The Martian Chronicles

by Ray Bradbury

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The Plot

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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 (Muhe Ca). Prior to meeting Ca (who appears to be from either the past or the future), Gomez is told by an old man to approach Mars as if it were a “kaleidoscope”—that is, “Enjoy it. Don’t ask it to be nothing else but what it is.”

“The Martian” returns to what already has developed into a major thematic strand woven throughout the book. Contrary to the wise advice offered in “Night Meeting,” people mistakenly persist in trying to combat loneliness and homesickness by molding Mars into something it is not—a twin to Earth. When war breaks out on Earth in November, 2005, virtually everyone returns “home.”

The final three stories take place twenty-one years later (in 2026), the traditional span between birth and adulthood. Has the human race matured enough to embrace the beauty and desirability of cultural and racial diversity? “The Long Years” reunites on Mars two members of the fourth expedition. When Hathaway dies and Captain Wilder leaves, the process they originally had set in motion is finished. The next story (“There Will Come Soft Rains”), set on Earth, provides no evidence of human survival. Attention centers on the “death” of a completely automated house, its family having been killed by an atomic blast. In the last story (“The Million-Year Picnic”), a family has escaped to Mars in a “Family” rocket. Perhaps a few other families will follow. With all the wisdom of the old man in “Night Meeting,” they decide to adapt to Mars and not try to make it into a second Earth. They will be the first of a new race of Martians. Perhaps Muhe Ca was indeed from the future, perhaps even a descendant of this very family. The book ends on this subdued but firm note of hope.

Setting

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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...

(This entire section contains 187 words.)

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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.

Literary Techniques

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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.

Literary Qualities

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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.

Social Concerns

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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.

Additional Commentary

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, shortsighted oppressors who cannot fathom an existence suddenly lacking potential victims. Other stories, such as "There Will Come Soft Rains," contain poignant warnings against the dangers of runaway technology, or the evils of nuclear war.

Several stories, including "The Martian" and "The Off Season," parallel the fate of the native Martians to that of Native Americans. In these stories Bradbury comments on American culture's obsession with material wealth and on the Manifest Destiny philosophy that has allowed Americans, in previous centuries and today, to feel morally justified in taking land and other possessions from the less powerful.

Another target of Bradbury's is censorship and, in its broader incarnation, lack of imagination. Many of the settlers who come to Mars are incapable of appreciating the new planet. They shut out that which they cannot comprehend, and destroy that which they deem threatening. Whether the object be a single book or an entire civilization, Bradbury stresses that failure to appreciate or tolerate other points of view is one of the greatest of evils. In "Usher II," the protagonist recalls the growth of a strict censorship movement on Earth, leading to government-sanctioned book burning: "There was always a minority afraid of something, and a great majority afraid of the dark, afraid of the future, afraid of the past, afraid of the present, afraid of themselves and shadows of themselves." Bradbury suggests that fear of the unfamiliar may spread from one person to another, and eventually lead to similar tragedies.

Literary Precedents

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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.

For Further Reference

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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.

Bibliography

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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. Includes a bibliography and index.

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