First published in 1950, Ray Bradbury’s The Martian Chronicles is a collection of 28 short stories about humans exploring and colonizing Mars while those left behind on Earth destroy each other in a never-ending atomic war. When I first read it back in middle school, it blew my mind. When I reread it this weekend, I discovered that it still holds up. 65 years after first being published, The Martian Chronicles is still a classic of American literature.
When Ray Bradbury died in 2012, many obituaries called him a “science fiction writer.” Bradbury always resisted that label, saying in one interview, “First of all, I don’t write science fiction. I’ve only done one science fiction book and that’s Fahrenheit 451, based on reality. It was named so to represent the temperature at which paper ignites. Science fiction is a depiction of the real. Fantasy is a depiction of the unreal. So Martian Chronicles is not science fiction, it’s fantasy. It couldn’t happen, you see? That’s the reason it’s going to be around a long time – because it’s a Greek myth, and myths have staying power.” There is very little science to be found in The Martian Chronicles. Humans travel between Earth and Mars via rockets and the trip only takes a matter of days. Characters frequently ride boats down the water-filled Martian canals. Humans have little trouble breathing on Mars and only occasionally complain about the thin atmosphere. Bradbury is not interested in Mars as a real place. Instead, he uses Mars as a way to explore what humanity would do if given a second chance.
The humans who come to Bradbury’s Mars all have one thing in common. All of them are fleeing an imperfect Earth. Some, like the members of the first three expeditions, come to Mars as explorers. Some, like the troubled Jeff Spender, seek to learn from Martian civilization. Others, like Sam Parkhill, come to Mars to make money. Fathers Peregrine and Stone come to Mars in search of a new world in which to spread the word of God. Mr. Stendahl comes to Mars to escape government oppression. Others come to escape the wars of Earth. Throughout The Martian Chronicles, characters deal with issues that are just as relevant today as they were in 1950. Bradbury’s vision of human society is not a positive one, especially when compared to his Martians.
All of the short stories are linked by the human characters’ struggle to come to terms with Martian society. After killing the members of the first three expeditions, the Martian race is wiped out by chicken pox, a disease that did not exist on Mars until the arrival of the humans. Only a few survive and go into hiding, watching as human move into their old cities and set up their own civilization. Ghost-like, the Martians and their dead society haunt every story in The Martian Chronicles.
There are a few stories in The Martian Chronicles that have not aged well. The Silent Towns, in which a man named Walter Gripp is horrified to discover that one of the last women left on Mars is overweight, is a mean-spirited and unpleasant story to read. But the collection’s best stories — And The Moon Be Still As Bright, The Third Expedition, Usher II, The Off Season, The Million-Year Picnic, Night Meeting, and especially There Will Come Soft Rains — still hold up as entertaining and thought-provoking works of speculative fiction.
In 1980, The Martian Chronicles was turned into a miniseries. I will be watching and reviewing it later this week.