“A Summer with Ray Bradbury” – And the Moon be Still as Bright

This post is part of a series on Ray Bradbury and his book, “The Martian Chronicles,” which will run from Memorial Day weekend through Labor Day weekend.


Well, we’ve reached what is in many ways the fundamental ‘pivot’ in “The Martian Chronicles.” In the first three expeditions, we see various bad ends come to Earth expeditions to Mars. Starting with this fourth expedition, the entire landscape changes. The Martian civilization we’ve seen encountered in the first three expeditions has died, and Mars is a largely empty world.

There are a number of interesting observations to make here, and there is little question that this is an important story to the overall arc of the book, but I’ve never been a huge fan. There are fine moments, to be sure, but Bradbury, probably like all writers, has a few thematic axes he likes to grind, and in the character of Spender here, he gets a little preachy in some places. Still, as we journey through the book, there are some things that we should observe while we pause here awhile.

One observation is that there is no short, simple, vignette between the third expedition and the fourth. We move, as it were, from one major episode to the next. We’ll see this again at the end, but I wonder if Bradbury didn’t feel that the sting of the slaughter of the third expedition didn’t need to be right next to the silent death of the planet Mars that we bear witness to when the fourth expedition lands. Last week I raised the question, why would the Martians plot the death of the entire rocket crew of the third expedition and not even try to make contact? Perhaps the answer is here in the news that the planet has been wiped out by Chicken Pox. Perhaps they somehow knew the men on the rocket brought doom with them, and perhaps they were trying to defend themselves. Perhaps.

Another observation is that early on in this story, when Captain Wilder is talking with Spender after Spender knocks Biggs into the Martian canal, there are two theories put forth about what we, as Earth men, will do with the grand empty planet of Mars. Wilder says we’ll learn from Mars and the beautiful remnants of an ancient civilization that we find there, that it will change us, and Spender says we’ll ruin it. Notice, there’s broad agreement that we need to learn, that we tend to ruin things, and that we’ve made a bit of a mess of Earth. That much is not in doubt.

This basic question is in many ways the question that lies out there, waiting to be answered, as the rest of the book unfolds. Will we learn from the beauty and grandeur of Mars, or will we ruin it as we have ruined Earth? Again, I think we find the post-atomic skepticism that all our progress hasn’t changed our basic nature, that we simply have bigger and more destructive weapons with which to wreak havoc. We’ll have to see how Bradbury’s history unfolds to see how he answers his own question.

Most of the crew heads into the nearby Martian city, and there Spender quotes the Lord Byron poem that the phrase “and the moon be still as bright” comes from, while Biggs pukes in the street. This is the last straw for Spender, and he simply walks off into the darkness. We don’t see him again until he comes back for his killing spree. Claiming to be the ‘last Martian,’ he kills several men of the expedition, starting with Biggs.

This spree sets in motion the final act of the story, as Wilder and the others hunt Spender in the Martian hills. Under a white flag of truce, Wilder and Spender have a nice long chat, so that Spender can air grievances (and so Bradbury can tell the reader what he thinks of the world:). Two notable quotes emerge here, as Spender says “do they have to foul someone else’s manger,” speaking of Biggs’ vomiting in the city, like desecrating a holy place.

Also, as Spender tries to summarize the Martian philosophy of life, he says “science is no more than an investigation of a miracle we can never explain, and art is an interpretation of that miracle.” That reads, to me, like Bradbury giving his own take on the relationship of religion, science and art. This balance, this harmony, which Spender says the Martians found, is something that Earth culture lacks, and it is why we ruin things.

In the end, Spender will not surrender and is shot, though Bradbury suggests that Captain Wilder is more than a little sympathetic to Spender’s position even if he can’t support the killings that Spender committed. When Wilder knocks Parkhill’s teeth out for shooting out windows in the city at the end of the story, we see both Wilder’s sympathy and at least a small indication that Spender’s concern is justified. The Earth men have no respect for the ruins they have found, or for the culture that built them.

So what will happen? Will we learn from Mars, or will we ruin it? Let’s read on and find out…

Next week, we’ll look at “The Settlers,” “The Green Morning,” “The Locusts” and “Night Meeting.”