Story of the Month, May 2009

One of many covers for the book The Martian Chronicles. Thanks to barnesandnoble.com for the use of this image.

One of many covers for the book The Martian Chronicles. Thanks to barnesandnoble.com for the use of this image.

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 ChroniclesThat’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.

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Published in: on May 18, 2009 at 12:08 am  Leave a Comment  
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Top 10 Classics, According to That’s Classic!

Any Top 10 list of classics would be highly subjective, just like any list of Top 10 albums or movies would be. (Is it any wonder why the American Film Institute’s 100 Years…100 Movies list changed so much in ten years’ time?) It all really comes down to personal preference and what you look for when you pick up a book. Action? Drama? Dialogue? Scene? Characters? Mind candy? Well, chances are, if you’re looking merely for mind candy, then you’ll be disappointed with this Top 10 list. Because this list is all about books that stretch your mind and your beliefs and your morals. This list has books that change you, that take you on a journey, that reveal something about life—and yourself—to you. This is my list of Top 10 Classics. These are the books that have changed my life. I hope that you’ll give them a chance to change your life, too. And, this goes without saying, they all come with my highest recommendation. (Complete analysis soon to follow.)

  1. Crime and Punishment by Fyodor Dostoevsky-I can’t help but put this epic of classic literature at the top of my list. C&P follows Rodion Romanovich Raskolnikov, a young ex-university student who, like most of those around him, can barely get by. He convinces himself that he is a “superman,” and therefore doesn’t need to follow the same moral code as everyone else. As a result of this belief, he plans to murder a local pawnbroker, someone who he feels has wronged him and many others by paying small amounts for their prized possessions they must sell to survive. When he does finally kill the pawnbroker, her sister catches him, so Raskolnikov has no choice but to kill the sister, a murder he had not planned on. He spends the rest of the book battling his conscious and madness–which are perhaps the same thing–as he weighs his options. To confess or not to confess? To succumb to guilt or prove to himself that he is indeed a superman and without guilt? While the setting of this book is foreign to modern-day readers, Raskolnikov’s struggle with his own guilt and mortality are things that today’s readers can understand, or at least relate to. Dostoevsky writes with such honesty and really explores the human mind. He is able to sway our prior convictions about murderers and convinces us to sympathize with Raskolnikov and his moral ambiguity. For more about this masterpiece, please see the Story of the Month, December 2008 by clicking here.
  2. In Cold Blood by Truman Capote
  3. The Martian Chronicles by Ray Bradbury
  4. Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen
  5. The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald
  6. Julius Caesar by William Shakespeare
  7. The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath
  8. Catch-22 by Joseph Heller
  9. The Phantom of the Opera by Gaston Leroux
  10. Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov-This book completely took me by surprise. I had heard mixed reviews of it; I think people either hate it or love it. There’s a similar reaction to the book’s protagonist, Humbert Humbert: people either hate him or love him (in a manner of speaking). There’s no real surprise there. Humbert’s a man in his thirties who seems “normal” to everyone he meets but confesses to us readers (in Nabokov’s expertly-crafted novel-as-mock-deposition) his deepest and darkest pedophilic thoughts. In this almost journal-like novel, Humbert re-tells his sexual history including how he met, seduced, and carried on a relationship with the pre-teen Lolita. As disturbing as that may sound, it is nevertheless a wonderfully written book. The reason this book surprised me so much was that I really liked Humbert. I found him unbelievably interesting and clever and oh-so-charming. Like Dostoevsky teaches us to accept and even like Raskolnikov, Nabokov teaches us to at least listen to the ever-amusing Humbert Humbert. He is truly one of the most interesting characters that I’ve ever encountered.