1950; 181 pages. New Author? : No, but the last time I read a Ray Bradbury book was before this blog existed. Genre : Classic Science-Fiction; Anthology; “Fix-up”; First Contact. Overall Rating : 7½*/10.
In another dimension, Mars is a planet capable of sustaining humanoid life. Martians, although somewhat shorter than we Earthlings, marry, live in houses, on both farms and in cities, and are telepathic.
Alas, the coming of space rockets from planet Earth spells the doom of Martian civilization, for the germs and diseases we bring with us wipe out the Martians, almost (but not quite) to the last being. But hey, that’s progress for you. Now we humans have a whole second planet to colonize and exploit. Say hello to galactic hot dog stands and pianos.
Sounds pretty far out, eh? Such a scenario is quite the otherworldly universe. Well actually, it lies in the brilliant and fertile mind of renowned sci-fi author Ray Bradbury, here on Earth, in the late 1940’s and early 50’s.
What’s To Like...
The Martian Chronicles was Ray Bradbury’s breakthrough novel, paving the way for his incredibly popular follow-up novel, Fahrenheit 451, which was published three years later. Wikipedia calls it a “fix-up” novel, meaning Bradbury took a bunch of his short stories (mostly, but not entirely, previously published), and kinda stitched them together via minor rewriting and some extremely short interludes (sometimes only a paragraph in length) to give the collected stories a certain amount of continuity. You can read the Wiki article about fix-ups here.
The book is short, a mere 181 pages, which was the norm for science fiction novels back then, and is divided into 26 stories, the longest of which is only 24 pages. At first, I tried to read it like a regular novel, but gave up after about the third story. The characters almost never carry over from one tale to the next, and there are time gaps between each episode. OTOH, Bradbury does list the month and year for each tale in the Table of Contents and Chapter headings, and they are given in chronological order.
I don’t think Bradbury intended The Martian Chronicles to be a realistic portrayal of what we’d find on Mars if and when we landed there. The stories were penned years before we launched the first rockets into space, but IIRC, we already knew the “canals” of Mars were naturally-occurring features and the odds of finding life of any kind there would be slim.
Instead, I think he used the tales to give his views on hot-button topics whose time had frankly not yet come: the genocide the Native Americans perpetrated by the European colonists and conquistadors; the people who wanted to ban any books that didn’t support the (imagined) Leave It To Beaver society of the time; and the ever-present 1950’s fear of a nuclear holocaust.
Perhaps the most powerful and foresighted story in the book is Way in the Middle of the Air, which is a scathing examination of racial bigotry years before the Civil Rights movement even began. Indeed, this tale makes abundant use of the N-word, and was purged from later editions for that offensive reason. I was fortunate to be reading the 13th printing, from 1967, pictured above, before the censorship took place.
It was fun to see how different life and literature were in the 1950’s. Cigarette and cigars are smoked without controversy, the only way to listen to music was via LP’s, and the atom bomb weighed heavily on everybody’s mind. There’s a nod to Johnny Appleseed in one of the stories, a tip-of-the-hat to Edgar Allan Poe in another, and a way-kewl excerpt from a Sara Teasdale poem, which will probably cause me to go looking for a book of her poetry at my local used-book store soon.
There are a few cusswords sprinkled throughout, which surprised me. I didn’t think science fiction published in 1950 had such language. But it fits in well. Despite being an anthology, this is a standalone novel, with an ending that is suitable for the subject matter.
Kewlest New Word. . .
Spicules (n.; plural) : tiny, sharp-pointed objects that are typically present in large numbers, such as fine dust or ice particles.
Others : Plangent (adj.).
Chicken pox, God, chicken pox, think of it! A race builds itself for a million years, refines itself, erects cities like those out there, does everything it can to give itself respect and beauty, and then it dies. Part of it dies slowly, in its own time, before our age, with dignity. But the rest! Does the rest of Mars die of a disease with a fine name or a terrifying name or a majestic name? No, in the name of all that’s holy, it has to be chicken pox, a child’s disease, a disease that doesn’t even kill children on Earth! It’s not right and it’s not fair. It’s like saying the Greeks died of mumps, or the proud Romans died on their beautiful hills of athlete’s foot!” (pg. 51)
So they lined them up against a library wall one Sunday morning thirty years ago, in 1975; they lined them up, St. Nicholas and the Headless Horseman and Snow White and Rumpelstiltskin and Mother Goose oh, what a wailing – and shot them down, and burned the paper castles and the fairy frogs and old kings and the people who lives happily ever after (for of course it was a fact that nobody lived happily ever after!), and Once Upon A Time became No More! And they spread the ashes of the Phantom Rickshaw with the rubble of the Land of Oz; the filleted the bones of Glinda the Good and Ozma and shattered Polychrome in a spectroscope and served Jack Pumpkinhead with meringue at the Biologists’ Ball!” (pg. 106)
“I’m being ironic. Don’t interrupt a man in the midst of being ironic, it’s not polite.” (pg. 116)
There are some drawbacks to The Martian Chronicles. The patchwork interludes that try to tie the various short stories together into something coherent are generally meh. Frankly, any chapter under 4 pages is skippable.
Even the first couple “long” short stories (is that an oxymoron?), primarily dealing with the 1st, 2nd, and 3rd contacts, didn’t do much for me. And some of the major events in the timeline, such as the great Martian plague, don't exist in the book, they get skipped over between chapters.
But if you’re patient enough to wait until around the 11th story, Night Meeting, you’ll find the rest of the chapters in the book have powerful messages to impart and entertaining stories to relate. It’s easy to see why this became an instant success for Bradbury.
7½ Stars. It’s hard to rate a book that’s so ho-hum to begin with and so fantastic starting about halfway through. Subtract 2 stars if you yearn for life to return to a Beaver Cleaver world. It never actually existed, but it’s fun to pretend, I suppose.