Going to Mars, Word by Word: Bradbury and Unintended Consequences

image of Martian in his Machine, illustration for Martian ChroniclesThe 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.” He relates that he 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 who 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, soar through the “Rocket Summer,” walk though the house of crystal pillars, hear the ancient voices singing, feel the Martian winds – you’ll take a ride like none other.


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, with each annotation 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. 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 witness 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 and is inspired to create more oxygen by planting trees and grass, becoming a “Johnny Appleseed” of sorts. As he plants tree after tree, he is aware that his chest and lungs are adapting to the Martian atmosphere and we are left to wonder if he is going to 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, makes a decision based on that misperception, and pays the price.

Some of the characters in the book are genuinely trying to do the right thing, others are out for vengeance. Every one 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

There is very little detailed description of any kind 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 and 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. The Martian Chronicles is only one book by Bradbury that you might recognize. Other iconic titles include The Illustrated Man, Fahrenheit 451, and Something Wicked This Way Comes. You can find a more 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.


4 thoughts on “Going to Mars, Word by Word: Bradbury and Unintended Consequences

  1. I have not read The Martian Chronicles, but it sounds cool, now that I know it’s really a cobbled-together anthology of short stories. I recently read a YA novel by Rosemary Graham called Stalker Girl, and I’m still thinking about it. I know people who’ve done crazy things the main character did, which was probably why she was so relatable!

  2. Sadly, as you say, this might not be the book for me. I like to have a primary character to follow and I tend to lose interest if I don’t. But I loved your overview of this book 🙂

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