Considering that I just finished taking a course that focused solely on the work of Ray Bradbury, I think it only fitting to name another Bradbury story as the Story of the Month. However, in this case, it is a collection of stories–introducing us to dozens of characters and spanning many years and locations (including two planets)–that are expertly woven into one fluid novel. Of course, I am talking about Ray Bradbury’s The Martian Chronicles, That’s Classic!‘s Story of the Month for May 2009.
The Martian Chronicles begins in the future, in the year 1999 (remember: this story was published around 1950!), on Earth. Americans have decided to explore Mars. In this first chapter, “Rocket Summer,” we watch as a powerful interplanetary rocket ignites and lifts off, instantly melting away the frozen Ohio winter. After the next chapter, “Ylla,” which is the only story solely told from a Martian’s point of view, we watch as Americans fly rocket after rocket in the hopes of reaching Mars.
At first, we aren’t ultimately sure of what Americans will do once they successfully land on Mars, if they survive long enough to at least set up a small base camp. Do they want to colonize the planet? Simply explore it? Coexist peacefully with the Martians? Wipe out the Martians completely? We aren’t too sure. But we do know that, back on Earth, everything is heading toward a full-scale nuclear war that could destroy the entire planet at any moment. So any motivations to colonize on Mars seem justified. But, as early as the fourth expedition of Mars, we see the American explorers start to disrespect the culture and people of Mars, from the way the boisterous Biggs litters and tosses empty bottles into a Martian river to the crew’s stoic response to chicken pox wiping out the entire Martian population. The only person sympathetic to the Martians (in almost the whole book), a man named Spender, goes crazy in his one-man quest to preserve the Martian culture, and therefore meets a fatal end. And, from that point on, “the men of Earth came to Mars” and didn’t stop coming…until settlers are irrevocably drawn back to Earth.
The Martian Chronicles is told through a bridge-chapter system. In other words, seemingly unrelated short stories are connected through the use of bridge chapters–short, usually one-page chapters that provide background or additional information to flush out the novel’s overarching story, allowing each shorter story to add to the overall story. (If you have read John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath, then you are already familiar with this structural concept of storytelling.) Although characters from each story rarely, if ever, appear in another story, the stories all build upon each other to express what Bradbury thoughts on humanity: no matter how well-intentioned people may be, no matter what we are running from or toward, if we don’t think things through and accept our own consequences, then we will ultimately destroy those around us, as well as ourselves. This is a grave observation, to be sure, but that doesn’t make it any less true.
Each story in The Martian Chronicles is deeply moving. Not only is the writing outstanding, but also the stories are innovative, sharp, and real. Okay, I’ll admit that there is barely anything in this novel that is “true.” Unlike in Bradbury’s book, Mars does not have an atmosphere and therefore is not capable of producing vegetation or supporting life, especially a race of beings superior, in every way imaginable, to humans. And, clearly, we are not capable of sending people out to Mars and having them survive. This is a book of fantasy, not science fiction (science fiction, in Bradbury’s opinion, implies the stretching of reality while maintaining scientific accuracy, whereas fantasy stretches the laws of basically everything). Yet, because of Bradbury’s attention to the destructive tendencies of humanity, this book reads more truthfully than does his science fiction classic Fahrenheit 451. There is something deeply emotional in each story of The Martian Chronicles that is lacking in his other novel. Bradbury can take humans, Martians, and even an inanimate object (i.e. a house) and give it life in such a way that we can’t help but sympathize with it. Who is the actual antagonist of this book? It’s difficult to decide. I’ll let you figure that out for yourself.
Whether you read this whole book in one sitting or only a story or two at a time, I can guarantee that you will be stretched in new ways. It will force you to examine yourself and your own participation in humanity. How would you act in these scenarios? How would you react to them? Would you be willing to save your own race at the expense of another? Would you ever get to the point that you’d turn on your own race? There are no easy answers. Only cold, hard truths.