The Martian Chronicles - Ray Bradbury

The night came down around them, and there were stars. But Timothy couldn’t find Earth. It had already set.

The Martian Chronicles, p. 240

Ray Bradbury’s The Martian Chronicles is a melancholy book, in a way reminiscent of the great tradition of the Western. It is a tale of dusty, empty plains, haunted by deep time and the ghosts of the past, slowly becoming the birthplace of a new world. Here, the landscape is the protagonist, and people (Martian and Earthman both) merely play out their lives in its cradle.

Martian Chronicles

[Mars] is ancient and different, and we have to set down somewhere and start fouling it up. We’ll call the canal the Rockefeller Canal and the mountain King George Mountain and the sea the Dupont Sea, and there’ll be Roosevelt and Lincoln and Coolidge cities and it won’t ever be right, when there are the proper names for these places.

The Martian Chronicles, p. 71

A subtle writer Bradbury is not, yet sometimes the clarity and frankness with which he underlines his themes is remarkable in its simplicity. His theses he states boldly, and these are in themselves conflicted, and nuanced, and make one think of the America that was, the America that could have been, and the America that could yet be. And most importantly, he acknowledges that this negotiation is always up to the current generation. Are we doomed to repeat history? Or is it possible to learn from it, to avoid becoming just another victim to it?

And yet for all his practicality and no-nonsense attitude, it is the Romantics Bradbury references, as often by sheer circumstantial allusion as more directly by name. In the first half of the book, while Mars is yet untamed by Earthmen, it is Byron and Shelley’s visions that are contrasted to boorish post-war American jingoism. In an echo of Robert E. Howards' implicit condemnation of civilisation, Bradbury describes the transformation of Mars from a decadent post-scarcity failed-utopia to an unexplored land of opportunity, appealing to adventurous explorers looking for new colonial domains to annex (complicitly oblivious to the genocidal plague they carry, in a horrific repeat of the smallpox contact epidemic in the Americas), then into an analogue of the Frontier, appealing to misfits and loners, then finally to a more civilised space of cities and creature comforts. In this more “civilised” hypostasis of Mars, Bradbury calls on Poe and Lewis Carroll’s characters and settings to paint a bleak picture of post-war government and private bureaucracy as essentially philistine and anti-intellectual, but in a boringly mundane and self-interested way (contrasting with the utilitarian, but not unprincipled tradeoff in Brave New World) in a story that takes place in the same universe as Bradbury’s famed Fahrenheit 451.

And here lies the central conceit of the whole tale – Bradbury’s Mars, with its decaying society and ecosystem, its canals, its abandoned highways and its dead cities, is not Mars at all, just like America was not always America. It is a repository of both the nightmares of colonialism and the hopes for a better world, a new world that breaks clearly with the old, the unwelcome legacies of the past.

But even in this purported liberation from the ghosts of the past, Bradbury questions the hubris of such a project, of thinking one can simply erase history, live without historical sense at all. One of the most memorable stories in the whole volume is There will come soft rains, named after the eponymous Sara Teasdale poem. The short story is uncharactersitically subtle and understated for this volume – it initially seems to be akin to advertising for the 50’s Googie House of the Future, a fully-automated single-family home, presumably located in the vast suburban expanses of a major US city. Gradually however it is revealed via increasingly obvious clues that the occupants have been incinerated in a global thermonuclear war, and the house is simply going through the motions of everyday life, obliviously blathering ironically-fitting poems to no one at all except the burnt-into-the-wall shadows of the former owners.

Atomic Shadows - (c) Yoshito, Matsughige 松重美人

Finally, besides a Martian bonfire consuming what might well have been the last map of the Earth, through (a very 1950s) Adamic family, Bradbury concedes burning away the shackles of the past is necessary for new things to grow, but so is learning from it. Mars is to be colonised a second time by the last remnants of humanity fleeing Earth, this time without any colonial spirit or Frontier mentality, but rather with an acute awareness of their charge not just to go on, but adopt Mars as their own, become more than merely human, become the new Martians:

The Martians were there – in the canal – reflected in the water. Timothy and Michael and Robert and Mom and Dad. The Martians stared back up at them for a long, long silent time from the rippling water….

The Martian Chronicles, p. 241