What has this man from Illinois done, I ask myself when closing the pages of his book, that episodes from the conquest of another planet fill me with horror and loneliness?
~ Argentinean author Jorge Luis Borges
in the introduction to the Spanish-language translation of The Martian Chronicles.
In 1950, precisely halfway through a century dominated by scientific endeavor and discovery, Ray Bradbury – the man from Illinois – released this slender volume filled with rocket ships, Martian cities, ray guns, telepathy, and interplanetary conquest. But, as Borges noted, from the very start The Martian Chronicles departed radically from its brethren.
It is difficult today to recognize how different Bradbury’s short story cycle–cum-novel was in 1950. We live now in a world where literary science-fiction – Margaret Atwood, John Wyndham, Haruki Murakami – is regularly read and praised. In 1950, this was hardly the case. Science-fiction writers of the era, from Issaac Asimov to Arthur C. Clarke, were known consistently as writers of grand ideas but poor prose, visionaries who – at least in the minds of some – lacked literary flair.
Science-fiction itself was a bit of a backwater genre. Its readership consisted mostly of boys and young men. It was action-oriented, revolving around tales of adventure and exploration. Forward-looking, its writers concerned themselves with technologies and societies of the distant future. And it was inherently hopeful, more often than not imagining a future in which human beings were still alive and kicking.
Into this milieu strode Ray Bradbury, a genre-loving writer with literary aspirations and a poet’s reckoning of the language. And from the beginning, his stories broke with the sci-fi traditions he inherited.
The Martian Chronicles opens not with a description of technology, or a stunning sequence of action, but rather with the domestic, in ‘Rocket Summer’:
One minute it was Ohio winter, with doors closed, windows locked, the panes blind with frost, icicles fringing every roof, children skiing on slopes, housewives lumbering like great black bears in their furs along the icy streets.
The first full-length story of the cycle, ‘Ylla’, is not about a man, as one might expect. Ylla is a Martian woman, and the story centers around her home and her everyday existence.
They had a house of crystal pillars on the planet Mars by the edge of an empty sea, and every morning you could see Mrs. K eating the golden fruits that grew from the crystal walls, or cleaning the house with handfuls of magnetic dust which, taking all dirt with it, blew away on the hot wind.
Children skiing on slopes. Housewives dusting. Whether on Earth or on Mars, Bradbury’s focus was on the domestic.
Unlike his peers, Bradbury didn’t care much for the future either. Though The Martian Chronicles deals ostensibly with a future inhabitation of Mars, Bradbury’s tales are clearly a lens through which to study the past. He is not interested in the mechanics of space flight or the geographic terrain of the Red Planet. Technology is laced through the book, but it is the technology of a Flash Gordon comic strip, not based in actual mathematics and engineering. These stories are not realistic in the least. They are metaphors.
“Do you know why teachers use me?” Bradbury once said, in an interview for the Paris Review. “Because I speak in tongues. I write metaphors. Every one of my stories is a metaphor you can remember.”
The Earthmen’s exploration and desolation of Mars allowed Bradbury to look not forward but backward at exploration and desolation on Earth, namely the European arrival in the New World. Just as Europeans landed in North and Central America wholly unprepared for what they found there, Bradbury’s Earthmen are unprepared time and again for the wonder and the horror of Mars. And just as European diseases decimated native people in the Americas, it is chicken-pox which wipes out the Martians.
If The Martian Chronicles can be said to be Bradbury’s vision of the future, then it is clearly one rooted in our history, and it clearly parts ways with the more optimistic wing of the science-fiction department. Unlike the more hopeful sci-fi scribes (Jules Verne, for example), Bradbury was a pessimist. By the end of The Martian Chronicles, the Martians are dead and Earth has been destroyed by nuclear war. Only a few stragglers from humanity survive. Landing on Mars, their future is uncertain. The only absolute is that they have been irrevocably changed. Just as Europeans of all backgrounds landed on the shores of the New World and slowly became Americans, the Earthlings are altered by the dead seas and empty deserts of Mars, and they slowly become not immigrants from Earth but Martians themselves. In the closing lines of the book, Bradbury writes:
“I’ve always wanted to see a Martian,” said Michael. “Where are they, Dad? You promised.”
“There they are,” said Dad, and he shifted Michael on his shoulder and pointed straight down.
The Martians were there. Timothy began to shiver.
The Martians were there – in the canal – reflected in the water. Timothy and Michael and Robert and Mom and Dad.
The Martians stared back up at them for a long, long silent time from the rippling water…
Bradbury broke not only with the more stereotypical traditions of science-fiction, but also in his choice of literary influences. Sci-fi, especially preceding the 1950s, was not generally known for its stellar prose. More often than not, the best writers in the field were men and women of fantastic imagination who cluttered the page with hackneyed sentences and worn-out clichés. It was not a genre for writers with a more literary bent, which is exactly what Bradbury was.
Bradbury often acknowledged that upon reading Sherwood Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio he intended to write a similar story sequence set on Mars. In many ways, The Martian Chronicles fits that bill. Both books are made up of a series of interconnected short stories which deal with recurring characters, settings and themes. And both books deal directly and indirectly with attitudes of, in Borges’s words, horror and loneliness. Anderson’s original title for his collection of stories about a small, peaceful Midwestern town was The Book of the Grotesque, a rather cheery title. Clifton Fadiman, writing an introduction for The Martian Chronicles, called the book ‘grave and troubling’. The despair that Anderson found in middle America Bradbury transported to the vastness of the Red Planet. We carry our burdens with us, Bradbury clearly argues. Even into outer space.
Unlike Anderson, Bradbury broke up his sixteen full-length stories with eleven bridge stories. In an introduction to the 1950 edition, he explained:
During the next few years I wrote a series of Martian pensées, Shakespearean asides, wandering thoughts, long-night visions, predawn half-dreams. The French, like St. John Perse, practice this to perfection.
These pensées, as Bradbury called them, are used in similar fashion in the short story collection of another American writer, one who had tremendous influence on Bradbury: Ernest Hemingway. Hemingway’s first collection, In Our Time, uses inter-chapters much to the same effect as Bradbury’s does.
Later in his career, Bradbury penned two separate short stories about Papa Hemingway. Perhaps it should come as no surprise, then, to find other similarities between the two. Consider the following passages, the first from ‘–And The Moon Be Still As Bright’, collected in The Martian Chronicles, and the second from Hemingway’s Green Hills of Africa.
“Ask me then, if I believe in the spirit of the things as they were used, and I’ll say yes. They’re all here. All the things which had uses. All the mountains which had names. And we’ll never be able to use them without feeling uncomfortable. And somehow the mountains will never sound right to us; we’ll give them new names, but the old names are there, somewhere in time, and the mountains were shaped and seen under those names. The names we’ll give to the canals and the mountains and the cities will fall like so much water on the back of a mallard. No matter how we touch Mars, we’ll never touch it. And then we’ll get mad at it, and you know what we’ll do? We’ll rip it up, rip the skin off, and change it to fit ourselves.”
“We won’t ruin Mars,” said the captain. “It’s too big and too good.”
“You think not? We Earth Men have a talent for ruining big, beautiful things.”
A continent ages quickly once we come. The natives live in harmony with it. But the foreigner destroys, cuts down the trees, drains the water, so that the water supply is altered and in a short time the soil, once the sod is turned under, is cropped out and, next, it starts to blow away as it has blown away in every old country…A country was made to be as we found it. We are the intruders and after we are dead we may have ruined it but it will still be there and we don’t know what the next changes are.
Sherwood Anderson, Shakespeare, St. John Parse, Ernest Hemingway. These were hardly the writers inspiring usual 1950s science-fiction. Indeed, Bradbury’s achievement stands in direct relation to his ability to meld together two separate worlds: genre fiction and literary fiction. That he did so successfully –and that The Martian Chronicles was a popular bestseller – broke open the door for genre-bending writers in the latter half of the twentieth century, everyone from Kurt Vonnegut to Stephen King to JG Ballard.
This is perhaps the greatest legacy of The Martian Chronicles. That in radically departing from the norms and standards of the genre from which it was born, it shone a light on a path few had thought to tread before. It put to rest any doubts that the trappings of a popular genre could be used to address, as William Faulkner put it, the human heart in conflict with itself.
It is here too that Bradbury distinguished himself. He used to joke that, early on in his career, editors would send back his stories with rejection letters, noting that he focused too much on people and not enough on science. But Bradbury never saw himself as a ‘science-fiction writer’. He was, in his own mind, a writer. No adjective needed. This may go a long way in explaining his appeal, and in illuminating how The Martian Chronicles changed not only a genre, but modern literature itself.
* This essay originally appeared at Thresholds.chi.ac.uk under the title “The Radical Horror and Loneliness of Ray Bradbury’s The Martian Chronicles”