The Plot (Magill's Guide to Science Fiction and Fantasy Literature)
In January, 1999, the first manned rocket to Mars is launched from Ohio. So begins Ray Bradbury’s The Martian Chronicles, a book composed of fourteen stories and twelve sketches that are thematically connected and chronologically arranged. All but the last three stories take place between 1999 and 2005, during which time Mars is quickly settled and then, even more quickly, abandoned. People want to relocate on Mars primarily to escape tightening government controls and impending atomic war, but the Martians use their telepathic abilities to deceive and destroy the crews of the first three exploratory expeditions.
The fourth expedition succeeds because the Martians have been decimated by a plague of chicken pox inadvertently carried to Mars on a previous rocket. A crewman named Spender fears that people will come to Mars only for crass commercial and military purposes, not respecting and ultimately destroying what remains of a high Martian culture. Spender’s fears appear justified after Benjamin Driscoll (“The Green Morning”) discovers a quick way to make the Martian atmosphere more breathable. Human “locusts” now arrive in stages Bradbury likens to the development of the American West. In June of 2003, African Americans come in their own rockets (“Way in the Middle of the Air”).
“Night Meeting,” balancing quietly at the book’s center, records the first friendly meeting between a human (Tomás Gomez) and a Martian...
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The Martian Chronicles presents a series of connected tales ranging in time from January 1999 to October 2026. Most of the stories are set on Mars, although some—"Rocket Summer," which opens the collection, "Way In the Middle of the Air," and "There Will Come Soft Rains"—are set on Earth. Bradbury's Mars is shaped by the preconceptions of the astronauts and settlers who explore it; they project their fantasies upon the landscape, and create a world that will help them recall the one they have left behind. But despite the new settlements (built of Oregon pine and California redwood) and the new names (Iron Town, Grain Villa, Detroit II), the land remains inescapably alien.
Most of the native Martians are killed off early in the book by a chicken pox epidemic, carried over by the first waves of explorers. However, the traces of Martian civilization that remain—a few representatives of a near-vanished race, and their legacy, the beautiful shells of once-vital cities—constantly remind the visitors from Earth that they must adapt, rather than impose, patterns of behavior if they are to survive on this alien world.
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Bradbury was for years science fiction's premier literary stylist and, although his heavy use of adjectives and metaphors can seem cloying today, he remains one of the most sophisticated users of language in the genre. He is particularly fond of similes such as the one which opens "Rocket Summer," "housewives lumbering like great black bears in their furs along the icy streets," or, more startling, his description of spaceships landing on Mars in "The Locusts": "the rockets came like drums, beating in the night. The rockets came like locusts, swarming and settling in blooms of rosy smoke." In The Martian Chronicles, as in many of Bradbury's stories, such metaphoric language slips easily into allegory.
Bradbury also has a good ear for the patterns of small town and nonstandard English. At its best his dialogue is reminiscent of Hemingway's and Bradbury has always spoken of that writer as an influence. What most readers remember about the literary technique of The Martian Chronicles, however, are the complex, almost surrealistic, narrative passages, which contain Bradbury's beautiful and touching descriptions of normal people in very unusual settings.
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Bradbury was for years science fiction's premier literary stylist and, although his heavy use of adjectives and metaphors can seem cloying today, he remains one of the most sophisticated writers in the genre. He is particularly fond of similes, depicting "housewives lumbering like great black bears in their furs along the icy streets" in "Rocket Summer" and spaceships landing on Mars in "The Locusts": "The rockets came like drums, beating in the night. The rockets came like locusts, swarming and settling in blooms of rosy smoke." Much of the metaphoric language in The Martian Chronicles slips easily into allegory, adding depth to Bradbury's fiction.
Bradbury is a quintessentially American writer with a good ear for the patterns of small-town talk and nonstandard English. At its best, his dialogue is reminiscent of Hemingway's, and Bradbury has always spoken of that writer as an influence. What most readers remember about the literary technique of The Martian Chronicles, however, are the complex, almost surrealistic, narrative passages, which contain Bradbury's beautiful and touching descriptions of a far-away but strangely familiar world.
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Bradbury's social and political philosophy has always been humanist, liberal, pacifist, and populist, and the stories in The Martian Chronicles frequently reflect these positions. "Way in the Middle of the Air," for example, relates the disbelief and consternation of a group of white bigots when they discover that all of the local blacks have immigrated to Mars. "There Will Come Soft Rains" is a poignant if overly sentimental warning against both the evil of nuclear war and, more generally, the dangers of runaway technology. Several stories, including "The Martian" and "The Off Season," parallel the fate of the native Martians to that of the American Indian. In these stories Bradbury comments on both American culture's obsession with material wealth and the Manifest Destiny philosophy which has allowed Americans, in previous centuries and today, to feel that they have the moral justification to take that wealth from their less powerful cousins.
Bradbury's social and political philosophy has always been humanist, liberal, pacifist, and populist, and the stories in The Martian Chronicles frequently reflect these positions. "Way In the Middle of the Air," for example, relates the disbelief and consternation of a group of white bigots when they discover that all of the local blacks are emigrating to Mars. The bigots are shown to be cruel and, in the final analysis, fashioners of their own fate,...
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Topics for Discussion
1. What elements of the book make Mars seem realistic? What elements make it seem fantastic?
2. Why do most of the settlers choose to return to an Earth ravaged by nuclear war?
3. Do you sympathize with the Martians when they react with hostility toward the earliest delegates from Earth? Why or why not?
4. Why do you think Spender feels compelled to kill his companions in "And the Moon Be Still As Bright"? How feasible is his plan of slowing—and eventually halting—the space program? Why, despite all that he has heard, is the captain willing to kill Spender? Is this story a turning point in The Martian Chronicles?
5. What is the significance of the names given to towns, rivers, and cemeteries in "The Naming of Names"?
6. Who is the most fully drawn Martian character in the book? Who is the most fully drawn human character? Are the two characters at all similar?
7. Discuss the role of nostalgia in "The Third Expedition" and "The Martian." What is Bradbury saying about people's attachment to the past in these stories?
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Ideas for Reports and Papers
1. Read Bradbury's Fahrenheit 451, and compare his vision of censorship in that novel with the ideas in "Usher II."
2. Bradbury connected the longer stories in The Martian Chronicles by means of short, transitional passages. Choose one of these short pieces and expand it into a full-length short story.
3. In The Martian Chronicles, Bradbury has attempted to craft a coherent history of Martian colonization. Analyze Bradbury's book as a historical work. Is it internally consistent? What information does he leave out that you would most like to know? You may wish to evaluate his practice of affixing dates to each piece, and his habit of referring to characters and events from earlier stories in later pieces.
4. The Martian Chronicles was written almost two decades before the first astronauts landed on the moon. Although Bradbury is deliberately vague on the subject of technology, he does describe some futuristic devices in his stories. List some of the features of the first rocket ships to Mars as described in "The Earth Men," "The Third Expedition," and "And The Moon Be Still As Bright," and compare these ships with the first moon rockets.
5. Many critics have called Bradbury's writing style poetic. Choose one of your favorite passages in The Martian Chronicles and write a poem inspired by the images and ideas in Bradbury's prose.
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Bradbury is a quintessentially American writer and several mainstream literary influences can be detected in The Martian Chronicles. Hemingway and Poe have already been mentioned and Steinbeck's The Grapes of Wrath (1939) also seems to have played its part, especially in the short bridge chapters which Bradbury created when he was putting the stories into book form. The influence of any number of genre writers can also be detected, especially the Weird Tales authors Bradbury read as a teenager, along with such contemporaries and friends as Henry Kuttner, Leigh Brackett, and Robert Bloch.
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Next to work of Edgar Allan Poe and Edgar Rice Burroughs, Ray Bradbury's fiction is probably the most widely filmed of any American fantasy or science fiction writer. Any number of Bradbury's short stories have been adapted to the large and small screen, some of them by the author himself.
Fahrenheit 451 was made into a motion picture in 1967 by director Francois Truffaut and starred Julie Christie, Oskar Werner, and Cyril Cusack. Something Wicked This Way Comes was released in 1983 with Jack Clayton directing Jason Robards, Jonathan Pryce, Diane Ladd, and Pam Grier. This was a disappointing Disney production, scripted by Bradbury. The Illustrated Man was released in 1969, starring Rod Steiger, Claire Bloom, and Robert Drivas. It was directed by Jack Smight.
A television miniseries version of The Martian Chronicles, starring Rock Hudson, appeared in 1980. Plagued by a low budget, mediocre special effects, and poor pacing, and with time to do only a few of the stories in the book, it was unsuccessful.
In 1996, Byron Preiss Multimedia released a CD ROM, Ray Bradbury's The Martian Chronicles Adventure Game. It received very mixed reviews.
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For Further Reference
Greenberg, Martin Harry, and Joseph D. Olander, eds. Ray Bradbury. Writers of the Twenty-First Century Series. New York: Taplinger, 1980. An anthology of critical essays.
Johnson, Wayne L. Ray Bradbury. New York: Frederick Ungar, 1980. A solid introduction to Bradbury's work.
Nolan, William F. The Ray Bradbury Companion. Detroit: Gale Research, 1975. Fascinating hodgepodge of material gathered by a fellow author who was a friend and admirer of Bradbury.
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Bibliography (Masterplots II: American Fiction Series, Revised Edition)
Hoskinson, Kevin. “The Martian Chronicles and Fahrenheit 451: Ray Bradbury’s Cold War Novels.” Extrapolation 36 (Winter, 1995): 345-359. In this examination of The Martian Chronicles and Fahrenheit 451, Hoskinson explores the themes of conflict between individual conscience and the majority of society, individual conscience and loyalty to country, and the threat of nuclear warfare. Although written during the height of the Cold War, these novels reflect Bradbury’s optimism that political tensions could be overcome.
Miller, Walter James. Ray Bradbury’s “The Martian Chronicles”: A Critical Commentary. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1987. A detailed analysis of Bradbury’s masterpiece, offering a unique critical perspective on various aspects of the work.
Mogen, David. Ray Bradbury. Boston: Twayne, 1986. An excellent collection of critical essays on Bradbury’s novels, including The Martian Chronicles. Includes a selected bibliography and index.
Touponce, William F. Ray Bradbury and the Poetics of Reverie: Fantasy, Science Fiction, and the Reader. Ann Arbor, Mich.: UMI Press, 1984. Written from a reader-response critical perspective, Touponce’s study offers keen insight into Bradbury’s works, including The Martian Chronicles....
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