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Last Updated on January 4, 2021, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1186

Though The Martian Chronicles consists of chronologically arranged stories and sketches having to do with the exploration and colonization of Mars at the end of the twentieth century, Ray Bradbury has provided enough unity to justify calling the work a novel. The book contains fourteen stories and twelve sketches, though one might dispute the proper classification for a long sketch, “The Musicians,” about children playing among the dried corpses of dead Martians, and for the brief story, “There Will Come Soft Rains,” about the death of a mechanized house in California which continued to function for years after an atom-bomb blast killed its human occupants.

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These pieces can be divided according to phases in humanity’s relationship to Mars. The first seven pieces are concerned with attempts to complete a successful expedition to Mars. The next fourteen pieces move through colonization toward exploitation of the planet. The next four cover the desertion of the colonies as people return to Earth after an atomic war begins in 2005. The last story tells how a remnant of what was best on Earth, having escaped the final conflagration, begins again on Mars. Within this structure, three stories stand out for their thematic importance in tying the whole work together: “—And the Moon Be Still as Bright,” which ends the section on expeditions, “The Off Season,” which ends the section on colonization and exploitation, and “The Million-Year Picnic,” the final story.

Only the fourth expedition to Mars is successful. Each of the first three is destroyed, in part because of the telepathic powers of Martians. The first two men are killed by a jealous Martian husband whose unhappy wife has dreamed of the arrival of an attractive Earthman. A Martian psychiatrist kills the second crew as the only cure for their captain’s perfect hallucination; apparently, thinking that one is from Earth becomes a serious mental disease on Mars. The third expedition is killed in what at first appears a diabolical plot. The Martians create a hallucination which convinces each member of the crew that his lost loved ones have been given a second chance at life on Mars. Having made the crew feel fully at home, the Martians kill each member in the night. The story becomes a little odd when the illusion of a small town continues through the funeral for the dead crew; the Martians continue to “be” the dead relatives, at least until “their” dead are buried. This oddness may be explained in a story which comes near the end of the next division of pieces. In “The Martian,” one of the few remaining living Martians appears among Earth colonists as one who unwillingly becomes the person whom those about him wish most to see. This story resonates with that of the third expedition, suggesting more complexity in this unusual “telepathic” power to become the person whom someone else desires. When the fourth expedition arrives on Mars, virtually all of the Martians have succumbed to chicken pox. Though there appears to be no Martians left, Spender, one crew member, transforms himself into a “Martian” and attempts one last defense of the planet from the dangers of colonization. “—And the Moon Be Still as Bright” is a key story because it announces the theme of conflict between a majority, which sees Mars as a new America to be exploited for its material wealth and living space, and a minority, which sees Mars as a new source of wisdom and spiritual value.

Spender responds to the dead planet with awe and with respect for those who built the civilization of which there are such rich remains. He sees that most of his fellow voyagers are intent on material treasure and are without comprehension of or appreciation for what the remains of Martian culture might offer. To them, the Martians are like the American Indians, now fortunately out of the way. To him, as he quickly begins to learn about them, they are possessors of answers to age-old human conflicts over the question of what is of essential value. In conversations with Captain Wilder, Spender makes it clear that Martians believed that living was of value in itself and, therefore, allowed no other values to supersede the value of life. It becomes clear that this central value, along with other values which Spender sees reflected in Martian culture, is not to prevail in the colonization and exploitation of Mars. 

In the fourteen pieces which tell of these processes, commercial and exploitative interests dominate. In the sketches, Bradbury documents the broad cultural movements, while in the stories, he tends to emphasize the minority countermovement: the protoecologist who plants trees to increase the oxygen, the young worker who enters a kind of “time-warp” to meet an ancient or future Martian and to realize their essential similarity, the Southern blacks who secretly arrange a mass exodus to Mars to escape segregation, and the millionaire eccentric who takes revenge on the arrogant forces of cultural conformity. These predominantly comic stories are placed against a backdrop of impending atomic war on Earth and the spread to Mars of the attitudes which have led to this war. “The Off Season” illustrates these destructive attitudes nicely. Sam Parkhill, a member of the fourth expedition, has found a prime location at which to set up the only hot-dog stand on Mars. Within days, thousands of surplus laborers will arrive from Earth to work in “the mines,” and he will rake in cash selling them familiar food. As he glories in dreams of profit, an emissary of the few surviving Martians arrives to deed him half of the planet and to tell him some news he has not yet heard, that a world war has started on Earth. Parkhill is convinced that the Martians, resentful at the loss of their planet, intend to prevent his realizing his dream. He kills the emissary, then flees from other Martians, killing several more before they can make their intentions clear. He kills them because he can see them only through his own greed and guilt.

The Martian attitude toward Sam seems a compound of irony and pity. They appreciate, along with Sam’s wife and the reader, the irony that Sam’s business will fail because attitudes such as Sam’s predominate on Earth. They may deed him so much territory out of pity at his loss of his home or out of irony because the site’s commercial value is gone. The values by which Sam lives are ultimately self-destructive. Sam Parkhill embodies the destructive values which bring about the end of Earth. Spender, the converted Martian, articulates the minority values which could save humanity on Earth. Ultimately, these latter values fail, and Earth is utterly destroyed.

In “The Million-Year Picnic,” a family representing the values of love, the appreciation of cultural diversity, and the value of life arrives on Mars as the last remnant of Earth culture. These people become the new Martians and, in a world purified of the old sins, begin again the spiritual quest which has run beneath the destructive course of human history in this book.

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