The Atomic Age didn’t always mean doom and gloom and total annihilation. People also saw a whole new world of possibilities opening up to them. Like living on Mars, for instance, which Ray Bradbury explored in his 1950 novel, The Martian Chronicles.
Well, it’s not exactly a novel. The book is culled from some of Bradbury’s previously published short stories, which have been tied together in a more conventional plot arc. Its chapters are more like vignettes, each taking place in a different year and with different characters.
Chronicles starts in 1999, with Earthlings dreaming of a “rocket summer” the way most people dream of a beach summer or a skiing winter. Then we’re on Mars in the same year, where a Martian named Ylla is troubled over a recurring dream about strange creatures in rocket ships from Earth landing on the planet. Particularly intriguing is one named Nathaniel York, who has black hair and blue eyes. Ylla’s husband, Yll thinks she’s not quite right in the head. How could Earth men come to Mars? The third planet can’t support life. Yll tries to distract Ylla by suggesting going to town or visiting. Still Ylla can’t shake off the dream.
Ylla’s dream proves prophetic, of course. A rocket ship lands on Mars, bearing one Captain Nathaniel York and his men. But that’s it. No fanfare, nothing. Six months later, a second expedition arrives. This captain, Jonathan Williams, is overjoyed to find that the Martians can speak English to them via telepathy, and thrilled because he believes they’re the first to make it to the Red Planet, since no one knows what happened to Captain York and his men.
What the latest bunch can’t figure out, though, is why the Martians are less excited than they are. They should be, because these men are the first to make contact with Martians. Where’s the Martian equivalent of a brass band? Where are the accolades?
Instead, the captain and his men find themselves in a room with dozens of other Earthlings, who all have flattered themselves that they were the first on Mars. Some are insane, and others are going that way. The men plead with Mr. Xxx, the chief examiner, to let them show him their rocket to prove they’re not crazy, which he finally agrees to. Mr. Xxx looks over the rocket with great interest before telling Captain Williams and his men that they’re just hallucinations and shooting all of them. Since turnabout is fair play, Mr. Xxx is shot and killed, too, but there’s no telling where the shot came from.
Hmmm. Hallucinations can’t die, so it’s more likely Mr. Xxx was in major denial. Or the hallucination thing was just his cover story.
Through all of this, I kept waiting for Ylla to show up and have a well-deserved “neener, neener” moment with her husband, but we don’t see either of them again. Instead, Chronicles moves on to the next wave of Earth explorers, which happens in April of 2000.
This time, the Earthlings touch down in what looks like a small American town, and they’re confused. They think they’ve made a wrong turn and gone back to Earth by mistake, but that can’t be, because the air is thinner than on Earth. The men emerge to find that they seem to be back in their hometowns with their families and childhood friends. It’s all very strange and wonderful, but they wonder if they died without knowing it and have passed into heaven.
Of course there’s a catch. Some of the men try to leave their family’s houses, only to be shot. They didn’t even feel threatened, just curious.
The next wave is in January of 2001. The Martians are nowhere to be seen because they’ve all died of chickenpox. One member of the latest crew, Spender, keeps talking about how wonderful Martian culture is, and how he doesn’t want Mars to get made over like Earth. Spender might have a point, but he’s so off his rocker that Captain Wilder lets him go. Spender doesn’t stay away, though–he’s determined to keep the Martian ruins just as they are, even if he has to kill Captain Wilder to do it. Unfortunately for him, though, he doesn’t succeed. And unfortunately for Captain Wilder, he feels so guilty about killing Spender that he takes up the mantle of preserving the Martian ruins.
Spender’s stand seems like the last gasp of the old Martian culture. From then on, there are no barriers to human colonization. Mars becomes just like Earth, and they even solve the oxygen problem by planting trees. Mars is seen as an incredible opportunity, and people are afraid to be left behind, not only because of what it can get them, but even after the turn of the twenty-first century, they’re still mired in the Cold War and afraid of nuclear annihilation. Leaving that all behind is no problem.
The Martian Chronicles has been through several editions. One of the later ones even moved the dates forward because the original years were too close to the present. That seems to be a common pitfall of assigning ballpark figures to advances in tech. Ask Walt Disney. The funny thing is, though, while it’s easy to peg Chronicles as sci-fi, Bradbury referred to it as fantasy, because in his mind, sci-fi was about the possible, whereas fantasy was about the impossible. Clearly, he didn’t see us going to Mars.
Still, the novel fits nicely into the sci-fi genre. In 1955, Bradbury adapted his book for the radio series, X Minus One (which I highly recommend, by the way):
The Martian Chronicles seems like an allegory with disquieting implications. The most obvious application is to immigration, with Earth people relocating to Mars instead of to new countries. The Martians fight back at first, but then they die off. There’s really not much they can do in the end, short of building a forcefield around the planet, which no one mentions.
Once they’re gone, the humans move in, obliterating all traces of the former inhabitants. As far as the new Martians are concerned, they might be living in Medina, North Dakota. And no, I’m not going to go into the whole illegal-vs.-legal-immigration debate, except to say this: When borders are not respected, nations cease to exist, even planet-wide ones. This has been the case throughout history.
The Martian Chronicles is a compelling book. Once I saw where Bradbury was going with it, I devoured it like a hungry cat does a tuna steak. The book is a bit dated (literally), and about halfway through there are several uses of the n-word by a very minor character. Plus, it shows Mars as having canals and vegetation, both of which have since been debunked. Of what I’ve read of Bradbury’s canon, I’m not sure it’s his strongest effort–so far that would be Fahrenheit 451–but overall, it is a classic work and a terrific example of Atomic Age literature.
All righty, hope you enjoyed, and hope to see you all back here on Wednesday for Virginie’s Ingrid Bergman Blogathon! Thanks for reading, all…