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.
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...
(The entire section is 2,060 words.)