The white men sat with sour water in their mouths.
And the voices wailed Fire, fire, run, run, like a tragic nursery rhyme, a dozen voices, high, low, like children dying in a forest, alone, alone.
If The Martian Chronicles wasn’t a collection of short stories and vignettes, I think I’d put it in my running for The Great American Novel. For as much as a phrase like “The Great American Novel” means fuck-all of anything. Still, I’m happy for the serendipity that caused me to read this right after The Great Gatsby, because I found the two quite complimentary in a lot of ways. Particularly in that whole “arresting images and haunting tone” thing (also the “book I tried to read when I was younger but didn’t manage” thing).
When I was 9 or 10 I decided to try reading The Martian Chronicles. After all, it had “Chronicles” right there in its name! Surely it would be sweeping and adventurous, perhaps Star Wars-esque. It looked unbearably long to me, but I managed to soldier through what felt like an awful lot of challenging prose before I eventually gave up.
When I finally read all 181 pages of the book this year, I was able to pinpoint exactly where it was that I’d given up so long ago. It was page 11. I wasn’t much of a reader as a kid. But even then, to one who saw 181 pages as unending and saw a book as purely a way to get a story told, there was something that struck me about those eleven pages that I’d never experienced through pure words on a page before.
Haunting, melancholy, magical, sad, airy, and oppressive mood. Still burned into my brain are images of the Martian home, the failing marriage, the malleable world that those first few pages of the story “Ylla” conjured to me as a child. The way I saw those same things this time around was entirely different, but the way the mood of the story that soaked into every aspect of it was the same. I don’t know that I’ve ever read anything so trippy and mindfuck-y that was written in such clear and straightforward prose.
Mr. and Mrs. K had lived by the dead sea for twenty years, and their ancestors had lived in the same house, which turned and followed the sun, flower-like, for ten centuries.
Bradbury said (or at least I’ve been told that he said) that he didn’t write science fiction, he wrote fantasy, and having read this book that makes a lot of sense to me. Despite the magazines that these stories were first being published in, and despite who Bradbury’s contemporaries were, this feels less like the solid science-and-idea-driven fiction of your Asimov or Clarke, and more like the logical conclusion of Burroughs’ Mars books. This is a Mars that’s all emotion and mood and wonder, with little to no bearing on the actual scientific Mars. It’s a place where things are strange and grand and magical because it’s fucking Mars so why not?
But where the Barsoom that John Carter adventures across is a dying planet beset by strange war machines and little emotional depth, Bradbury’s Mars is a dying planet that has already outgrown its centuries of strange war machines, and where we can read a quiet story about a husband and wife who’s marriage is failing apart. And that’s before humans start to infect the place.
The Martian Chronicles lovingly illustrates the Martian culture that Bradbury’s dreamed up, but what it’s really about is humanity. And more specifically, really, about America. About the ways we ruin things and the ways we fix other things, the ideas we run away from and how and when they’ll follow us, and about about what we expect the world (or a world) to do for us. The book is, more specifically, about mid-century America and doesn’t hide that, thankfully. The dates may range from 1999 to 2026, but Bradbury isn’t interested in guessing how the future will work sociopolitically,[*] he jumps into the future — albeit a future made up mostly of years that he would eventually live to see — purely to give an excuse for why humanity can fly to Mars. Everything else is the 1950s, and better for it because it helps it all feel true.
1950s America puts itself blatantly front and center in two stories from this book: one was my favorite, and the other was my least favorite. Strangely enough, neither of these really have much of the haunting Martian vistas or the psychological implications of how a change of planets would change one’s way of being that are, by and large, the best things about this book.
I read “Way Up In the Middle of the Air” on the subway on my way back from work. When I got home I immediately sat down and read it to my fiancée. It is an amazing short story by any metric, in any context. It works wonderfully after all that comes before it in this book, but I would also believe it as a canonically classic American short story. Flannery O’Connor with rockets. I don’t want to give the story away too much, but at the point in the book where this story begins, I was sure that Bradbury, like most sci-fi writers of his time, would show humanity as being purely white. Then, in this story, I realized that the use of white characters earlier had been making its own point. “Way Up In the Middle of the Air” is about opportunity, leaving behind old prejudices, and the extremely strange dependancy that white folks in the Jim Crow south had on the black people they oppressed. It’s also beautifully written and extremely funny.
“The Silent Towns,” despite its lovely and melancholy title,[**] is all centered around a big, stupid joke. Much of The Martian Chronicles is funny, and in fact there are humorous stories in the book that work wonderfully, but this one is just a classically mean bit of 1950s sexism without much to redeem it. Bradbury isn’t even trying to say something wrong and offensive, he’s not really saying anything at all here – it’s simply unnecessary. At least ”The Silent Towns” still has some good imagery in it, so it’s not a total loss. Besides, there are so many single pages in this book that are all-time classics that it’s easy to get around one dud of a story.
I haven’t touched on a lot of things that go on in this book because its economy is staggering. Bradbury doesn’t just cover roughly 30 years of time in a short book, he seems to cover millennia in a sentence, entire cultures in a paragraph, and still come back around effortlessly to the smallest parts of human/martian nature. (There are also some machines.) For all the respect that Bradbury does get outside of the “genre” label, I think this would be more of an acknowledged “literary” classic if it wasn’t named The Martian Chronoicles. But it would also be just a tiny touch less of a deserved classic, because along with everything else, the book is honest about its roots.
It is also one of the most beautiful things I think I’ve ever read.
* The exception here is the story “Usher II,” which is fun enough on its own but feels rather shoehorned in. This story, and this one alone, seems to be canonical with Farenheit 451, because it centers around a repressive cultural authority and mentions when they did that big book burning and such. It’s an odd one, a little too removed from the themes of the book and too separate from the very world(s) that Bradbury creates.
** ”The Long Years” and “The Million-Year Picnic” are also great examples of how the mood is even right there in the story titles. I’m also a fan of ones like “–And the Moon be Still as Bright” and “There Will Come Soft Rains” because they remind me of old Star Trek episode titles.