In this bi-weekly series reviewing classic science fiction and fantasy books, Alan Brown looks at the front lines and frontiers of the field; books about soldiers and spacers, scientists and engineers, explorers and adventurers. Stories full of what Shakespeare used to refer to as “alarums and excursions”: battles, chases, clashes, and the stuff of excitement.
Today we’re going to look at a book from 1950, Ray Bradbury’s The Martian Chronicles, which broke through the barriers that confined science fiction to the pages of pulp magazines and brought it to the attention of a new, mainstream audience. With its biting social commentary on topics like mankind’s apparent determination to destroy both the planet and humanity itself, its roots in nostalgia for small-town America, and its evocative descriptions of a strange and enigmatic Martians, the book gained a wide readership. And while some of the future described by the stories is now behind us, and later probes proved that Mars is neither inhabited nor habitable, the book still has a lot to offer modern readers.
For decades, science fiction was confined firmly within the bounds of genre fiction. Like westerns and romances, it appeared in magazines and books that catered to a specific fan base, ignored by those who aspired to more serious and respectable literary entertainment. Some in the field wanted to change that. Over at Astounding, John Campbell changed the magazine’s name to the less lurid Analog and focused on stories built around science and scientific premises. Robert Heinlein broke into the pages of The Saturday Evening Post in 1947, and was involved in the ponderous movie Destination Moon. I remember seeing Arthur C. Clarke as a television commentator during the moon landings, and Isaac Asimov on TV talking about scientific issues. But science fiction’s biggest break into mainstream popular culture came not from an author trying for scientific respectability, but instead from an author who first cut his teeth in more lurid magazines like Planet Stories and Thrilling Wonder Stories: Ray Bradbury. With his short stories appearing in magazines like Colliers, the runaway success of The Martian Chronicles, and many of his other books and story collections becoming best sellers, Bradbury quickly became a household name in America.
I read nearly every Bradbury paperback published back in the 1960s, but currently only have two in my collection. That leads me to suspect that the copies I was reading were owned either by my father or my older brother. The two books I have are Dandelion Wine and The Martian Chronicles, both in editions published in the late 1970s, after I went off to college. Those are my favorite works by Bradbury, so it’s not surprising I bought copies of my own.
My copy of the latter book has an evocative cover by the incomparable Michael Whelan (above, left), showing the Martians lounging by a canal, along with the masks they use to conceal or emphasize their emotions. Last week, at my favorite local used book store, I happened to stumble on what appears to be a first edition paperback (above, right). Interestingly, the style of the cover painting couldn’t be more different from Whelan’s painting—instead of illustrating a story that is fantasy as much as it is science fiction, it could easily have been used on Astounding to illustrate a work of hard SF. The focus on that cover is placed firmly upon the intrepid Earthmen exploring the new planet. The publishers—selling the same book, though in different eras—obviously had disparate ideas about what their audience wanted.
About the Author
Ray Bradbury (1920-2012) was a prominent American science fiction and fantasy writer, playwright, and screenwriter, who started his career as an avid science fiction fan. Bradbury had not only a nationwide following, but a considerable international following as well, as demonstrated by the extensive bibliographies that list the many translations of his work. I previously reviewed his book Dandelion Wine (find it here) a few summers ago. And I discussed his early collaboration with Leigh Brackett, “Lorelei of the Red Mist,” when looking at an anthology containing her work (here). You can find further biographical information in those reviews. There are a number of stories by Ray Bradbury available on Project Gutenberg, (including “Lorelei of the Red Mist”).
The Martian Chronicles
The book is a fix-up, consisting of previously written stories that follow a common theme, with short vignettes written specifically for the book stitching the material together. I won’t touch on every story and vignette, but instead will look at those that made the biggest impression on me. If you want a more comprehensive summary of the book, there is one available on Wikipedia—perhaps one of the most complete reviews of a book I have every found on that site. The Martian Chronicles has been revised several times, and the summary outlines the changes, the stories that were removed, and those that were added.
The tale of the First Expedition is told from the Martian perspective, that of the woman “Ylla,” who gives the story its name. The telepathic powers she shares with all Martians bring her dreams of the impending arrival of the Earth men. The story takes pains to establish how different Mars is from Earth. But when she confides to her husband that she is having romantic dreams about the explorers, he first tries to control her actions, and then murders the Earth men. Sadly, in spite of all the differences between the planets, this outcome is a familiar one to readers, as people with abusive, jealous, and controlling spouses are all too common.
In “The Earth Men,” the second Earth expedition arrives to find the Martians singularly unimpressed by their accomplishment, and they are deeply (and humorously) hurt by the lack of praise and admiration. They are taken to a Martian who proves to be a psychologist, and commits them to a sanitarium. Martian telepathy allows the insane to manifest their hallucinations physically, and even the Earth rocket is thought to be the product of a deranged mind. This misunderstanding has deadly consequences, and another expedition fails.
“The Third Expedition” brings the crew of explorers to a replica of their captain’s hometown from Earth, familiar and homey in every detail…then they discover the town is inhabited by loved ones they left behind, both living and dead. It seems wonderful until the captain, laying in his familiar bed in his boyhood room after a delightful supper, realizes that the perfect way to lure intruders into a trap is to bait it with images of what they love best. In a beautifully executed narrative twist, mystery turns to horror, and another failed mission.
It is only in “And the Moon Be Still as Bright” that an expedition at last succeeds, and only because the previous expedition brought chicken pox to Mars and the rather mild Earth disease proves fatal to the Martian race. The mission’s archaeologist comes unhinged by this discovery, and begins to kill his crewmates. His defeat is inevitable, and although the captain sympathizes with the man’s desire to preserve the artifacts of the Martian civilization, he feels he must do his duty, and Mars is opened to human colonists.
In my youth, my favorite story in the collection was “The Green Morning,” the tale of Benjamin Driscoll, who has trouble breathing the thin air of Mars. Inspired by the example of Johnny Appleseed, he sets out to fill the planet with trees. His mission succeeds in a way that owes more to magic and hope than to reality.
“Night Meeting” follows an Earth man who meets a Martian, but both appear as ghosts to each other, and in the end, the reader might be left wondering if neither, or both, are real. “The Off Season” is another story where an Earth man encounters Martians in an episode that starts in the prosaic setting of his newly completed hot dog stand, but soon becomes surreal.
The most powerful story in the collection, in my opinion, is “Way in the Middle of the Air,” which takes place in a town where prejudice and Jim Crow laws hold sway. The story looks at Samuel Teece, a committed racist whose self-worth is rooted in his feelings of superiority over people of color. And when those same people collectively hire rockets to take them away to Mars, the story explores the impact of their departure on both Samuel Teece and the society that had been built upon their exploitation. The story was removed from later editions of the book and replaced by other tales, reportedly because it was felt to be dated, a decision I feel was sadly misguided, as the sins of the past still linger in our society today.
The story “Usher II” is a direct sequel to Bradbury’s “The Fireman,” which became the book Fahrenheit 451. Or, if I am reading Bradbury’s bibliography right, “The Fireman” is actually a prequel to “Usher II,” as it appeared later. An eccentric man has a house custom built to resemble Edgar Allen Poe’s House of Usher and fills it with macabre devices. He then invites powerful people and government officials, all of whom were responsible for the censorship and destruction of undesirable books, to the house and murders then in gruesome fashion. It is a taut tale of madness and revenge, and the issue of censorship, of course, is still relevant today. Of all the tales in the collection, however, this one has the weakest connection to the other themes and stories.
“The Martian” gives us a survivor of the lost race. Or perhaps a ghost, as all the Martians who appear after the great plague seem rather insubstantial. The Martian appears to a lonely couple in the form of their lost son, who died many years ago, who welcome him and agree not to ask any questions. They make the mistake of bringing the “boy” to town, where the competing desires of the townspeople, who all see the Martian as someone different, have horrible consequences.
War comes to the Earth, and the settlers return home to be with loved ones (which always struck me as improbable and foolish). “The Silent Towns” shows us a prospector who returns to find everyone gone, and there is apparently only one other person left with him on the planet. He finds her, only to discover she is morbidly obese, and her company is less desirable than his formerly quiet life. Stories of the last survivors of the human race were popular at that time, and while this story might be seen as a twist on that cliché, it now just feels like body-shaming.
“There Will Come Soft Rains” is another of the book’s more powerful stories. After a family is obliterated by a nuclear detonation, their automated house continues to function, at least for a time, as if nothing had happened. The fear of nuclear annihilation permeated society in those days, and this story perfectly captures those concerns and anxieties. While we don’t consider that threat as much these days, this is a cautionary tale we should still heed and reflect on.
Finally, “The Million Year Picnic” ends the book on a hopeful note. A family has fled Earth to settle on Mars, hoping to join others with the same idea; as they look at their reflections in a canal, the family realizes they are now the Martians.
The Martian Chronicles in Other Media
There have been many adaptations of the book and its stories in other media, although in my opinion, none comes close to comparing with the original. The stories are poetic and evocative, and conjure up all manner of intriguing images in the reader’s minds—images that any adaptation cannot rival. Most of the available adaptations remind me of the moment when the monster finally appears at the end of a horror movie, and mystery and suspense is replaced by physical representations which are often disappointing.
The aforementioned Wikipedia article has an excellent compilation of these other tellings of The Martian Chronicles. There have been a few stage adaptations of stories from the book, and a full-length opera version that has apparently only been staged in pieces. While there has not been a theatrical film in the US, there have been a few adaptions of stories in other countries. The old radio show Dimension X (whose shows are worth seeking out) aired an abridged version of the book, and eventually adapted other stories as well. The book was also adapted by BBC Radio 4, and I own a nice audio adaptation with music and sound effects produced by The Colonial Radio Theater and distributed by Brilliance Audio. Over the years, there have also been comic book adaptations of some of the stories, and there was even a Martian Chronicles video game.
In the late 1970s, NBC and the BBC produced a television mini-series version. Despite a script by noted writer Richard Matheson and a fine cast of actors, I found the show stodgy; it was disliked by many critics, and even Bradbury himself was reportedly unimpressed. Better received television adaptations of some of the stories later appeared as part of the anthology series The Ray Bradbury Theater.
While The Martian Chronicles is thin on the hard science many demand in their fiction, it succeeds masterfully in presenting compelling situations, asking the question “What if?”, and exploring all the possible answers. By appealing to emotion instead of logic, it provided many who might otherwise not have read science fiction with a gateway into the genre. And of course Bradbury proved to be a genial and beloved ambassador from science fiction to the culture at large. The stories might no longer be in keeping with scientific fact, but that does not lessen the essential truths they tell. I find that the book speaks to me in different ways than it did during my youth, but it was just as compelling on this reread as it was the first time through.
Now I look forward to hearing your thoughts. I know there are a lot of folks out there who have read this book, in at least one of its many editions. Were you as captivated by the stories and their setting as I was?
Alan Brown has been a science fiction fan for over five decades, especially fiction that deals with science, military matters, exploration and adventure.