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, way back over Memorial Day weekend when I posted my first official post for my summer project of doing a ‘book club’ on Ray Bradbury’s classic, The Martian Chronicles, Labor Day and the end of both summer and my series seemed to be pretty far away. Now both are here, and it is time to wrap this series up.
I’ve mentioned a few times that I used to teach this book, which is true. I think I taught it about ten times over the years, but I haven’t now for almost a decade. So, as I think about this past summer and how much fun it was to spend time with the book again, there are a number of things that come to mind as parting thoughts to briefly reflect on here.
One thing that comes to mind is the originality of Bradbury’s description of the Earth’s encounter with Mars. I think of 50’s movies about Martians and they are nothing like this. First of all, in Bradbury’s book we go there, whereas it always felt like in the movies they were coming here. Also, while there is hostility in the initial encounters, it isn’t of the ray gun, take me to your leader direct conflict type. The personal vendetta of “Ylla,” the big misunderstanding of “The Earth Men,” and even the cold, calculated trap of “The Third Expedition,” they’re just so different then those movie scenarios. And, in the end, it is the Earth that wipes out Mars and not the other way around.
Another thing that comes to mind as I reflect back is just how vivid many of Bradbury’s descriptions are of Martian culture. I enjoy the whole book, all three distinct ‘parts’ as I describe them in some of the earlier posts, but my favorite is probably the first part when the Martian culture is still alive and well to be encountered. There’s a bright, sunny feeling to those stories that is really unusual for scifi and space stories. The darker world of Mars after that first part feels more like the standard story of man in space.
I could also mention here that Bradbury’s ability to successfully knit together a book from such disparate stories is impressive. While I feel that the term ‘novel’ really shouldn’t be applied to The Martian Chronicles, I understand why it is. The book is more than just a collection of short stories, it rises above that to something else, and lacking a specific title for that something else, I suppose novel will do. As a short story writer, Bradbury shows off his mastery of the form time and time again, as he seems to achieve maximum effect in each short encounter, no matter how different the setting or event or tone.
Thematically, neither of the big themes in the book are terribly surprising. Writing in the wake of Hiroshima and Nagasaki explain pretty well Bradbury’s fear that we were on a trajectory to destroy ourselves. That also explains Bradbury adopting perhaps that most ubiquitous of all scifi themes, the idea of only caring about whether we can do things with technology and not enough about whether we should.
What’s interesting to me is that after the utter pessimism of a story like “There Will Come Soft Rains,” that he would write a story like “The Million Year Picnic” where he suggests that the solution is to get rid of the institutions of Earth and start over. That suggests that man’s problem is something extrinsic to himself – ie, in the institutions we create, and not in us. It seems to me, rather, that man’s biggest problems are not institutional, they are personal – they are inside us, not outside of us. Thus, Bradbury’s final images of important Earth documents being burnt as survivors of the great atomic apocalypse prepare to start over on Mars seem to me strikingly naive for someone who seems so pessimistic about mankind elsewhere in the book.
Of course, I am a Christian and see man as a fallen mess, whose great hope is deliverance from the outside, and Bradbury clearly didn’t see the world that way. Still, while I can’t agree with the way he saw people and our future, and while that disagreement makes me both more optimistic than he is (I don’t think a sovereign God will let us annihilate ourselves) and more pessimistic (completely starting over will never fix things as long as we’re the one’s making the new institutions), I still enjoy Bradbury as a writer and a story architect very much – and I sincerely hope that anyone who has taken this opportunity to read Bradbury too can say the same.