Ray Bradbury, The Martian Chronicles

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This book takes me back to what I read so much of when I was younger: space travel inspired science fiction. Written in 1945, this book is a series of stories in chronological order (hence the “chronicles” of the title) describing life on Mars, travel to Mars and, in at least one case, earth dwellers’ opinion about travel to Mars.

Given what we know about planet Mars now, these stories are obviously not realistic. Actually, they may not have been even when the book was written, but I have not checked the facts on this.

Bradbury describes Martians as gendered humanoids who do not themselves travel in space but do not seem to be overly surprised by the arrival of visitors. While they may not be surprised, they do not seem to be pleased either. The First Expedition members are shot using a weird “gun” that shoots bees instead of bullets. The Second Expedition members find pretty much what they have left on Earth because the Martians recreate life as they know it through the use of telepathy. They then proceed to kill expedition members when their defenses are down.

We later find out that Martians become extinct through contracting chicken pox from human visitors. While Martian civilization was more ancient and, we are led to believe, more advanced (“wiser”) than Earthian civilizations, the Martians were not able to forestall extinction.

Another interesting feature of the book is the description of Martian climate, ecology and geography. It is hot and it does not rain very often, but when the rains come, they are quite welcome. The planet is composed of large flat deserts and mountains. It also has, of course, canals where water flows. But the air is very thin and this causes some people to faint.

Other topics that come up:

  • Reasons for migrating to Mars (looking for a better life, greater opportunities on Mars, starting from scratch in a new land)
  • Confrontation with otherness
  • The desire of new comers to recreate the world they came from

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Bradbury makes great use of humor and irony. Irony often results from pointing out incongruous situations and in Bradbury, the highlighting of incongruous fictitious situations provides great commentary on similar real social situations.

In “December 2005: The Silent Towns”, Mars has become deserted following the mass exodus back to Earth when war is declared. One man, Walter Gripp, is left behind. He was out of town when the others left and returns to town to find it empty. His efforts to find another human being include driving thousands of kilometers after hearing a lovely voice on the phone, only to find an unattractive obese woman who likes to gorge on chocolates. He prefers to return to loneliness. This situation points out how sometimes solitude may be preferable to undesirable human contact, in spite of the fact that humans are essentially social animals. The image of the two completely incompatible human beings is very powerful, and Bradbury’s description is extremely humorous.

In “April 2000: The Third Expedition”, a ship from Earth lands on Mars. Upon disembarking, the crew finds a town just like the ones they have left behind that is populated with long disappeared loved ones. It turns out that the “loved ones” are Martian impersonators, who can take human forms seen in the mind of humans through telepathy. In the end, the crew is killed and buried. Here nostalgia kills, instead of bringing the comfort it should. Bradbury’s portrayal of the situation is disturbing rather than funny, and the irony comes from using good memories to fool others.

In both these examples, Bradbury subverts aspects of reality in order to comment on it and that irony creates that jarring moment that either makes us giggle or shiver.

Reference:

Bradbury, Ray. The Martian Chronicles. Simon and Schuster Paperbacks, New York, NY: 2012 [1945].

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2 responses »

  1. Martian Chronicles is another book from the sci-fi course I mentioned in the Frankenstein post. I enjoyed it and I seem to remember that there was a miniseries based on the book (yup – http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Martian_Chronicles_%28TV_miniseries%29 Like the comment – Bradbury just found it boring :D). I even found a clip from it on YouTube – http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wEMWtyAKRhQ
    We discussed many of the issues you do and ultimately decided that the Martians were very “human” in nature and that the stories in the book commented more upon us than upon anything else.
    That is the job of the storyteller, after all, to give us insight into ourselves, eve if through an alien medium.
    Enjoying your MOOC-inspired series quite a bit.

    • Hi Melanie,
      Thanks for sharing the link. I will check it out. That MOOC has indeed been inspiring. I also got a copy of Fahrenheit 451. It wasn’t assigned reading but I’ve wanted to read it for a long time. There will be a lot of follow-up reading from that MOOC… I didn’t do all of the assigned readings because I had a hard time keeping up. I skipped a whole week with short novels from Charlotte Perkings Gilman and Edgar Rice Burroughs. I also skipped the Edgar Allan Poe readings but I have the Complete Tales and Poems sitting on my desk. It will also be fun diving back into Margaret Atwood’s In Other Worlds to compare her thoughts with the course professor. I’ve decided to forego other MOOCs for now, to give myself time to follow up on this one.

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