The first expedition from Earth runs afoul of a bad Martian marriage. The cold, unloving husband finishes them off after some indiscreet comments by his wife, who apparently finds them more exiting than her husband. The second expedition finds a town of telepaths, who pay them no attention because they talk about coming from the third planet; obvious nonsense. Just like the other crazy telepaths who try to create a world that doesn’t exist, only the illusions by these nut-cases persist after their death... By the third expedition the Martians had decided that the Earthers needed to be extinguished, so the third expedition arrives to find a town from their youth, complete with their relatives, back from the dead. Despite the Captain’s skepticism and wariness after two expeditions failed to return, his dead parents convince him to stay, with tragic results. The fourth expedition arrives to find the Martians almost entirely wiped out by chicken pox. After the captain reluctantly dispatches a crew member who goes native, who had despaired of the inevitable destruction of the crystal cities and the fine hieroglyphic books that the coming Earth migration would cause, the planet is cleared for habitation.
As inhabitants arrive, they occasionally encounter some of the dark-skinned, golden-eyed Martians who escaped the plague. One appears to an elderly couple as their dead son, only to come to tragic end—he appears as long-lost loved ones to everyone and is killed as they squabble over him. Another immigrant, traveling from one lonely settlement to another stops with nothing in sight, except the lonely ancient seabed and a sky full of stars. And Time. He meets a Martian from the past, but he cannot see the old Martian city that the Martian describes, or the the carnival going on there; neither can the Martian see the rocket or the settlements. So they part ways, with a taste of the glorious past and the sad but hopeful future.
After the first wild cowboy settlers, come the women, then the preachers, then people seeking a new life. A Southern town on Earth gets an awakening when all the Blacks purchase a rocket and move out en masse, shattering not only an economy whose wealth is based on inexpensive servants, but the pride of white supremists. But some come seeking to make life better for others—Moral Climatists who ban Poe and other fantastical authors because they are not Scientific. These are cleverly dispatched with an elaborate deception involving the House of Usher and a certain Amontillado, an easily pierced ruse, had they only read the books they burned.
Then the remaining aristocratic Martians chase down a fleeing entrepreneur, who thinks nothing of killing stately Martians, destroying their sand ships and their uninhabited crystal cities if he can save himself. They give him the deed to most of Mars, then leave. Sadly, that night, earth is bathed in a fire of nuclear war, and the settlers leave more quickly than they came (causing a run on a prescient luggage merchant), to see if their loved ones are all right. So sudden is the exodus that a prospector returns from the mountains to find an abandoned village and in all of Mars, only a fat young woman whom he can’t stand, even if she is the last woman alive.
Captain Wilder arrives, returning from the outer Solar System, unaware of the news. He finds an empty Mars, with a few scattered people (who had deep frozen everything they could get their hands on when they discovered that the others had left). But one family is a family of robots, created to keep the father company as his family died. Finally he, too, died, but the rest continued with their now meaningless habits. Later, a mechanical house, built to serve its now deceased owners and as living as a house can be, burns to the ground when it runs out of water, and so, even the houses of Earth die. Eventually, two families from Earth arrive, the last remnants of an evil civilization bent on self destruction, coming to start a new civilization on Mars.
Bradbury has created a work that to illustrate the evils of modern American society of the middle twentieth century. The promise of technology to liberate us from drudgery turns into a tool to let the evil within destroy ourselves. Thus, in Bradbury’s society, “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.” His Americans care only for Profit and Expansion, not about Beauty, Culture, or Peace, as evidenced not only by their self-destruction but by their superior attitude towards the beautiful, but dead, Martian society. (Fortunately, like Owen Wister, in the preface to The Virginian in the 1920s, Bradbury’s predictions of the death of American civilization are happily unfounded.)
Bradbury’s themes are not unique to him (although these themes are perhaps most strongly voiced in his work). Pirsig, in Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance observes that people who view the world from an emotional perspective find technology cold and repulsive, because technology is solidly analytic. Artists will find much to dislike about modern America—the cold efficiencies of corporations focused on Profit and the preference of Cheap to Good, typified in our cities by the choice of big, cheap suburban houses over smaller, beautiful houses. It is hardly a surprise, then, when artists, who are the ones actually doing the writing, write “Repent, Harlequin, Said the Tick-Tock Man” (Ellison) to crystallize the coldness of our society, or The Martian Chronicles during an era where nuclear war was a constant threat.
Although The Martian Chronicles has very similar themes to The Illustrated Man, also by Bradbury, it seems to succeed much better. The Illustrated Man suffered from theme obsolescence, but the themes in The Martian Chronicles are less prone to obsolescence, in part because there is only one main theme, which allows for more nuance than a collection of unrelated short stories. The Martian Chronicles is about the evil inherent in Man and the society he built. This evil takes the form of destruction: destruction of beauty and ultimately destruction of ourselves, which are much stronger themes than the dangers of nuclear war. Within the larger story arc however, are also stories with sub themes of nostalgia, the pain of the loss of loved ones, loneliness, and the errors of censoring. Certainly censoring is less of an issue in a political climate where the right to free speech is a cause for many lawsuits, but because this is only one story, and a satisfyingly ironic one, it works well. The overall theme is slowly revealed as the stories unfold, with diversions to other themes, all the while presenting a background that evolves with the progression of time. The Martian Chronicles is an excellent sample of early science fiction, showing the terror of nuclear war, Communism, and McCarthyism of the post-WWII era, all in an enjoyable and well-written package.
The Martian Chronicles is definitely better than The Illustrated Man and Fahrenheit 451, simply because the themes are still relevant. The writing is also a little more subtle and it sketches a world with surprising clarity. (Granted, The Illustrated Man did a good job of this, too, but Fahrenheit 451 just simply wasn’t believable.) There is a nice collection of stories, with connecting mini-stories (much like the inter-chapters in The Grapes of Wrath) that have a well-defined, if (intentionally) sketchy plot. Seeing the setting through different pieces offers an unusual view. (Asimov’s Foundation, published one year later, has a similar short-story quality, as he needs to cover a long time period) Quality writing, nice subtleties, great characterization. Each individual story is not always as great as those in The Illustrated Man, but all are very good, and two of them (“Usher II” and “There Will Come Soft Rains”) some of my favorite stories. The long-term story arc and theme are well supported—despite the short-story nature of the Chronicles, this is definitely a “show,” not just a “tell” book. I am unsure whether this will still be read in 100 years, however. I think it is just good enough—the writing is top-notch—but somehow it still has an obsolete feel that Dickens (for instance), does not.
- Unlike traditional novels, where a small piece of the setting is seen in continuous detail, The Martian Chronicles shows more of the big picture, pieced together through individual snapshots. The reader (and probably the author) never gets more than an incomplete idea of the complete setting, but yet, it is still obvious what is happening in the larger context. In some sense, this reflects how we perceive the world: we have snapshots of world events from various sources, but do not have a complete knowledge.
- The use of more personable sub themes (for instance, pain, loss) helps the reader identify with the larger story, by identifying with certain smaller pieces of it.
- The sub themes are relevant to the larger theme, but are varied enough that all readers will appreciate some of them, and thus by extension, appreciate the larger theme a little more than they may have had it been the only theme.
- In the stories that end badly for the main characters, the end is always implied, never stated.
- The expeditions appear to all be conducted by the armed forces (likewise in The Illustrated Man).
- Perhaps it points being written in a more formal time, but references to characters often include their title (Captain Wilder, Mr. Stendahl). This seems to be used to convey a certain distance the narrator has from the scene or character: some scenes refer to everyone by title, some do not.
- One of the strengths of the writing is observations of people’s behavior that is obliquely referenced. For example, Walter Gripp comes back from prospecting to find an empty town and does what anyone would: “...ate until he had to go find a soda fountain, where he ordered a bicarbonate. The druggist, being one Walter Gripp, was astoundingly polite and fizzed one up for him!”
- Similarly, the mechanical house, whose owners were killed in the nuclear war, is given realism (and a personality) with details that show that it was tailored to that family: “Mrs. McClellan, which poem would you like this evening? ... Since you express no preference, I will select a poem at random. ... Sara Teasdale. As I recall, your favorite...”
- Some of the stories are not overly strong on their own, but work well to advance the theme within the larger work. (By contrast, each of the stories in The Illustrated Man was a good story itself, but it was just a collection. Mediocre stories would not work there.)
- I wonder if the “obsolete feel” has something to do with the use of the word “rocket”, which conjurs up a pointed projectile with three fins that double as legs, instead of “spaceship.” Perhaps it is the dystopian nature—modern science fiction seems to be more hopeful. Or maybe we simply expect science fiction to be contain things that do not exist, so works by a writer whose predictions have come true (e.g. Jules Verne), who predicted incorrectly, or who was trapped by unforseeable changes in technology (e.g. “rocket”), contain unintended anachronisms causing us to mentally reject it, or at least consider it “obsolete.”
- If this is the case, then science fiction authors wishing for
longevity should use technology that is clearly impossible (e.g.
superluminary travel). Asimov, for instance, published Foundation in 1951, one year after The Martian Chronicles, yet
feels very much like science fiction, while The Martian Chronicles seems
obsolete. Perhaps this is because Foundation is far in the future,
with superluminary travel, personal energy shields, and telepathy,
which are still safely in the future. (The Martian Chronicles are still a
fine piece of writing, and actually have better characterization than
|Martian books are written with
colored hieroglyphs on sheets of metal. Passing one’s hand over
the book causes it to be read in a musical voice.
|Martian cities are created of
ancient, beautiful, but fragile crystal. Tall and elegant.
|Fragile, blue, wind-powered
ships which cruise over the sands of Mars.
|Quiet waterways that add a
liquid beauty to the cities. Seem to be used for transportation.
|Lifelike impersonations of
people. Used to fool the those who don’t know, or as an escape
from pain for those who made them.
|The wife in a mechanical
marriage; her husband does not love her so much as live with her,
and she misses it so much that she jumps at the chance to experience it
with the Expedition.
|Doesn’t realize that his wife
wants love. Views hers as his. Tries various ways of
keeping her from the expedition, ultimately taking matters into his own
“Here’s your scarf.” He handed her a phial. “We haven’t gone anywhere in months.”
“Except you, twice a week to Xi City.” She wouldn’t look at him.
“Business,” he said.
|Martian psychologist who is so
convinced that he is right that he misses all signs that he is wrong,
even when pointed out to him.
“Incredible,” he mused. “Most detailed dream fantasy I’ve ever heard.”
“God damn it, we’ll show you the rocket ship!” screamed the captain.
“I’d like to see it. Can you manifest it [through telepathy] in this room?”
“Oh certainly. It’s in that file of yours, under R.”
Mr. Xxx peered seriously into his file. He went “Tsk” and shut the file solemnly. “Why did you tell me to look? The rocket isn’t there.”
“Of course not, you idiot! I was joking. Does an insane man joke?”
“You find some odd senses of humor...”
|Captain John Black
|Thoroughly skeptical leader of
the third expedition, but even he finds that his love of (dead) family
members is stronger than his fear or commitment to duty.
|Classic boor. Complete
disregard for other cultures, likes destroying beauty more than
|Soldier who loves beauty and
learning. Kills in an attempt to protect it, but does not have
the resolve to kill all the expedition.
“They have a beautiful city there.” The captain nodded at one of several places.
“It’s not that alone. Yes their cities are good. They know how to blend art into their living. It’s always been a thing apart for Americans. Art was something you kept in the crazy son’s room upstairs. Art was something you took in Sunday doses, mixed with religion, perhaps. Well, these Martians have art and religion and everything. ... Anything that’s strange is no good to the average American. If it doesn’t have Chicago plumbing, it’s nonsense. ... That means Mars is finished; all this wonderful stuff gone. How would you feel if a Martian vomited stale liquor on the White House floor?”
|Understands and sympathizes with
Spender’s view, but carries out his duty. Does so in a way that
|Southerner who lives as the
upper class by getting Blacks to do the servant work cheaply. Loves asserting his position—is arrogant and demanding (even to his
wife), and apparently spends his evenings terrorizing the Blacks. Cannot stand the thought of Blacks escaping the system.
“I’ll let you go when I’m ready to let you go. We’ll just talk here polite until I say you can leave, and you know it damn well. You want to travel, do you? Well, Mister Way up in the Middle of the Air, you get the hell home and work out that fifty bucks you owe me! Take you two months to do that!”
“But if I work it out, I’ll miss the rocket, sir!”
“Ain’t that a shame now?” Teece tried to look sad.
“I give you my horse, sir.”
“Horse ain’t legal tender. You don’t move until I get my money.” Teece laughed inside. He felt very warm and good.
|Rich opponent of censorship, but
has not had much political capital. So abhors censorship that he
spares no expense to do in his opponents in the style of Poe.
|Head of the office of Moral
Climates. Is cautious and suspicious—sends a robot of himself
(which is killed) initially, arriving in person later. Apparently
did not read what he censored and is oblivious to the obvious.
|Member of the fourth
expedition. Shares a complete disregard for other cultures with
Biggs. Assumes the Martians are out to kill him; shoots
first, asks questions later. Can only receive the generosity of
the Martians when they overcome him and force it on him.
|Prospector who returns to find
all of Mars deserted except for one young woman. Unfortunately,
she is so smothering that he abandons any prospect of marriage and
|William Thomas (Dad)
|Foresightful former governor of Minnesota who kept a rocket hidden in case an escape from the current political climate was necessary. “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.”