Dusted Off: Ray Bradbury’s The Martian Chronicles
Red Planet, dead planet: A trip down memory lane: Fifty-six years after publication, Ray Bradbury’s seminal science-fiction work retains its topical immediacy and barbed social critique
Let me get the glib part out of the way: Ray Bradbury’s best-known work, The Martian Chronicles, takes place in a strange no-man’s land where there aren’t enough Martians to suit a teenage boy, and too many Martians for a grown man.
Of course, this slippery dichotomy is essential to Bradbury’s vision. The enemies in The Martian Chronicles aren’t Martians. They’re imperialism, McCarthyism, Puritanism, Philistinism, capitalism, censorship, segregation and the atomic bomb. But mostly, the enemy is a false and corrupt nostalgia for an America that never was. In Bradbury’s world, sentimentality kills. The book was first published in 1950, and its immediacy must have been the key to its popularity. Maybe it still is.
The Martian Chronicles is a set of linked short stories dealing with Earth’s colonization of Mars. It’s set in the ruins of a once-magnificent Martian civilization. When Bradbury stays within his own parameters the stories have an appealing obliquity. But sometimes he submits to the temptation to pad things. The Poe-influenced story “Usher II,” for example, is of some interest as a precursor to Fahrenheit 451, but it doesn’t really belong on Bradbury’s Mars.
But perhaps Poe isn’t the real inspiration here. Bradbury has more in common with the Twain of “The Mysterious Stranger,” “Extract from Captain Stormfield’s Visit to Heaven” and “A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court.” Like those works, The Martian Chronicles can be read as a series of sharp, misanthropic jokes. Most of Bradbury’s human characters are made up of equal parts willful stupidity and gnawing loneliness. Consider: A dork opens up a hot dog stand in the shrieking nothingness of the Martian wilderness. Some jerk would rather be the last man on the planet (really) than make out with a fat lady. A drooling old cracker tries to stop black people from going to Mars, where they might catch a break.
Beauty is alien here, and pointedly rare. The best stories are eloquent miniatures of waste and emptiness, nearly as compact and devastating as Shelley’s great poem “Ozymandias.” Boys play in “black leaves” that “fly through the air, brittle, thin as tissue cut from midnight sky.” It’s the skin of dead Martians, wiped out by the arrival of the colonists. A Martian skull rolls into view “like a snowball.” The boys play xylophone tunes on the “peppermint-stick bones.”
What a beautiful evocation of the cruelty and naïveté of boyhood. For both Twain and Bradbury, America is a nation of boys.