Being a fan of science fiction and fantasy, I spend a fair amount of time on the web reading reviews, essays, criticism, listening to podcasts, writing comments when appropriate, in general trying to stay abreast of the genres’ history and current happenings. Coming across ‘best of’ lists online, I peruse whether I agree with the selections or not, as occasionally they may make you aware of a classic you may have overlooked. Over time I have noticed that some books rank routinely high from one perspective within the genre, for example Locus’s, while the same book can be completely absent at other locations, e.g. fan-made lists. Ray Bradbury’s 1950 The Martian Chronicles, however, is one of the few books I’ve seen which seems to transcend all perspectives, appearing on most every list I’ve encountered. What is its magic (and magic it is), let’s see.
Technically a collection, The Martian Chronicles is many short pieces of fiction strung together along a common theme. The theme the human settlement of Mars—by individuals rather than a group, Bradbury takes the reader back and forth between the two planets, “chronicling” the evolution of humanity’s takeover from the native Martians and transitioning the red planet into another Earth. Each story dated, he begins from the Martians’ perspective, shifts to the arriving astronauts, and then to the lives of those who choose to migrate. Touching upon religion, culture, domestic life, racism, metaphysical crises, and other subjects, Bradbury strikes at the heart of what it is to be human, for all its ugliness and beauty. In short, it is the perfect example of a book which holds a mirror to reality—even if its glass is blown from Martian sands.
I wrote ‘chronicling’ in quotes in the previous paragraph as Bradbury’s style is anything but dry. Reminiscent of John Steinbeck, The Martian Chronicles is written in a flowing, prosaic script that allows the individual characters to transcend their stories. Stereotypical enough to be familiar, yet original enough to have a voice wholly of their own, the stories are both symbolic and poignant. The Martians (as human as they are) have an air of eery beauty, while the humans who arrive possess every virtue and vice available. From environmental concern to egoism, honor to greed, Bradbury writes in deft, buoyant prose that is a joy to read. (The Martian fairyland described in the opening pieces are sublimely beautiful.)
Given the story arc described previously, it’s easy to ascribe a theme of Manifest Destiny (or anti-) to The Martian Chronicles. This would be a mistake. The stories in the collection examining individuals rather than groups, the echoes of Europe’s slow takeover of North America, Australia, South America, and New Zealand is only the foot in the door. Condemning certain aspects of humanity’s behavior while saluting others, Bradbury looks beyond a surface reading of man as a rapacious animal to look at the personal content to the motives and actions behind and which result. More empathetic and relatable than simple good vs. evil, perhaps the strongest aspect of the collection is the manner in which it comments without preaching, expresses truths without insulting. Like Steinbeck’s novels, the people described are as real as you and your neighbors, sublimely presented to comment on larger issues.
In the end, The Martian Chronicles is fully deserving of its place on all of the ‘best of’ lists. Bradbury using the simple tropes of science fiction to tell stories examining the human condition, it’s a book for those preferring the literary side of the genre—a fact only emphasized by the high quality of the author’s prose. Standing the test of time impeccably as a result, readers will find that while the majority of the sci-fi produced in the 50s dates itself rather quickly, The Martian Chronicles stands as a monument to the potential for the genre’s power and beauty. While I understand why Fahrenheit 451 is taught in public schools in the US, this book is better.