It is interesting, beginning any book. You don’t quite feel like you belong, you’re not sure if you’re speaking the right language. And where are you, anyways? What’s going on? Some books invite you in pretty quickly. Other books take a long time to acclimate to, sometimes so long that you give up on them before you’ve acclimatized. Some books take more work to figure out, to get your bearings, and some of those end up being worth the work.
This book took a little while to figure out, and there’s a reason for that. It wasn’t the language. It started with the setting. As with most speculative fiction, you’ve got to figure out where you are in time, get a picture in your head of a place you’ve never seen, and understand the rules of the world. With The Martian Chronicles, there is a further issue with getting oriented. You read the beginning of the first chapter, and you think you’ve got it. Then you realize, nope, you’re starting over again for the second chapter. And then you think you have it again… and that keeps happening, until you figure out how to read this book. Then you get it, but you also realize you’re going to have to keep figuring things out all through the book. It’s okay, though, because the experience is rewarding.
It might help to know the origin of this book before you begin. (Then again, I think feeling my way through it without the information I’m about to give you was kinda’ better. Whatever.) It is a novel in short stories. It didn’t even begin as a novel at all, but there were chapters added to make the short stories fit together as a sort of experimental novel. There is not an antagonist or protagonist, either, unless you consider the noble and the depraved sides of humanity to be those things. Humanity is our main character, Martians are the other character, and maybe the planets are two other characters. At any rate, don’t expect to stay with whom you meet in the first chapter. (There are a couple people who do return in later stories, but for the most part, they represent characters against a much bigger backdrop of what is happening in human history.)
What is happening? It is around the year 2000 (as seen from a publication of 1950) and Earthlings are exploring Mars in preparation for colonizing it, and doing so quickly. Expeditions fail, but then there’s a twist (I won’t tell you what), and later expeditions succeed. However, an event on Earth recalls most of the Earthling colonists back and destroys most of the population, leaving the end with a tragic and yet hopeful ending true to much science fiction. Only two chapters (or stories) take place on Earth. The rest are on a Mars which we know is completely fictional (as it has a very established civilization and is livable as-is for humans. But that’s not the point.) It’s replete with the classics: telepathy, robots, rocket travel, alien civilizations, mind tricks, and some unique things too, like a story-book brought to life or the emancipation of the Jim Crow South. The real deal about this book is its exploration of humanity and its qualities, its foibles. Greed, revenge, hope, hate, resilience, preservation, high morality… there are a lot of facets of humanity laid bare here. And it really poses the question: what will destroy us? Hint: it’s not the elements or the Martians.
I really enjoyed reading this book. The language was surprisingly beautiful for a book of sci-fi and the insight, fascinating. The stories kept me guessing and had me whipping around like a roller coaster ride. There were some amazing little stories in this book. Ray Bradbury is a master, and I do think that the stories fit together into a really interesting novel, as an unconventional novel. Don’t expect any chapter to be like the one before it. There was only one thing that happened that made me lose my concentration because it was too unbelievable. (I know that nothing, on the surface, is believable in this book, but his observation of people is astute, and I think he missed the mark with one major event, perhaps to make the stories fit.) There was also a little bit the laughable way that Bradbury saw the twenty-first century and how he couldn’t see past some of the details: we’re all still wearing suits and dresses and talking on land lines in a cadence that we left behind decades ago. But that’s not a problem really, as it makes more to think about as you read.
You could read this book as short stories: my daughter was assigned one in her high school English class a few months ago. But I enjoyed it as a novel, and if you are open to someone playing with the novel form, then I recommend that you pick this one up and enjoy it for what it is: a sci-fi classic written by a master.
Ray Bradbury is one of the most famous authors (written and screen) of our time. He wrote science fiction, fantasy and horror from the turn of the last century into the beginning of this one, and his works include Fahrenheit 451, Something Wicked This Way Comes, The Illustrated Man, and Dandelion Wine.
Ray Bradbury wrote an essay about The Martian Chronicles and writing. It is included in his book Zen in the Art of Writing and is titled “The Long Road to Mars.” It’s very short, some background and insight into how the book came together over the years, told cleverly of course.
There do not seem to be any screen versions of the book worth tracking down and watching. There could be, but there isn’t.
“I hate this feeling of thinking of doing right when I’m not really certain I am. Who are we, anyway? The majority? Is that the answer?” (p91).
“Can one man be right, while all the world thinks they are right?” (p91).
“And this disease was called the Loneliness, because when you saw your hometown dwindle the size of your fist and then lemon-size and then then pin-size and vanish in the fire-wake, you felt you had never been born…” (p96).
“But most of all the trees would distill an icy air for the lungs, and a gentle rustling for the ear when you lay nights in your snowy bed and were gentled to sleep by the sound” (p97).
“…he imagined the seeds he had placed today sprouting up with green and taking hold on the sky, pushing out branch after branch, until Mars was an afternoon forest, Mars was a shining orchard” (p97).
“Don’t ask it to be nothing else but what it is” (p105).
“There are beautiful boats as slim as women, beautiful women as slim as boats, women the color of sand, women with fire flowers in their hands” (p110).
“Ignorance is fatal, Mr. Garrett” (p156).
“The words on the radio and that green star were one and the same” (p175).
“Space was an anesthetic; seventy million miles of space numbed you, put memory to sleep, depopulated Earth, erased the past, and allowed these people here to go on with their work” (p192).
“The house gave ground as the fire in ten billion angry sparks moved with flaming ease from room to room and then up the stairs” (p226).
“Now the fire lay in beds, stood in windows, changed the colors of drapes!” (p227).