Once in a while you find a book that isn’t just good. It freakin’ haunts you. Keeps you up at night. Won’t leave you alone. You find yourself thinking about it years later at the slightest provocation. Ray Bradbury’s The Martian Chronicles is one of those books. The line above waxes poetically of how fiction in the future (far far away in the year 2005) has become looked down upon, marginalized and eventually censored and outlawed. I first read it in high school, and it hasn’t left me alone since.
Originally published in 1950, The Martian Chronicles isn’t truly a novel, but a collection of short stories collected from various magazines with some new material thrown in. (a couple of new stories were added in later editions). But these stories also become episodic moments in the history and colonization of Mars.
Bradbury’s approach is one that, like most of his work, comes from a place of nostalgia. Looking back to look forward. It’s hard to reconcile the idea of forward thinking science fiction with this wistful sense of the past, but that’s more or less exactly what he gives the reader. And I’m not just saying that because of the 1950s technology used.
The Martians end up reflecting the Native Americans of the New World—initially resisting our encroachment, and eventually facing a similar fate. But the Chronicles aren’t necessarily an analogy for any one era of colonization, it’s more of a metaphor for colonization in general. Other stories make various pioneer and new frontier comparisons, such as two women moving to Mars in the hopes of finding husbands. (er…you go, girl?), or a man planting trees like the Martian equivalent of Johnny Appleseed.
There are also more timely analogies to events current to the fifties, from racism in the American South when blacks leave en-masse to start over on Mars, to Cold War fears as nuclear war breaks out back on Earth, and the aftermath that follows. And, as mentioned earlier, the question of censorship comes up. Usher II is almost a test run of concepts that would later be famously re-used in Fahrenheit 451.
Bradbury’s stories cover a wide range of subjects and carry a variety of tones, but there is always something beautiful and tragic at its core. As wonderful as the images he paints can be, a sense of loss is always looming, perhaps at the end of the story your reading, or looming in early pages of the next.
In fact this can be said of most of Bradbury’s work. I used the words “whimsically dark” to describe Neil Gaiman in an earlier review, and perhaps a similar description applies to Bradbury. His lightest stories have a touch or darkness to them, and his darkest ones may still have glimmers of light.
Looking back at my review of Stephen King’s On Writing, I’m reminded that much of the advice I give new writers, and the code I live by as an editor, is about being story and character focused. Being direct and economical with language. Bradbury reminds me that this advice applies only to certain types of writers and certain types of stories. In many ways his works make me think of poetry rather than narrative. There’s a lyrical quality to his words, and it would have been a crime to ever suggest to him to trim any of it, even if he takes a page to describe a single fleeting image.
Though he’s often classified as a science fiction writer, only a small percentage of his work was SF, and even then the science was a just another avenue for his imagination. It’s more fantasy with a science veneer.
Some modern editions of the book update the years the stories take place, so that they now run from 2030 to 2057 instead of the original 1999 to 2026, but this I think was a big mistake. Even when the story was written much of the “science” involved was anachronistic. The wire-based “spool recorders” were on the way out, being replaced by magnetic tape, and we were all but certain that intelligent life wouldn’t be found on the red planet.
The wonderfully retro vision of the future is actually enhanced by placing the dates behind us, rather than pushing it forward. In fact much of what happens in the stories doesn’t really connect with a modern mindset and only seem to work with an eye to history. This is nostalgia for a future that never was, not unlike looking at issues of Popular Mechanics from the era, and the same warm wondering of what might have been.
If you decide to read this for yourself, I highly recommend finding it at a used bookstore. Get the oldest edition you can find. In a strange way, I don’t think any greater sign of respect can be given to it than that.
Originally Published in KODT #218