“How would you feel if a Martian vomited stale liquor on the White House floor?”
Ray Bradbury’s The Martian Chronicles is a novel that should be read at least twice.
Read it first as the quaint, inventive work of fantasy that it is. The Red Planet of Bradbury’s imagination is peopled with small, light brown, golden-eyed, telepathic Martians. Masters of hallucination, they use memories and desires to create just the kind of world the arriving Earthmen want to see …. Or do they? But the reality is different – raining crystal pillars, beds of mist, wine canals and flaming birds to pull the chariots, guns whose bullets are deadly stinging bees …. Or is it?
Read it again as allegory or as satire against colonisation. Approach The Martian Chronicles if you can as a child of the 1950s, with the excitement and anticipation of the space-age dawn. See it, not so much as a fantasy but as a forecast, a forecast widely believed, even among scientists, that by the end of the century human beings would walk on Mars and begin colonising it. Full of hope, and wonder, we looked up in the starry Earth night – (yes, you could see the Galaxy then) – and dreamed of alien deserts, clouds, domed cities and perhaps ancient undiscovered civilisations. See it too as a different, more terrifying forecast of the apocalyptic nuclear war which, in the aftermath of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, many thought inevitable.
“At nine o’clock Earth seemed to explode, catch fire, and burn.”
Not unlike Asimov’s Foundation, written and published at about the same time, Bradbury’s Chronicles are episodic, more a short story series than a true novel. Indeed, most chapters read well enough as complete stories. The first three Mars expeditions end in death or madness for the explorers. However, the colonists keep arriving, and building, and planting. The Martians are irrelevant; in fact, many of the colonists don’t believe in them. By the time the fourth expedition lands, they seem to have been (almost) wiped out in a chicken-pox epidemic. However, once in while a Martian appears, sometimes several; they are blue spheres; they are beings of no substance. The priests want to convert them and try, but discover they are pure souls already. By the end, Earth has gone and the few colonists who remain are alone …. But are they?
The Martian Chronicles is short on character; the Earthmen are types rather than real people. There are episodes where it is difficult to decide whether the author is being serious, bleakly humorous or outrageously so. But whatever his mood, Ray Bradbury manages throughout the book to expose the foibles, prejudices and aggressions of the human species. It is a book that makes us ask questions about human motives, human beliefs and the uncertain future. It is fun too and, for a child of the fifties sheer nostalgia.
Today, we realise that Mars is probably a dead world with little or no atmosphere, and little chance of supporting life of any kind. But what were our thoughts back then, when Ray Bradbury began his futuristic literary journey in Ohio, in the Rocket Summer of January 1999?
“The Martians were there. Timothy began to shiver. The Martians were there – in the canal – reflected in the water ….”
What was Mars really like in 1950? You’ll have to read The Martian Chronicles to find out!