There is this great short story called “Sun and Shadow” in which a man named Ricardo tries to prevent a photographer from photographing his house while thinking back to all of the personal history that has occurred there. It’s a beautiful story, one that has always stuck with me, and it was the first thing I ever read by Ray Bradbury. As much as I liked Fahrenheit 451, “Sun and Shadow” is the standard of Bradbury’s writing for me. And so I was looking forward to my book club’s second selection, The Martian Chronicles.
Less a single narrative like his arguably most famous work and more a series of moments in individuals’ lives, The Martian Chronicles traces the first attempt of humans to colonize Mars in the face of impending global destruction on Earth. The book opens with a bored Martian housewife gazing over her alien landscape and experiencing increasingly vivid dreams that portend the coming of astronauts from Earth. The Martians in Bradbury’s depiction are remarkably similar to us, expressing concern and fear over this alien race invading their planet. The vignettes continue from the human perspective, focusing on the first landings, the disappearance of the Martians, the establishment of human colonies, and the feelings of those left on earth until almost everyone goes home to fight in the final battle.
I felt strangely disquieted by Bradbury’s tale. From the beginning, the anxieties of both Martian and human life on Mars mirror the anxieties of Bradbury’s (and, let’s be real, our) time, ranging from the stresses of relationships and business ventures to the larger issues of human intelligence and racism. The entire book was rather dreamlike but a dream where something is off, like that random diminished chord in an otherwise major piece of music. I was completely stressed out by the second story where the first astronauts land on Mars, expecting a hero’s welcome, parade, and the key to the Martian planet and getting increasingly desperate for such recognition in the face of Martian indifference. I wanted to yell at them, “You are not the most important thing in the universe! Stop thinking that and get back to your ship! It’s a trap! It’s a traaaaaaappp!!!!!!!!” Similar moments of high anxiety punctuated what otherwise seemed to be a gradual disappearance of the Martians in the face of sturdy American industrialism and exploration. The threat (or promise?) of the Martians’ return is always present, though, nowhere more obvious than in the last chapter as the one family who escaped Earth’s final moments sail through the loud, watchful silence of Mars’ great, abandoned Venetian cities, oppressive in their emptiness.
The entire book is eerie, but that’s what I think I’m supposed to feel. One of literature’s great writers of science fiction (and fiction in general), Bradbury appears to be less than in favor of space colonization. For hundreds of years human exploration has walked hand and hand with destruction of the discovered, and so the human experience on Mars is never easy, never straightforward, always slightly (or more than slightly) off. Like Fahrenheit 451, The Martian Chronicles seems to function as a warning about human progress: unless we make changes both individually and societally, we will continue to perpetrate the same crimes of humanity we’ve been committing for years, sullying the potential of exploration. But by creating something beautiful yet unsettling in its familiarity and otherness rather than a blatant scare piece, Bradbury makes sure his ideas stick with you from the moment you start reading to long after you’re done. It’s really quite masterful. Though not his most famous work, it is absolutely worth a read. I don’t think you’ll be sorry.