Publisher: Harper Voyager
Genre: Tomorrow Fiction/Social SF
Publication Date: 1950
Mars. Not the lifeless rock some may believe, but a world teeming with life. And as life on Earth spirals into war, it is to the red planet that eyes turn, and the rockets are aimed. But will humanity find salvation on Mars, or more danger . . ?
Continuing this month’s accidental reading list of books that are far older than me, The Martian Chronicles is one of Ray Bradbury’s most famous works, possibly eclipsed only by Farenheit 451. Despite his pedigree (he’s one of those rare science fiction authors to be fully adopted by non-genre readers), Bradbury is an author I haven’t read before. Though his back catalogue shows a lot of variety, most of his stories have never really seemed to be in my wheelhouse. But sometimes an author receives enough hype that you can’t help but look. In this case, I’m glad I did.
The Martian Chronicles is a fix-up of a whole bunch of short stories, some of which were written for this collection. As such, there’s no real central plot. No characters to string the thing together. In this, it reminds me a lot of Foundation, which is always a good thing, and like that masterpiece of SF, The Martian Chronicles covers a great deal of time, chronicling the entire history of Earthmen and their attempt to colonise Mars.
We start off seeing the Martians in their native environment. truth be told, the martians feel more like a nineteen-fifties American town than anything else. Even if they are telepathic and use a lot of crystals in their architecture, they still cling to the gender roles of the time it was written. It’s a feature, rather than a bug, but is worth bearing in mind as you find your footing. It is the early interactions of Martians and Earthmen that form the best part of the book, with Martians flat-out not believing that Earth can support life, and throwing the intrepid astronauts into an asylum. Once we start following human characters, the Martians largely disappear from the narrative as the attention goes to the societal changes a new planet brings. Right at the end, Bradbury leads us to the inevitable conclusion: At some point, humans became more Martian than Earthman.
This is a fairly short book, with a fairly large font. Even so, I was surprised by how quickly I got through it. The variety of length in the stories, from a few dozen pages to only a single page keeps things fresh, and the story rolls on rleentlessly, albeit slowly. Bradbury’s prose is simple, but elegant, and deeply engrossing. there’s nothing wasted with his writing, and every sentence is wonderfully evocative. You can see the glare of the rockets. Feel the blaze of the Martian sunrise. But his writing is also very gentle. There’s no real sense of threat. Not even as characters are murdered and incarcerated. It undercuts the action of the earlier stories, but as time goes on it suits the more melancholy direction the stories take. In the final stories, where Earth calls its children home and Mars stands largely empty, there’s a palpable sadness in Bradbury’s writing, achieving in ten words what some authors can’t in a thousand.
I don’t know if I’ll read any more Bradbury. So many of his stories just don’t seem like they’d be for me. But he is an author I’m going to be keeping an eye out for when I hit the shops. The Martian Chronicles is a classic deserving of the label, and is still an interesting read seventy years later.