The Martian Chronicles by Ray Bradbury is not a story in the traditional sense. In Bradbury’s own words, it is a series of “Martian penseés, Shakespearean ‘asides,’ wondering thoughts, night visions, predawn half-dreams.” So hop aboard for a lyrical ride with Bradbury and Unintended Consequences.
Bradbury scribbled a dozen different tales of Mars and its folk before 1947, then filed them in a drawer. The tales might have languished there except for an editor at Doubleday. The editor suggested Bradbury had woven an unseen tapestry of Mars. Bradbury wrote an outline stitching his earlier writing together with new tales. The collection was published as Bradbury’s second book in 1950.
If you are the type of reader who needs to have a primary character to follow from one action to another, this may not be the book for you. But if you can ride the words, you’ll soar through the “Rocket Summer,” walk through a house of crystal pillars, hear ancient voices sing, and feel the Martian winds. You’ll take a ride like none other.
WHAT IT’S ABOUT
It’s difficult to write a summary that does Bradbury’s words justice. The penseé, or chapters, range from a single page expressing a vision, an emotion, or tone to true stories that are many pages long. It’s like an annotated timeline of the history of Mars. Each annotation represents a different slice of time.
Throughout, there is a visceral understanding of the loneliness of a new frontier and the passing of a dying culture. You sympathize with many of the characters who cherish and pursue a dream, usually a variation of the “American Dream.” But, because man brings his darkest fears and brightest hopes with him to Mars, there is a price, some unintended consequence, to be paid.
Not even the Martians are immune to this. In “February 2030: Ylla” we observe Mr. and Mrs. K, true Martians, once happy but not happy now. Mrs. K is haunted by dreams of a man from the sky and hums a foreign tune. She feels compelled to wait for an event to happen, for the man from the sky. Mr. K finds her obsession with this dream very unsettling. So he attempts to distract her, to take her away. When that doesn’t work, he tricks her into staying in the house on the very day she senses that the man from the sky will arrive. And though he doesn’t quite believe, Mr. K arms himself and goes hunting. When two shots ring out, though neither we nor Mrs. K witnesses it, we are convinced he has killed the astronaut and we mourn with Mrs. K.
There are many memorable scenes and characters:
Benjamin Driscoll, in “December 2032: The Green Morning,” arrives on Mars barely able to breathe its thin air. He refuses to be sent home. Instead, he creates more oxygen by planting trees and grass, becoming a “Johnny Appleseed” of sorts. While planting trees, he becomes aware that his chest and lungs are adapting to the Martian atmosphere. And the reader wonders if he will pay an unintended consequence.
In “August 2033: Night Meeting” Tomás Gomez meets a Martian he cannot touch in the “hills between time” and learns not to ask what is future and what is past.
The owner of the food stand at the crossroads misunderstands what the Martian in his machine is trying to tell him. And when he makes a decision based on that misperception, he pays the price.
While some of the characters in the book are genuinely trying to do the right thing, others are out for vengeance. Everyone is powerful. As a whole, the book evokes a hauntingly mournful, yet hopeful, feeling that stuck with me long after I finished reading.
How the Red Planet Is Portrayed
Don’t expect detailed description in the Martian Chronicles. The planet is hot and dry and mostly barren. Houses of crystal pillars, fossil seas, canals, and distant mountains are usually unimportant except as props. The emotional resonance is what matters in this book. And Mr. Bradbury delivers plenty in that area. You feel how ancient Mars is, how time is different there, and how silently the planet waits. You understand that man will renew Mars . . . for a time. You also understand man’s time on Mars is just a piece of the planet’s history, that it will wait, silently, for all time.
About Ray Bradbury
Ray Bradbury (August 1920 – June 2012) ended his formal education when he graduated from high school. He began selling newspapers by day and writing at night. During almost seventy years of writing, he had more than five hundred works published. But he didn’t just write novels, short stories, and essays, he produced an animated film, wrote plays and screenplays, was a creative consultant for the 1964 New York World’s Fair, and created interior metaphors for the Spaceship Earth display at Epcot Center, Disney. Other iconic titles by Ray Bradbury include The Illustrated Man, Fahrenheit 451, and Something Wicked This Way Comes. You can find a complete list of his books here.
Bradbury’s accomplishments, publications, and awards are too numerous to include in the blog. Please go to his website at raybradbury.com or read Sam Weller’s authorized biography, The Bradbury Chronicles: The Life of Ray Bradbury, to learn more about him.
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Whew! That was some trip! I hope that if you haven’t read The Martian Chronicles, you’ll give it a try.
Have you read the Martian Chronicles? What did you think? If you haven’t read the Chronicles, I’d love to hear about what book you’ve read that affected you long after you finished.