I think I first read The Martian Chronicles in junior high. Around then, I’d read anything by Bradbury I could get my hands on. I was always rather grateful he’s so prolific. And I remember really liking The Martian Chronicles, but when I picked up a copy a couple of months ago I found I didn’t really remember anything concrete about it. Just that I liked it.
On rereading it, I’ve found I still really like it, though probably not for the same reasons I did back when I was twelve or so. It’s a book ultimately concerned with the ambivalent nature of man — a deep-seated greediness married to a gentler, more altruistic side — and the cyclical nature of change. It traces the settlement of Mars by humans, which results in the accidental genocide of the native Martians via chickenpox and the humans’ attempts to change Mars into a place more comfortable to them. They plant trees to increase the oxygen level in the planet’s atmosphere (a move which, though not directly addressed in the book, strikes me as the sort of thing that would have disastrous downstream consequences) and build towns that look just like the ones they left. Some even build hot dog stands. But when atomic war breaks out on Earth, the settlers go rushing back*, leaving a few isolated, lonely souls behind and Mars virtually uninhabited. The book ends with small clutches of escapees from Earth** touching down illicitly to start a new life there. They declare themselves Martians, and the cycle seems to start over again.
That’s about as close to a plot as the book has. I think it’s technically considered a novel, but really it’s a collection of inter-related short stories. There are a handful of characters that make multiple appearances — most notably, members of the Fourth Expedition to Mars, the first to survive landing there in no small part due to the fact that one of the previous three expeditions wiped out the Martians with chicken pox — but this is not a character-driven book. Really, Bradbury’s focus seems to be on capturing the way life on Mars shifts as the humans take over the planet. And the flexibility of the book’s structure allows him to do that with a wider, more varied lens than he would’ve had if he’d tried to do it using a more traditionally novel-like framework. By making each chapter a discrete episode in an era, he’s able to explore many different reactions to Mars and many different ways of living there.
The structure of the book, actually, is one of the few things I did remember about the book from the way back junior high times. And I’ve always been intrigued by it. It makes sense with Bradbury — he’s a master of the short story. Through the interconnected short stories, The Martian Chronicles is able to give you a sense of what it would be like to live there at any point in the long process of settling, and gives you an understanding of the long process itself.
The other thing that sticks with me is the tone. In story after story, Bradbury writes in simple, almost quaint language, but does so in a way that communicates to the reader his trepidation and distaste with the frontier mindset of the settlers. In each individual story, it’s a quiet, subtle thing, like a warning he’s sending out that he doesn’t really believe will be heeded. A subtext lurking in the background. But over the course of the 27 stories, you get the message loud and clear. But the tone, I think, is at its strongest and most powerful in “The Musicians”:
Behind him would race six others, and the first boy there would be the Musician, playing the white xylophone bones beneath the black flake covering. A great skull would roll to view, like a snowball; they shouted! Ribs, like spider legs, plangent as a dull harp, and then the black flakes of mortality blowing all about them in their scuffling dance; the boys pushed and heaved and fell in the leaves, in the death that had turned the dead to flakes and dryness, into a game played by boys whose stomachs gurgled with orange pop.
That sense of innocent, thoughtless disrespect for the lives of people and civilizations that came before resonates through Bradbury’s writing in story after story. Sometimes, like in “The Musicians”, this is the focus of the story. But as often as not, it isn’t, it just lurks in the background, coloring how the stories fit together.
*This was about the only thing I found unbelievable about the book. I found it improbable that people would flee a safe planet to one in the throes of nuclear war rather than the other way around. I also wonder how feasible that is — I mean, if shit’s blowing up all over, where are those rockets supposed to land again? But one gaping plot hole in a book this good I can overlook.
**This last story, “The Million-Year Picnic,” kept reminding me of that episode of the Twilight Zone where a pair of families escape an impending world war by building rockets and striking out for a peaceful, livable planet in the dead of night. Of course in the episode, that peaceful, livable planet is….EARTH! So it’s inverted, I guess, here. But still, same sense of tension and the same basic plot points.