un-think that new response you always run the risk of ruining not just the work/author but your memory of it, and even worse, all the possible future memories of it. That’s a pretty heavy price to pay.
I would have sworn before starting that I could have described nearly all the stories in The Martian Chronicles, so I was more than a little humbled when only one of the first five (“Ylla”) was at all familiar, and even that one, I shame-facedly admit, called up memories of the 1970s mini-series rather than the actual story (Oh, how disappointing that TV adaptation was — I remember Rock Hudson, his gun and mask, and the rest is a benumbed sense of total dullness). It wasn’t until I reached “The Third Expedition” that I hit a story I had fully remembered going in, though I had thought it was the first in the book.
What surprises me in this early going, besides my lack of memory, is the humor. The poetry, the nostalgia, the sense of sorrow, the inventiveness — all of that was all in my head with regard to Bradbury. But I’d forgotten how playful he could be. Which makes the tragic in all of this — the deaths, the despoiling, etc. — all the more effective and jarring.
Jana Nyman: I love Bradbury’s style in The Martian Chronicles — so much of the stories and vignettes are composed of poetry. A Martian dwelling in “Ylla” is described as “a house of crystal pillars on the planet Mars by the edge of an empty sea,” which flows beautifully into the reader’s ear. Obviously, his imagination was more important to Bradbury than strict adherence to science; we know that Mars has neither blue sky or blue sandy hills, and certainly not enough atmosphere to sustain human life without the aid of pressurized suits. But Bradbury’s fantasies work because of his skill with language and the type of stories he’s telling: these are allegories, morality plays, and frontier stories.
Bill: So many of those smaller poetic vignettes reminded me in this reread of Steinbeck’s interchapters in The Grapes of Wrath, another book filled with “allegories, morality plays, and frontier stories.” So much so that I Googled the two to see if Bradbury had ever mentioned this and it turns out he did in one of his interviews (Listen to the Echoes: The Ray Bradbury Interviews), saying he’d loved The Grapes of Wrath and believed he’d “subconsciously borrowed” its structure. It’s so out there that part of me even wonders how “subconscious” it was (not that there’s anything wrong with out and out theft).
Jana: You know, I hadn’t thought about it until you mentioned it, but you’re absolutely right. Even the rhythm of some of the poetry in Bradbury’s inter-chapter vignettes sounds the same to me. There’s nothing wrong with borrowing, subconsciously or otherwise, but I’m sure Steinbeck would have appreciated a little acknowledgement.
I’ve always liked Bradbury’s commentaries on censorship and the fight against it, on the importance of intellectual freedom, on the need for preservation of history and nature. When Spender says, “We Earth Men have a talent for ruining big, beautiful things,” he is the author’s direct mouthpiece, ostensibly speaking about Mars but also referring to man’s encroachment onto green spaces from urban environments. At the time that he was writing that statement, arguing against the infallibility of concepts like Manifest Destiny, I wish he had been as brave or forward-thinking when considering the changing roles of women in American society.
Bradbury’s gender politics bring me much less joy. Every woman in the book is a wife or someone’s wife-to-be, frequently given agency only in relation to her male counterpart. Ylla treats her husband like a father figure, and he condescends to her as though she’s a child. In “The Silent Towns,” when Walter Gripp hears a phone ringing, he assumes that a woman is on the other end of the line because “Only a woman would call and call. A man wouldn’t. A man’s independent.” Rather than play with a reader’s expectations for male/female behavior, Bradbury indulges in the worst aspect of science fiction fans: the exclusion and vilification of women. Genevieve Selsor is a pathetic creature who is fat, sticky from constantly eating chocolates, and desperate for a husband. And we’re supposed to cheer for Walter when he abandons her!
On the whole, I still do enjoy reading The Martian Chronicles. There is tremendous humor, skillful wordplay, and insightful commentary on human nature. If readers keep the book’s historical and literary context in mind, its flaws are understandable and forgivable.
Bill: Well, you hit two of the points I wanted to make, Jana — the fact that this book (and nearly all of Bradbury as I recall it) is science fantasy rather than science fiction and the role of women. And it’s funny how easily I let slide nearly all of the “so they up and built a rocket” kinds of statements, but how difficult it is for me not to wince at so many, many moments involving the women. It always strikes me reading the “old masters” how odd it is that these men can imagine so much unlike their own time — alien races, interstellar travel, time travel, etc. — and yet again and again can not break out of their own time when it comes to gender. Oh, a few authors manage, and some who don’t manage a lot do so now and then, but I’ve always found that aspect fascinating even as yes, I understand they should be judged by their time.
Jana: Exactly! I could go on and on about the really fuzzy science Bradbury employs — he says that it takes about a month for the Third Expedition to travel 50 or 60 million miles to Mars in the year 2000. Even with our modern technology, it would take an expedition anywhere between 150 and 300 days depending so many factors: speed of launch, alignment of Earth and Mars, and resultant length of journey. (According to NASA’s website, the closest possible distance from E to M is 33.9 million miles, but the average is around 139.8 million miles.) So as a reader, I’m supposed to imagine that technology has zoomed ridiculously far ahead of what we’re currently capable of, but society has stagnated in the 1950s…? It’s a small thing, but a big thing, too, because these “old masters” were writing about possible futures without including any of the interesting gender- or race-related issues that were in full percolation at the time of their writing.
Bill: Somewhat in the same vein, though not wholly, I found it interesting that the Kindle version I just downloaded is missing a story, “Way Up in the Air,” relating how all of a town’s black citizens (having up and built a bunch of rockets apparently) are heading to Mars, much to the dismay of many of the white residents, but especially one particularly bigoted one (what will these nightriders do for entertainment in the dark now?). This I find interesting on several levels — one, I’m curious as to why it was removed, especially in the context of a Bradbury work that includes the story “Usher II.” And two, it’s interesting that as with gender, he seems to have not foreseen major changes coming with regard to race, though in this instance the oppressed group takes the initiative to build their own ships and leave, while he doesn’t (if I recall all the stories right) give that same sense of agency to the women in these stories.
Jana: That is interesting! How odd that, of all the stories to remove from that Kindle edition, “Way Up in the Air” was chosen. Since Bradbury specifically addressed censorship in “Usher II,” that’s especially troublesome. In my print edition, “The Fire Balloons” was left out — again, troublesome because of the implications. Apparently it’s fine to read several stories about genocide and destruction of other cultures, but not about missionaries who reach a broader understanding of their universe and faith through contact with other life forms. (The most recent print edition I’ve seen in stores appears to be complete, so that’s a relief.)
To your point about the nonexistent changes regarding race: It’s weird, right? And then that particular oppressed group is never seen again in any of the following stories, leading me to wonder if their rockets did blow up on the way to Mars (as predicted by Sam Teece). Or, more cynically, if the publishing market wasn’t interested in stories about African-Americans on Mars (or women who built and flew their own rockets) because it wouldn’t connect with the magazines’ audience.
Bill: Huh, my Kindle version does have “The Fire Balloons.” Who the heck is making all these decisions? And why do they seem so arbitrary? Odd indeed. As for why we don’t see any of those characters from “Way Up in the Air” again (or their descendants), it turns out he does have a story in The Illustrated Man called “The Other Foot,” where after the nuclear war that destroyed Earth, a single ship arrives on Mars to ask for help. The “twist” is that Mars is apparently made up of all those colonists from “Way Up in the Air” (or at least this area is), and in anticipation of this white man’s rocket ship heading their way the town starts to paint signs and arrange things so as to recreate Jim Crow/segregation but with the whites being the oppressed — the shoe’s on the “other foot.” Instead, by the end, they change their minds and decide it’s time for a fresh start between the races, both starting off equally. Personally, if we’re going to start changing the make-up of these books, I’d have kept “Way Up in the Air” and moved “The Other Foot” into The Martian Chronicles (even though it isn’t wholly consistent).
It is interesting to speculate about what the reaction of his editors/agents were to those stories.
Jana: They do seem arbitrary, and I genuinely have no idea how anyone comes to those decisions. Perhaps it has something to do with getting the publication rights for each story from the magazine/editor/publishing house they’re registered to? (Be aware that I am displaying my massive ignorance of the publication business, so it’s thoroughly likely that I have no idea to what I’m referring.)
After you’ve described the story to me, I really wish it had been included — even if it isn’t wholly consistent, as you say, it’s a conclusion to the narrative arc for those characters rather than (say it with me now) leaving their fates… up in the air.
Bill: Ouch! And on that (somewhat painful) note, we’ll end our conversation here. Anyone want to jump in, Readers? Any memories of reading The Martian Chronicles? Or seeing the TV mini-series? Any thoughts on the presentation of women in these classic works, on the genre of science fantasy or more particular on Bradbury’s own inimitable style? What about the removal of certain stories from later versions of collections? We’d love to hear what you think. And also, again, what you think about this format — would you like to see more of these book “chats”?