The Martian Chronicles

by Ray Bradbury

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Bradbury’s second book, The Martian Chronicles, remains a major literary contribution to the “myth of Mars”—the notion of technologically advanced Martians confronting survival on a dying desert world—that began in 1877, when Giovanni Schiaparelli reported canali (mistranslated into English as “canals”) on Mars. Developed mainly by Percival Lowell and embellished fictionally by writers such as H. G. Wells, Edgar Rice Burroughs, and C. S. Lewis, the myth grew.

When, in the last half of 1949, Bradbury put together the pieces of his first thematically unified book, he included twelve previously published Mars stories, added two new stories (“Night Meeting” and “The Green Morning”), and composed twelve bridging sketches. Bradbury did an admirable if imperfect job of choosing, revising, and arranging. Readers who notice that The Martian Chronicles is not sufficiently self-contained should consult “The Fire Balloons” in Bradbury’s The Illustrated Man (1951).

Sherwood Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio (1919), Ernest Hemingway’s In Our Time (1925), and the frontier thesis of historian Frederick Jackson Turner guided Bradbury in organizing his grand mosaic of The Martian Chronicles. That he arranged some pieces as a series of waves roughly equivalent to stages in the settling of the American frontier has been noted. Not often noted is how Bradbury structured The Martian Chronicles like a Shakespearean tragedy, humanity’s tragic flaw being an emotional immaturity that disallows the acceptance of diversity.

The diversity theme, found in many of his works, stems from the fact that Bradbury was conceived not long after older brother Samuel, twin to Leonard, died at the age of two. Bradbury grew up suspecting that he was supposed to replace the dead twin. He tried to escape such pressures by developing his own ego, yet he felt ambivalent about not meeting parental expectations. Bradbury came to perceive himself as an outsider, a family freak. In a poem written later in life, he wondered if his parents had been “incredulous” at the “humpbacked . . . Martian son” they had produced.

It is no surprise, then, that an important, self-reflective theme, universalized in The Martian Chronicles, involves the need to accept and cherish diversity—whether of individuals, racial groups, places, or cultures. “The Martian,” with a main character whose name means “twin,” is a key story illustrating the dangers involved in molding people or places into what they are not. Indeed, efforts to transform Mars into a twin to Earth prove abortive. Bradbury’s message, rather, is to celebrate diversity: “Enjoy” Mars. “Don’t ask it to be nothing else but what it is.”

Although many mainstream critics praised the collection for its literary merits, some hard-core science-fiction readers were dismayed by its lack of scientific plausibility and seemingly antiscientific stance. When teachers discovered the book’s appeal to high school and college students, its success was ensured. The theme of accepting diversity while fighting pressures to conform has continuing relevance; the book has never been out of print.

The Martian Chronicles remains a kaleidoscopic, lyrical work of many colors, meanings, and mythic possibilities. Sometimes poetic, sometimes satiric, and often moralistic, it is Bradbury’s most accomplished, complex, and rewarding work, an imaginative blending of science fiction and fantasy that can justly claim the status of a classic.

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Critical Context