September 14, 2012

Friday Review: The Martian Chronicles

When Ray Bradbury died back in June, I realized that I had read very little of the man’s work. A lot of it I felt like I knew through osmosis, but when it came to sitting down and dealing with the words themselves, I hadn’t done a lot of it. So I dedicated myself to going back and rereading Fahrenheit 451 (and rewatching the Truffaut film) and finally getting around to reading (well, listening to) The Martian Chronicles.

The Martian Chronicles is an odd duck in a couple of ways. First, although it’s frequently referred to as a “novel,” it really is a collection of short stories. A few characters recur here and there, but for the most part the only constant from one story to the next is the setting (and even that is tenuous) and the shared future history of which they are a part.

The other oddity, at least for a 21st-century audience, is that despite the title and general plot about the human settlement of Mars, The Martian Chronicles isn’t science fiction (Bradbury said the only long form sci-fi he wrote was Fahrenheit 451). In an introduction to the written version I have, Bradbury asks:
[W]hat is Chronicles? It is King Tut out of the tomb when I was three, Norse Eddas when I was six, and Roman/Greek gods that romanced me when I was ten: pure myth. If it had been practical technologically efficient science fiction, it would have long since fallen to rust by the road.
Of course, The Martian Chronicles was written in a pre-NASA age when we didn’t really know what Mars was like in any tangible sense. It’s hard to go back to that space in your head in the 21st-century, when we’ve got rovers all over (although George R.R. Martin and others are going to try). However it’s classified, The Martian Chronicles does have, as a through line, a commentary on humanity and how it interacts with its environment.

It’s not a flattering commentary. On Mars, we wipe out the native population due to diseases we bring with us, so at least it wasn’t intentional, although it was careless (we’re more careful these days). We then promptly begin to turn frontier Mars into a pale simulacrum of the Earth left behind (well, to be fair, of the United States), complete with run-down roadside diners and meddling bureaucrats. Meanwhile, back on Earth, things chug inevitably to a nuclear war that basically destroys the place.

In other words, everything we humans touch turns to shit. In fact, Bradbury’s view, which is even more cynical than mine (*shudder*), seems to be based on the assumption that the ideal world is the one in which he grew up, small-town middle America in the years before the Second World War. That yearning comes through clear in not only some of the stories here (“The Third Expedition,” most specifically), but even in Fahrenheit 451 (the heroes escape the cities for the countryside) and Something Wicked This Way Comes.

Regardless of the overall tone, since The Martian Chronicles is a short story collection it, by definition, rises and falls in terms of quality from one story to the next. To be certain, there are some absolute gems. In “The Earth Men,” the second batch of humans to arrive on the planet are met not with any fanfare or acclaim, but with shrugs (for a very interesting reason). In “The Martian,” a lone native’s ability to be all things to all people leads to a tragic end. And, of course, “There Will Come Soft Rains,” an elegy for the destroyed Earth. Alas, there are some clunkers, too. “The Silent Towns,” for example, is dazzlingly sexist. But the balance is firmly tipped toward brilliant.

I mentioned watching Truffaut’s film version of Fahrenheit 451 earlier. The Martian Chronicles also was produced for the screen, albeit the small one in a 1979 NBC/BBC production. It’s not as bad as you might think, although it looks horribly dated. Richard Matheson (of I Am Legend and countless Twilight Zone episodes fame) wrote the script, which tried to tell a more cohesive story, tying together certain stories that really weren’t related. It didn’t really work, partly because the attempt was too forced. Besides, Matheson left out my favorite story, so I took that a bit personally.

The other reason the TV version of The Martian Chronicles ultimately failed is that Bradbury is a writer who demands to be read (or listened to). He writes with a style and beauty that is mostly lost when the plots and ideas are translated to another medium. It has a musical quality, the kind you simply can’t put into words yourself in order to describe it.

Thank you, Ray, for your words. We will continue to enjoy them for a long time coming.

The Details
The Martian Chronicles
By Ray Bradbury
Published 1950

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