Countless 16-year-old boys have certainly been disappointed by this book over the years. The Martian Chronicles is not The War of the Worlds and certainly not Star Wars. There are no battles in outer space here. No alien abductions. No slimy creatures with six tentacles and three eyes. Almost all of the “action” takes place at the emotional and psychological level—the drama inside the drama so to speak.
In fact, Mars is almost inconsequential in the tales that comprise Ray Bradbury’s Chronicles. With a few minor modifications, many of them could be set on Earth with little loss in their overall impact. The author has credited Sherwood Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio (1919) as a source of inspiration for this book, and one couldn’t blame readers today for concluding that Ray Bradbury’s Mars is very much like the American Midwest of the first half of the 20th Century.
In “The Wilderness,” a 1952 story that Bradbury added to the book in 1974— he has tinkered with The Martian Chronicles quite a bit over the years— the plot unfolds in Independence, Missouri, and focuses on a woman’s nostalgic journey around her home town as she prepares to leave on a space flight to meet her future husband on Mars. Much the same story could be constructed about a couple during the time of the Pilgrims or the California Gold Rush, or even the Trojan War for that matter; and the details that “date” the tale are Midwestern, not sci-fi, in nature. Bradbury grafts an interplanetary angle on to his account, but it adds little to this sweet, wistful miniature. “Usher II,” a tale about a book lover devoted to Edgar Allan Poe who wants to get some revenge against literary censors, is very much in the spirit of Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451, but the elements of the plot that tie it to Mars are (once again) superficial at best.
I find it amusing that the author changed the dates on his stories—advancing them forward by 30 years—for a revised edition of his book. This Mars is no more “realistic” from a scientific or technological perspective, whether the story is set in 1997 or 2037 or 2525. Bradbury’s Mars reflects the world he was dealing with in the 1940s when he wrote these stories, and only becomes more incongruous the more we push it out into the future. The “futuristic” technology adds to the charm of these stories, rather than to their verisimilitude.
Yet if I dismiss the “scientific” angles here, I only do so to put greater emphasis on the more compelling aspects of Bradbury’ s book. Jorge Luis Borges wrote the introduction to the 1954 Spanish translation of this book, Cronicas Marcianas, and called attention to the sense of “horror and loneliness” that pervades the work. Instead of the fixation on technology that Bradbury’s peers brought to their writing, this author is interested in how technology isolates and haunts the people who use it. There is truly a ghost in the machine here, although perhaps not the one philosopher Gilbert Ryle's intended when he first employed the phrase. Bradbury's skill at conveying this type of "spooky loneliness" is unsurpassed in the field of genre fiction, and only a handful of sci-fi books (for example, Stanislaw Lem’s Solaris and Ursula K. Le Guin’s The Left Hand of Darkness) come close to Bradbury’s work in this regard.
His astronauts are more alienated than triumphant—all the more striking given the heroic terms in which space explorers are typically conceived in stories of this period. In “—And the Moon Be Still as Bright” and “The Settlers” we encounter the renegade Spender, who leaves the rest of the crew of the Martian expeditionary force behind in disgust at their crass disrespect for the new planet. He later returns to kill his crewmates, one by one. And his Captain, who should be brutal in retaliating, finds that he too shares this tragic sense of being an intruder in a pristine world 50 million miles from home.
Two of the most powerful stories in The Martian Chronicles focus on mourning for dead family members, poignant tales with little in common with typical pulp fiction fare. In the story “The Martian,” we meet a couple who have relocated to the Red Planet, but still lament the loss of their son who died on Earth years ago. When a strange creature arrives at their door and artfully imitates the dead youngster Tom, they find themselves hopelessly attracted to the illusion and the solace it brings. In another story, a settler isolated on Mars constructs realistic automatons that play the part of his dead family. Even when aliens or technology intervene, Bradbury always searches out the human angle, running counter to every expectation of the sci-fi genre.
Yes, action and warfare figure occasionally in the plot. But Bradbury—in a strange quirk that recurs in his writing— prefers to view them from very, very far away. Nuclear war devastates the planet Earth in the story “The Off Season,” but the author presents it from the perspective of a hot dog stand operator on Mars, who is so distant from the events that he can hardly comprehend their significance. Another similar story looks at atomic annihilation from the standpoint of a luggage retailer on Mars, who is similarly removed from the heart of the action. At one point in The Martian Chronicles, an epidemic wipes out most of the indigenous Martian population, yet Bradbury deals with this in passing, tossing off in a few paragraphs what, in the hands of other authors, would serve as a pivotal moment in the narrative.
Unlike an Isaac Asimov, who could wrap his mind around centuries and galaxies, Bradbury prefers to view his tragedies on the intimate level of a person or family, or perhaps a community. His main topic in The Martian Chronicles is ostensibly two entire worlds coming to grips with each other, but his sensibility constantly draws him to smaller scale situations. This is his characteristic strength, and the reason why our author achieved a level of respectability in highbrow literary circles that no other genre writer of his generation could match. As he demonstrates again and again in The Martian Chronicles, Bradbury did not need to dazzle us with science in order to make his mark as a storyteller. He could have kept all the rockets back on the earth, and still earned a stack of awards. Few sixteen-year-olds will appreciate the subtleties of this book, but when they grow up, the more perspicacious among them may find that The Martian Chronicles is a winner even without the special effects.