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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 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.
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.
All illustrations © Les Edwards 2009.