Inverarity (inverarity) wrote,

Book Review: The Martian Chronicles, by Ray Bradbury

Colonialism on another planet: haunting, lyrical, and cranky.

The Martian Chronicles

Bantam/Spectra, 1950, 181 pages

Leaving behind a world on the brink of destruction, man came to the red planet and found the Martians waiting, dreamlike. Seeking the promise of a new beginning, man brought with him his oldest fears and his deepest desires. Man conquered Mars - and in that instant, Mars conquered him. The strange new world with its ancient, dying race and vast, red-gold deserts cast a spell on him, settled into his dreams, and changed him forever. Here are the captivating chronicles of man and Mars, the modern classic by the peerless Ray Bradbury.

Here is my problem with Ray Bradbury: of all the Grand Old Masters of Science Fiction (or "cranky old white guys," if you prefer) - I think he is probably the best writer in terms of putting words together. Heinlein may have been the best pure storyteller, and Asimov and Clarke the most skillful at executing Big Ideas, but Bradbury beats them all in pure prose-smithing. He can write the loveliest, most evocative scenes, and since he freely mixes fantasy, horror, and science fiction, he can also be haunting and eerie in a way I don't think his peers really touch.

They had a house of crystal pillars on the planet Mars by the edge of an empty sea, and every morning you could see Mrs. K eating the golden fruits that grew from the crystal walls, or clearing the house with handfuls of magnetic dust which, taking all dirt with it, blew away on the hot wind. Afternoons, when the fossil sea was warm and motionless, and the wine trees stood stiff in the yard, and the little distant Martian bone town was all enclosed, and no one drifted out their doors, you could see Mr. K himself in his room, reading from a metal book with raised hieroglyphs over which he brushed his hand, as one might play a harp. And from the book, as his fingers stroked, a voice sang, a soft ancient voice, which told tales of when the sea was red steam on the shore and ancient men had carried clouds of metal insects and electric spiders into battle.

And yet, although he writes very psychological stories, he has a real limitation when it comes to imagining people: his only vision of society, whether it is on Earth or Mars, the modern day or the far future, is small town Middle America. Even his Martian couple, introduced in the first story of The Martian Chronicles, behaves like any bored, bourgeois suburban married couple, electric spiders and metal books and copper coin eyes notwithstanding.

This continues throughout the Chronicles: of course part of his message is that people don't change and behave pretty much the same wherever they go, so of course human settlers on Mars will try to make it look just like back home. Still, "back home" for Ray Bradbury is always Green Bluff, Illinois.

That said, if you ignore the datedness and the cultural flatness of his narrative, The Martian Chronicles is quite beautiful in places, sometimes cleverly ironic in the fashion of classic science fiction short stories, and in the end, sad and haunting. Bradbury also writes thought-provoking social themes into his fiction, he just does it with the assumption that his audience is a bunch of cranky white guys like himself.

The Martian Chronicles is a loosely connected series of stories, starting with the first ill-fated Mars expeditions, then the eventual colonization of the planet, and finally, the last Martians, after Earthmen have destroyed themselves.

Bradbury shows us an ancient, ethereal Martian civilization which is reduced to dust and then ghosts under the onslaught of humanity. The metaphor is made quite explicit during the fourth Mars expedition, when one of the astronauts, a Native American, discovers that the previous expedition brought with them a disease that slaughtered the entire Martian population. He "goes native" and turns on his fellow astronauts, seeking to prevent or at least delay the ruination of Mars. As well as being a very obvious metaphor for the arrival of Europeans in North America, it's also an ironic reversal of H.G. Wells' War of the Worlds.

But as Bradbury tells us, "The men of Earth came to Mars." They build towns just like back home, and they bring with them religion and bureaucracy and materialism and petty Earth troubles. And in every story, the Martians play a role, even if it is as ghosts.

It's not a sci-fi epic in the traditional sense. It's a themed collection of stories, a little dated and sometimes rather slow-paced, but it's an enduring vision of Mars.

The Martian Chronicles (1980)

The Martian Chronicles (1980)

It was an interesting experience to Netflix this and watch it again, because I last saw it as a child, when it first aired, and I was surprised at how many of the scenes had stuck with me.

This TV miniseries is, if nothing else, a sterling example of just how desperate sci-fi fans were for television science fiction in the late 70s and early 80s. It is very hard to watch without giggling. The spaceship-models-on-wires look like the steam iron from Hardware Wars. The actors have porn-staches. The soundtrack is chirpy electronic disco. The sets are a mix between Space: 1999 and Land of the Lost. Loved the leisure suit military uniforms. It stars that icon of 70s manly-manhood, Rock Hudson.

Although the acting and special effects are terrible, it does reproduce most of Bradbury's original stories. Within the limits of the low-budget production, it captures some of the haunting mood of the book. However, it's long and tedious, and Ray Bradbury himself called it boring.

Poll #1900183 The Martian Chronicles

Have you read The Martian Chronicles?


Have you seen the TV miniseries?


Have you read anything else by Ray Bradbury?


Verdict: A sci-fi classic every science fiction fan should read at least once. The Martian Chronicles is not an epic or even a series of adventures; it's Ray Bradbury musing about how Earthmen ruin everything, and intentionally or unintentionally saying a lot about cultural imperialism and colonization. Fine prose almost makes up for its flat vision of a future ruled by unimaginative, homogeneous men from Green Bluff.

Also by Ray Bradbury: My review of The Illustrated Man.

My complete list of book reviews.
Tags: books, netflix, ray bradbury, reviews, science fiction

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