It’s another Vintage Sci-fi Month review this week, as I blast off to the red planet to tackle Ray Bradbury’s The Martian Chronicles. How does this 1950 classic hold up today? Read on to find out!
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Collecting previously published works and others written specially for this “fix-up” novel, The Martian Chronicles details humanity’s attempts to settle on Mars. Many would-be colonists are fleeing Earth in search of a better life or business opportunities, whilst others might be seeking something more spiritual. Over them all, however, hangs the threat of the potential nuclear devastation of Earth. Can humanity find salvation in the shifting sands of Mars, or are they doomed to repeat their mistakes?
Years of scientific discovery could be said to have taken some of the shine off the real Mars. We know, for instance, that there is no evidence of ancient civilizations, no little green men waiting to repel us with ray guns. It’s well removed from the nigh on feverish imaginings on display here, but this is far from a weakness of The Martian Chronicles. Bradbury’s Mars is a fantastical place, a world of mystery and danger, of mysticism and melancholy, making it much more exciting to read about than the dull red rock we now know it to be. But the science is not even half the issue here, Bradbury being much more concerned with the attitudes of mankind when presented with the opportunity of settling on a new world.
There are plenty of moments of satire and observations on the less desirable aspects of humanity here – everything from colonialism, to racism, to the even bigger and more generalised themes that incorporate these, such as the self-destructive nature of man. Bradbury unflinchingly turns his critical eye on his fellow human beings, displaying every facet of humanity. But don’t be too downhearted; he does this without cruelty, leaving room to show not just our greed and our selfishness but also our capacity for love and kindness. It’s this level of empathy that allowed Bradbury to craft such believable characters, then put them in a stressful or fantastical situation and have them respond to it in a way that feels just perfect.
There is of course a sense of nostalgia to much of The Martian Chronicles – it is seventy years old by this point, after all – but like much of Bradbury’s writing, it would have been nostalgic at the time he wrote it. One story, for example, sees an early expedition to Mars chancing upon what appears to be a perfect recreation of an American town from 1926, recalling Bradbury’s loose trilogy of Dandelion Wine, Something Wicked This Way Comes and Farewell Summer with its evocation of a bygone America.
It’s worth noting, too, that despite its (at the time) futuristic setting of the turn of the millennium, much of the aesthetic is that of 50s America – hot-dog stands and malt shops are on every street, with jukeboxes blaring out across the Martian landscape in wilfully anachronistic fashion. It’s a very deliberate and wholly successful attempt to transplant an instantly recognisable slice of Americana into an utterly alien environment and show what happens when it gets there. Way up in the Middle of the Air would seem to suggest, too, that despite the intervening fifty years between the time of writing and the time it’s set, uglier “old ways” will persist far into the future, as the black population flee continued persecution at the hands of their white oppressors by boarding rockets to Mars. One expeditionary even fears what might become of Mars itself, given our preponderance for colonialism and destruction:
With Ray Bradbury’s timeless writing style and innate ability to sparingly convey the fundamentals of human experience, The Martian Chronicles is just as essential science fiction reading now as it was all those years ago. Come for the nostalgia and the whimsy, stay for the introspection and wonder.
This review is for the UK edition of the book, originally published in 1951 under the title The Silver Locusts. It omits the story Usher II (which can be found in the UK edition of The Illustrated Man) in favour of The Fire Balloons. It’s published by Harper Voyager, and is available through this affiliate link.