305 pages, Harper Voyager
Review by Pat Black
Uncle Ray’s not with us any more, of course. If anything good can come of the great man’s passing a few weeks ago, then maybe it’ll get people curious about his work.
What’s unusual about The Martian Chronicles is that it’s one of Bradbury’s better known titles, but doesn’t represent his best work. It’s hard to say what it is, exactly; it’s made up of short stories, but is not an anthology. There are loose connections running between the tales, although you could easily dip into them at random and lose nothing. It’s certainly as much of a linear, structured novel as, say, Trainspotting is.
It is remarkably goofy in places, but in a good way – a bit like the old DC Fontana Star Trek episodes, with its earnest morality painted gaudily, in letters ten feet high - but truthfully, with a pleasing lack of irony. It has a sincerity which many writers would commit murder for. It is greater than the sum of its parts – I would say there are only two outright classic Ray Bradbury stories here, at the most, and neither of them would feature in a top ten if I was crazy enough to compile one (and I probably am).
And yet, to aggregate the book’s charms, it is a wonderful piece of work. Its true beauty is in its tone, but it is not a pleasant one. The Martian Chronicles is a desolate book, fixated on loneliness, abandonment, fear and isolation, and the changes all of these things can wreak upon human beings. It will haunt you.
It looks at a great migration; the colonisation of the red planet, Mars, by the people of Earth. Martians exist, of course; when we meet them first of all, they’re frightened by the arrival of the Earth Men, seeing them as mythical, angelic beings. In “Ylla”, we meet a Martian wife who is completely enraptured by the idea of the arriving humans. This is classic Bradbury in that it’s odd and other-worldly and enchanting, but it examines difficult human emotions; the idea of someone in a close, decent partnership falling in love with someone else. Once the humans arrive, the Martians become sinister and hostile. In perhaps this book’s single best story, “The Third Expedition” (sometimes named “Mars Is Heaven” in other Bradbury anthologies), they are downright terrifying.
That story looks at grief and loss in strangely affecting ways. Before its shock-horror finish, it reminded me of dreaming about dead relatives, and that sense of relief and happiness you feel in the dream-world upon seeing much-loved faces once more before you realise that you are in fact dreaming and that they are still dead.
Grief and loss is also apparent in another story, “The Martian”, where a settler couple encounter their long-dead only son in the Martian night. Added to this is the idea that, with the arrival of the humans, the Martians wither and die. Simple chickenpox wipes them out, leaving only weird empty cities among the blue mountains and bright canals.
Blue mountains, blue skies, bright blue canals. On Mars. That’s right – this is not the stuff of hard sci-fi. Ray Bradbury never was. It’s about rocket ships and fantasy, with one eye on the human condition; if this is a problem for you, his Mars is not your ideal destination.
The dead, empty cities and the ghostly hint of the dead Martians pervades the book, and gives away the dread and anxiety of a very real concern which we’ve managed to forget about in the modern age; the atomic bomb, and Armageddon. War is feared and breaks out on earth; the Martian settlers watch it happening, and they begin to suffer from a psychological condition, or a disease, themselves: The Loneliness. This is most memorable in “The Off-Season”, when Mars’ first hot dog stand vendor has an encounter with ghostly, brittle, crystal-like Martians who offer him a seemingly unbeatable property deal.
Humans are not painted in the best light. In that story, the hot dog vendor is a moron, a braying idiot who shoots first, thinks later, and doesn’t really consider questions at any point. In “And the moon be still and bright”, a reference to Byron, a rocket ship expedition suffers a crewmember going rogue at the idea of Martian society – advanced, cultured, beautiful – dying out so suddenly thanks to the intervention of relatively unadvanced, uncultured and ugly humanity.
This sense of desolation – caused by nihilism and ignorance – continues in “There Will Come Soft Rains”, which manages to pack in a sense of horror and holocaust without introducing us to one single living character, and “The Million Year Picnic”, where a seemingly normal family picnic on Mars takes on a biblical significance owing to the raging fire that’s burning on the green earth in the skies above.
There are a couple of interesting oddities and outright misfires. “The Fire Balloons” sees Bradbury threading Christianity through his mom n’ pop’s apple pie Americana. It does address the classic problem of how a religious man would feel when faced with alien creatures who don’t appear to have been made in anyone’s image, let alone a god’s. There’s a notion of pantheism here and good old agnostic hedging, but I was surprised that Bradbury, whom I’ve always regarded as a humanist, should address these themes.
Then there is “Way Up In The Middle of the Air”, an examination of racism that would have been brave and controversial in its day – years before the great civil rights struggle brought a semblance of equality to the United States - but is a little jarring to modern eyes. A modern reader will wonder why the good ole boys in this story don’t end up on ropes themselves at the end of this one, but that might have been too easy, and too much like fighting fire with fire. Bradbury – never a savage - disarms the racists and bullies with a very simple question and an evaluation of basic human dignity.
“The Silent Towns” is perhaps the hardest to take. It’s fun, but dated; a man left alone in a Martian city is tormented by a phone ringing. Lonely and upset, he is delighted to find out that the caller is a woman. A date is arranged, but… As I say, it’s a neat idea, but the payoff only made me feel sorry for poor Genevieve.
Linking the stories are fascinating vignettes, which we call flash fiction now – two or three pages at the most, little snapshots giving us a wider picture of life on Mars and back on Earth. It helps make The Martian Chronicles the broad, cavalcading fresco it is, odd, unusual, chilling, dated and yet still relevant. The atomic bombs that frightened Ray Bradbury so much are still there, and still pointed at most of the major cities on this planet. We’ve just allowed ourselves to be convinced that there’s no danger in this; the laughable doublethink which embraces the idea of the existence of the tools for annihilation guaranteeing that they will never be used.
That’s still a very, very scary thing to consider for too long.