#22 – The Martian Chronicles Review – Ray Bradbury

Martian Chronicles Cover

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Told in a series of short story vignettes (much like Asimov’s I, Robot), The Martian Chronicles recounts mankind’s first efforts at colonizing the Red Planet and their interactions with the native Martians. At times serious, satirical, controversial, and darkly humorous, Bradbury’s vision of Martian colonization is a fascinating exploration of the ways in which we project our own fears and fantasies onto our closest neighbor in the solar system. Although the novel was written at a time in which our scientific knowledge of Mars was extremely limited, that doesn’t take away from the feeling of exploration, wonder and fear we experience upon visiting a truly foreign world.

The Martian Chronicles Summary: The book begins with the first rocket to leave earth bound for Mars in the year 1999, eventually picking up again as the first exploration reaches the Red Planet with disastrous results. While the second expedition successfully reaches Mars, mankind’s first interactions with the Martian natives are equally troublesome. It isn’t until the fourth expedition, after it is learned that all of the Martians have died due to exposure to chickenpox from one of the earlier expeditions, that the humans begin the process of trying to alter Mars to fit their own needs. Although one of the expedition’s astronauts tries to protect Mars from the impending human colonization (due to his belief that Men “have a talent for ruining big, beautiful things”) by trying to kill his fellow crew mates, he is eventually killed. It is a not-so-subtle reflection on Mankind’s abysmal track record when it comes to dealing with native populations.

The book then shifts into full “colonization” mode, as the next few stories detail the rapid settlement of Mars by eager humans. This period seems to mirror the expansion of settlers westward across the Americas, with the initial pioneers and villages giving way to larger town, settlements and eventually cities (as the Martian ruins are slowly destroyed). This part of the book features one of the most moving (and controversial) stories in the novel, in which a group of racist farmers learns that all African Americans have chosen to leave Earth bound for Mars in search of greater freedom and equality. First appearing in a 1950 edition of the magazine Other Worlds, the story is omitted from certain editions of the book – as it was considered too controversial for its time. The next few stories in the book reveal that the Earth is on the brink of nuclear disaster and that the pace of colonization has increased rapidly. Although many of the colonists end up returning to Earth after the nuclear attack in order to help friends and relatives, a few lone colonists remain on Mars, eventually (it is suggested) becoming the new “Martians.”

The Martian Chronicles Review: The Martian Chronicles was a revelation to me, and not at all what I expected when I first picked up the book. Not only do each of the stories work as fully realized stand alone pieces of fiction, but together they help create a sustained sense of anxiety, uneasiness and silent menace that is hard to shake. The Martians are neither the embodiment of evil nor the picture of innocence and peacefulness – they are just as wary of outsiders and distrustful of change as the humans they meet. At the same time, Bradbury’s distrust of humanity’s benevolence and good intentions is evident throughout, even while he presents us with a few lone examples of men who are able to see through their society’s false promises and realize their inevitable destructive tendencies. But what really ties all of the stories together into a cohesive whole is Bradbury’s incredible ability to draw you into the action and care about the characters (or loathe them) after only meeting them a few pages before. And even while the circumstances and landscapes may seem alien, the conflicts and emotions are all too human.

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September 9, 2010

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