The Martian Chronicles by Ray Bradbury

the martian chroniclesA distant shore…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

Written as short stories for magazines in the late 1940s and pulled together with a series of linking pieces for publication in book form in 1951, the book is set around the turn of the millennium, when man is beginning to colonise Mars. But a very different Mars from the one we know today – this one is populated by intelligent beings who seem fairly human in some ways, but have telepathic powers that mean that some of them can sense the approach of the men from Earth.

The book is very episodic in nature though it does have a clear underlying timeline. While the human side of the story is populated with consistently ’40s characters, the Martian side evolves and changes as the book progresses, meaning that it never becomes a fully realised world in the sense of most fantasy novels. Instead, the stories are fundamentally about humanity and it seems as if Bradbury creates Mars and the Martians anew each time to fit the story he wants to tell. This gives a kind of dream-like, almost surreal, quality, especially to the later stories.

the martian chronicles 3 les edwards 2009

The first few episodes tell of the first astronauts arriving on the planet. There are fairly clear parallels here with the arrival of the first settlers to America, with the misunderstandings and tragedies that happen between the races. As happened there, after a few setbacks the incoming race becomes the dominant one, with the Martians proving unable to resist the new diseases the humans have brought to their world. At this early stage, the stories are quite interesting but I was wondering why the book had acquired such a reputation as a sci-fi classic. The science is pretty much non-existent, and there is very little fantasy beyond the basic premise of what can be done with telepathy. Bradbury’s Mars is Earth-like in its atmosphere and requires little or no alteration to make it habitable, and the humans have simply transported their recognisably 1940s world to a new place.

Ask me, then, if I believe in the spirit of the things as they were used, and I’ll say yes. They’re all here. All the things which had uses. All the mountains which had names. And we’ll never be able to use them without feeling uncomfortable. And somehow the mountains will never sound right to us; we’ll give them new names, but the old names are there, somewhere in time, and the mountains were shaped and seen under those names. The names we’ll give to the canals and mountains and cities will fall like so much water on the back of a mallard. No matter how we touch Mars, we’ll never touch it. And then we’ll get mad at it, and you know what we’ll do? We’ll rip it up, rip the skin off, and change it to fit ourselves.

However, as the book progresses, Bradbury allows his imagination to take full flight and some of the later stories are beautifully written fantasies with more than a little philosophical edge. There is the usual mid-20th century obsession with approaching nuclear holocaust on Earth, but Bradbury widens it out, using the isolation of the Mars colonists to examine human frailties and concerns more broadly. Loneliness features in more than one story, with the contrasting sense of community and nostalgia that first drives people to make their new homes as like their old ones as they can, and then calls them back home to be with those they left behind when Earth is finally ravaged by the inevitable war.

the martian chronicles 1 les edwards 2009

There is a fabulous story about race, Way Up in the Middle of the Air – black people choosing to make a new home on Mars, leaving the southern states where, while they may be nominally free, they are still treated as inferior beings. I imagine this story must have been extremely controversial and possibly shocking at the time of writing, since it doesn’t shy away from showing the white people as little better than racist abusers.

One of my favourite stories is The Fire Balloons, telling of Father Peregrine on a mission to bring Christianity to the surviving Martians, and fighting against the prejudice of his colleagues that beings so different from humanity could not possess souls. The wonderful imagery in this one is perfectly matched by some of Bradbury’s most beautiful writing, and it is both thought-provoking and moving.

But I could go on picking out favourites, because the comments ‘beautifully written’, ‘great imagery’, ‘fantastically imaginative’ and ’emotionally moving’ could be applied to most of the later stories in the book. Though the episodic nature prevents the reader from developing much emotional attachment to specific characters, the imagination Bradbury shows more than makes up for this lack. In one story, there are no characters – just a house falling into disrepair and eventually consuming itself, and yet Bradbury makes this one of the most moving stories about the after-effects of war that I have read. The final story offers some hope for the future but the overall tone is of the inevitability of self-destruction that was felt so strongly in the world in the decades of the Cold War.

The house shuddered, oak bone on bone, its bared skeleton cringing from the heat, its wire, its nerves revealed as if a surgeon had torn the skin off to let the red veins and capillaries quiver in the scalded air. Help, help! Fire! Run, run! Heat snapped mirrors like the first brittle winter ice. And the voices wailed Fire, fire, run, run, like a tragic nursery rhyme, a dozen voices, high, low, like children dying in a forest, alone, alone. And the voices fading as the wires popped their sheathings like hot chestnuts. One, two, three, four, five voices died.

So I too am now convinced that this book deserves its status as one of the great classics. Is it sci-fi? I’m not sure, and I feel to pigeon-hole it as that is more likely to put people off anyway. And I don’t think anyone should be put off reading it just because it’s ‘genre’ fiction – it is as thought-provoking and well written as most ‘literary’ novels and shows a great deal more imagination than they usually do. One I will undoubtedly come back to again and again.

the martian chronicles 4 les edwards 2009

All illustrations © Les Edwards 2009.

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76 thoughts on “The Martian Chronicles by Ray Bradbury

  1. Just love, love, love Ray Bradbury – it’s interesting that you are debating whether he is sci fi or not. Because to me it’s all about society – he ponders so much about our social arrangements, about alternatives, about extremes…

    • I think everybody defines sci-fi in a different way – I tend to put the emphasis on the “sci” bit. But the best sci-fi, fantasy or, for that matter, any other genre should really be about the “human condition” and this one certainly is that. I’ve come late to Bradbury but I can see I’m going to have to investigate further…

  2. Marvellous isn’t it? I love this one myself.

    Why would you think it wasn’t SF? If this isn’t SF I’d say nothing is, it’s as SF as SF can be. Well written though, beautifully so at times as you note.

    Lovely illustrations, great find.

    • It is – a great book!

      I think everybody defines sci-fi differently – for me, it should have some proper science or scientific speculation in it. I suppose what some people call hard sci-fi. But I find it almost impossible to categorise books in the whole sci-fi/fantasy genre – had the same problem with Dune recently. But the sci-fi title seems to put lots of people off, so really with this one I was just trying to say that you don’t have to be a sci-fi fan to read it…

      The illustrations are fabulous aren’t they? I love that he’s got so much of the blue in – that was such an important part of the imagery in the book.

      Thanks for popping in and commenting. 🙂

  3. This one, in my opinion, is one of the classics of fiction, FictionFan. And I’m saying that as someone who a) doesn’t usually read things billed as ‘science fiction;’ and b) has little but contempt for Bradbury as a human person. As a writer though, he was truly skilled, and it comes through loud and clear in this book. I found The Off Season and There Will Come Soft Rains particularly memorable.

    • After a doubtful start, I ended up blown away by some of these stories in the end. I definitely think you don’t need to be a sci-fi fan to read these – it’s a pity in a way that the book is categorised as such, becuase it will undoubtedly put some people off. I loved ‘There Will Come Soft Rains’ – I think it may be one of my favourite short stories of all time. But I think that might be true of several of these – I can see it’s a book I’ll re-read often. And now I’ll have to read more Bradbury, I fear…

  4. I’m pretty sure I read this one back in high school, but sadly, I don’t recall a lot about it. Guess that means I probably should read it again, huh? Thanks for another interesting review, FF — you’re on a roll this week (which means your absence was a good break, right?!!)

    • I hate being ageist about books but I bet I wouldn’t have got nearly as much out of this if I’d read it as a teenager. There’s not a huge amount of ‘action’, and I might well have missed a lot of the underlying stuff about the ‘human condition’. Well worth a re-read, I think! Haha! Well, I’ve come back with the goodies first – it’ll start to go downhill soon… 😉

  5. You did it! You made it through. Bradbury, as one of the founders of SF, laid a good foundation. There is a case for making SF and Fantasy part of the same genre. Some stories have elements of both. I read Asimov before I read Bradbury and that started me on many years of reading.

  6. In a funny way, this is why SF tends not to get a good rep in literary circles. As soon as it’s well written, it’s redefined out of the genre. This has an alien planet, aliens, rocket ships, telepathy, future history. Hard SF is just a subset of SF, quite a small subset if anything, the vast majority of SF isn’t actually technically credible (if you have faster than light for example, without causality violation, on our current understanding you might as well have dragons, it’s about as realistic). For its period this is slap-bang mainstream SF.

    I’ve honestly never heard it debated before whether this is SF. I’m sort of back to if this isn’t what on earth (or Mars) is? Lots of SF contains allegorical elements about the contemporary world or wider social issues. That’s sort of a big part of what the genre does. I think people sometimes assume SF is about the future, which a lot of the time it isn’t.

    You’re spot on though about the dreamlike quality. It feels almost like a fable.

    • Well, yes, I take your point – but if the label puts people off reading it, then maybe a redefinition will attract some people in. I know loads of my regular readers won’t go near sci-fi – I’m trying to persuade them that the best sci-fi (and fantasy) says as much about humanity as the best lit-fic. For me, I’m confident that Asimov’s robots are sci-fi, but Martians are moving towards fantasy. The rockets in this one are never explained – I need much talk of anti-matter and dilithium crystals and space-folding to convince me… 😉 (You can tell I’m not a scientist, can’t you?)

      Fahrenheit 451 is one example of a sci-fi book that has managed the crossover to literature, and loads of people have read it who would claim never to read sci-fi. The same applies to dystopian fiction in general – much of it is sci-fi too, but it gets treated differently somehow, and therefore read more widely. The whole genre thing is a minefield…

      • There is a lot of prejudice it’s true. It’s funny how YA SF gets so widely read, including by people who would never otherwise touch the stuff. You’re quite right about dystopian too.

        All these definitions are just in our heads anyway. The books are just books, genre is only useful to the extent it somehow saves time. I certainly couldn’t draw the line between SF, fantasy, crime, whatever, anything really.

        It is good though, whatever it is, it is good.

        • Yes, I really only started thinking about genres much when I started having to use categories and tags on the blog – and don’t get me started on crime/thriller/psychological thriller/noir/hardboiled/cosy!!!

          Absolutely!

        • I’ve just come back to it after years (decades) away, but I’m trying to concentrate on some of the classics – either re-reads or ones I missed in my ealrier sci-fi period. It’s not a genre I know a huge deal about really. Have you read Ken Kalfus’ Equilateral? It’s a definite crossover – mainly lit-fic but with a lovely old-fashioned HG Wells type sci-fi plot…

      • I got all his books from the library – I couldn’t afford American hardbacks in the sixties, and I don’t remember seeing them in paper-back, so they weren’t lying about the house. This will be why you didn’t come across them.

    • Yay!! I’m almost certain you’ll love the later stories in the book, so if you’re not quite so taken with the first three or four, stick with it – it’s worth it!

  7. Look at the ship-like thing with the blue sail! What wouldn’t you give to have one of those! *trades guitar over immediately* Now I’m not sure where I’d go. But I’d go somewhere.

    Now I know Mr. Ray was a fan of the John C series. Were there any similarities that you could see?

    I’m also wondering if Sam’s is good.

    • No, no, no, no, NO!!!! Not the guitar! We’ll need music on the trip! We can trade my chocolate supply instead. We could go explore one of the old ruined cities and see if we can find any of the surviving Martians…

      Was he? Nope, absolutely no similarities at all – in fact, I’d find it hard to think of two books with less in common really. You’ll be delighted to hear that I don’t think you would love this as much as I did, so I haven’t put it on your list. *unusually kind smile*

      Poor man! All those hotdogs and no customers…

      • Yes…but…aw! You’d give up your chocolate to get one of those? That sounds super. That way you can learn some guitar. Yes! And Mark while we’re at it.

        Well, I thank you for that! I’ve only ever read one of his books. It was okay-ish. Sorta.

        I know. Well…can’t say I’d help him out either. A martian hotdog!

        • But if you’re teaching and I’m learning, then who’s steering?!? Ooh, yes – Mark! You have to wonder why he was eating all those potatoes when there was a hotdog stand.

          What one?

          They imported them from Earth though – along with the mustard and ketchup and stuff.

          • He probably didn’t spot it, the silly. Oh, I’m sure it has a GPS. You probably just have to program it.

            Fahrenheit 451. It was very depressing, too, I think.

            Still won’t help him! But Darby probably would.

            • Mark could drive it! What will you play? It’ll have to be something Mars-y…

              Yes, I’ve struggled through that one too. Didn’t enjoy it nearly as much as this.

              You can’t send my Darby to Mars! I won’t let you!!

            • I’m not even sure! I’ll probably have to arrange something Holst did. Could you imagine doing that? *dies from the pain*

              That’s because of that silly mechanical hound. He was depressing.

              He might be there already!

            • Oooooh, yes!!! Do!!! And then I must find a book about Jupiter so you can do that one too! Don’t worry about your pain – it’ll be worth it! *nods encouragingly*

              The whole thing was a bit silly, I thought, but don’t tell anyone ‘cos bookie people are supposed to think it’s dead profound and meaningful and stuff…

              Humph-noodles! He better not be dancing with Dejah Thoris…!

            • *laughs* It’ll have to wait. I just got the set piece. I don’t know why composers today have to be so ugly in their music.

              Yes, I’ve heard that…but it’s all dadblamery and you know it! Profound rats and a heifer!

              I bet she wouldn’t dance with him!

            • Oh, dear – I know! Especially in classical music – they seem to have lost the plot. What is the set piece? I’m unlikely to know it if it’s modern though.

              *laughs* You should have ripped it!

              Oh, the poor girl would probably be so thrilled at the idea of getting to wear a ballgown…

            • You know, it was composed specifically for the competition. It’s ugly, but fun to play. Your ears might fall off, if you hear it, see.

              You’re right! I should…

              Nah…remember how she thought of clothes? Hated them, you know.

            • What makes it fun to play? *holds onto ears*

              What happened to the Dune Messiah rip? *taps foot*

              Now I find the idea of Darby and Dejah dancing even more discombobulating…

            • The randomness of it! Plus, it’s kinda easy so far.

              Yes! I’m going to put the book on my desk. That’ll remind me. But you won’t like it!

              Darby would just have to go without too!

            • Easy to you! I bet there’s some poor souls sobbing over their strings… *laughs wickedly*

              Depends how cruel you are to Poor Princess Irulan… *growls warningly*

              Euwww! What a horrid idea!! *covers eyes*

            • I hope you’re right! But these guys (and gals) will all be so amazing. I’ll look like a bug in comparison!

              The professor will be very cruel! Do you still want me to?

              Such a mixed signal. And here I thought you liked the bathing scene and lake scene!

            • They’ll all be just as in awe of you! And rightly so, since you’re awesome! To them you will look like a giant bald-headed hornet – ferocious and scary!! I’ve listened to loads of guitarists since you messed with my youtube recs, professionals, and you’re as good as any of them and better than most. Because you play with your heart as well as your hands…

              Of course! *loads peashooter*

              *gasps* But he’s not naked!! Well, he might be in the bath but discreetly so! One doesn’t even get to see his cute round b…

            • That’s like the bestest of things to hear at the moment. When I watch people like Ana Vidovic, David Russell, and others…I’m awed by their technical mastery! But I do appreciate–lots–what you said! Makes me feel real spicy.

              Okay, then… *gets shield ready*

              *holds ears* I should never have let you read that book!

            • Well, I’m not qualified to compare the technical side and obviously that’s going to be important in the competition. But in ‘real life’, the greatest technical masters are not always the most enjoyable or successful artists, because interpretation and musical feel is at least as important as technical skill, if not more so. When I listen to David Russell, I get the same feeling as when I listen to you – that he loves what he’s playing, and therefore so do I. And I might be being unfair, ‘cos I’ve only listened to a couple of short pieces, but I don’t get that feeling with Ana Vidovic – with her, I can see how skilled she is technically, but her playing sounds like an exercise in skill rather than a piece of beautiful music and I don’t warm to her interpretation… but I’ll listen to more, because maybe I just picked the wrong ones. When listening to guitar music now, I do often find myself thinking ‘I’d love to hear how C-W-W would play that…’

              *calls Tuppence*

              Let me?!? You MADE me!!! Did you know there’s a slang Scottish word for butt – bahooky! Isn’t that… sweeter?

            • Yes! You’re exactly right! I’ve found the same thingies with how Ana plays. She’s an awesome player…but don’t be so robotic! Russell is awesome. He can make the guitar sing. (Plus, he’s got a cool accent, you know, you know.) *laughs* FEF, you make me feel so spicy!

              *hangs head* It’s true, I did. Bahooky! *laughing lots* Would you mind if I used this bunches?

            • *preens a little* I find that with a lot of them actually. And some of them seem to think that playing incredibly fast shows they’re better than everybody else – it’s as if they forget it’s actually about music.

              Bunches of bahookys sounds a bit… overwhelming…

            • *laughs* I really don’t – I only know what sounds good to me.

              *chuckles* Och, sometimes ye mak ma heid birl! But ca’ canny where ye use it!

  8. Glad you enjoyed this. I am always blown away by Bradbury’s writing, and I know what you mean about his defying genre definition. But that’s one of the things I love about his writing. Great review; thank you! 😀

    • Thanks, honya! For some reason I’ve not read any of his stuff until very recently – don’t know how I missed him! But I thought some of these stories were absolutely wonderful, so I can see I’m going to have to fit in some more – any particular recommendations? I’ve read Fahrenheit 451 and this, but that’s all.

      • Something Wicked This Way Comes is superbly creepy, in a good, old-fashioned way. From the Dust Returned is a wonderful story about a “family” of unique beings (think, maybe, Addams family?)–probably one of my favorites of his. And he has several wonderful short story collections, plus a number of works I haven’t read yet.

        • Thanks! 😀 They both look great so on the grounds that From the Dust Returned is on as a Kindle cheapie at the moment, I’ll go for it first, and add Something Wicked to the wishlist for later. I do have a collection of I think it’s 100 of his short stories, but as always it’s finding the time to read them. Somehow I find novels easier, oddly.

  9. The above comments remind me a little of when Vonnegut defined himself as a science fiction writer, and then spent years denying that his work was within the genre.

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