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Rays Week

The Read Planet: Let’s Discuss ‘The Martian Chronicles’

Welcome back to Defector Reads A Book! Our Rays Week DRAB selection was Ray Bradbury’s The Martian Chronicleswhich the Defector book sickos have read and discussed. We’ll be down in the comments to chat with you as soon as you’re done reading

Barry Petchesky: Hello, and welcome to Mars! It may look a lot like post-WWII America, but let me assure you that it’s definitely Mars. Was anyone else immediately thrown by the fact that Bradbury’s vision of the future didn’t seem all that futuristic?

Patrick Redford: Yes, though I guess we can let him off the hook a little bit for his one-to-one transposition of the small-town American lifestyle onto Mars since, like, he was writing this type of story before anyone else?

Kelsey McKinney: I really liked that there was less of an emphasis on gizmos and gadgets and the progression of technology. I find it so fascinating to think about a future where there isn’t much advancement other than the advancement of time, which I had never really done before reading this.

Chris Thompson: I guess I was less thrown by the Tomorrowland-esque mid-century-ness of Bradbury’s version of a technologically advanced future than I was by how totally un-alien the Martians were, as a species. Like, a dog which lives in my home is more alien to me and to human life than the Martians on Mars are to Bradbury. All the Martians’ motives and culture and relationships to each other, all their fears and so forth, were drearily familiar from human conflicts and families and societies. There was no concept of Martians as genuinely distinct from humankind. Even the peaceful and wise blue glowing orbs that spoke for themselves were basically like because we are so wise we have already achieved the thing which you are trying to achieve, which implies that even their imaginations are shaped more or less exactly like ours. That’s not necessarily a criticism of the story, but I guess something I pondered while reading the story is, do we think this is how Bradbury imagined Mars and Martians? Or did he bother imagining Mars at all, or just skip to using it as an allegorical device? 

KM: It’s so funny that I didn’t even think about this question at all while reading. I was just like SURE, THIS IS WHAT’S HAPPENING. Maybe this is just my lack of science-fiction grounding, but it did not bother me that it seems like Bradbury saw one photo of Mars and was all, “Got it, so it’s just like the Earth and we could ruin it too.” 

BP: That’s sort of the contract you sign when you read Bradbury, isn’t it? Whatever the book is “about,” it’s going to be about his hobbyhorses. And here that means humanity. I thought it was kind of cool that the Martians were this old, decadent, boring, vulnerable society. And that anyone would be silly to think that the newly arrived humans would replace that with anything but the exact same thing.

KM: I underlined this big quote and am just going to plop it here because I love it: “We Earth Men have a talent for ruining big, beautiful things. The only reason we didn’t set up hot-dog stands in the midst of the Egyptian temple of Karnak is because it was out of the way and served no large commercial purpose. And Egypt is a small part of Earth. But here, this whole thing is ancient and different, and we have to set down somewhere and start fouling it up.” GORG! 

PR: Yeah, Kelsey, forgiving him a few archaic flourishes, I thought his sentences were quite lovely at times. The only problem is the best ones were all about the beauty of a thing about to be destroyed and the ache of regret it leaves behind. Also to answer your question Chris, I think the latter is true, which worked for me because it then became easier to shrug your shoulders at him, say, just sort of unthinkingly replicating American nuclear family structures in Martian society.

BP: “The second men should have traveled from other countries with other accents and other ideas. But the rockets were American and the men were American and it stayed that way[.]” It’s maybe even more far-looking than imagining gizmos to have nailed the … ennui? melancholia? of the future like he did. I wonder what Bradbury would think of the state of space stuff today. Just this week we had the truly amazing images from the Webb Telescope. But the actual business of space travel itself is being run by guys like Musk and Bezos and is almost fully commercialized. Hot dog stands in Hellas Planitia don’t seem all that far off.

CT: Barry that’s really interesting to me, the possibility that Bradbury could capture the eventual tragedy of it all from within a very narrow-seeming view of mid-century America and Cold War paranoia and atomic propaganda. Like I can’t shake from my imagination the question of whether he arrived there by accident, in a way? Or maybe the thing that is causing me to feel woozy right now is that we actually have followed a fairly straight line from then to now? I watch Trinity and Beyond and The Atomic Cafe and so forth and naturally feel like that whole scene crested and fell back and we learned some lessons, but it’s slightly alarming to think that it predicted in a way the doomed feeling of living in the year 2022, despite the trappings of our time being so so so different from what Bradbury imagined.

Something that was funny to me was a sort of Homer-esque unreliability in Bradbury’s description of colors. I mean I realize this is a dumb thing to get hung up on, but he kept describing the “blue sands” of Mars, and Earth as a “green star,” and I started to chuckle at the possibility that Bradbury perhaps actually had not looked at a photo of either Mars or Earth, ever.

KM: Chris, lol!! And Barry, I felt kind of the same dragging sadness as I finished the book last night. I loved the Webb photos so much and found them really moving and sad, and it’s so frustrating that what Space is becoming more and more is fucking Jeff Bezos going four centimeters into zero gravity and coming back down. It’s almost too realistic to imagine a world where someone sends a billboard into the Webb telescope’s range and now there’s an ad for Amazon Prime in every image of space. 

BP: The only real flash of mischief or creativity on this version of Mars was that guy’s Edgar Allan Poe murder house. Which, to be fair, sounds like it would rule if you weren’t murdered there.

There’s a story that wasn’t in the version I read this time, but I had read before, so I’m going on memory here. It’s about all the black people of a southern town leaving for Mars. And it was the only one in the collection that had something you might call hope. I wonder why it got cut for later versions of the book. Maybe it was too hopeful.

PR: That was in my edition, and if I recall correctly was the only chapter actually set on Earth?

CT: Ha, Barry, I thought I had imagined that whole story when I finished this book and it was nowhere in there. I read The Martian Chronicles like 20 years ago when I worked at a bookstore and this time I kept expecting that chapter to turn up, and it just never did.

My version also had the (lovely, I thought) story of the two women preparing to leave for Mars. Also the penultimate chapter about the burned-out automated house, which ruled.

KM: Oh this is fascinating. I did not realize that the editions were different. I really liked the story about the two women. It was a little breather in the midst of what felt like just lightyears of loneliness. 

BP: Yes Chris. The Jetsons-esque house going about its business amid nuclear devastation, then burning down. Maybe my favorite story in here.

CT: A story which hit very differently for me as a 41-year-old in 2022 than the first time was the Walter Gripp story. My man is desperately lonely in the wilderness of an alien planet and he flees to the opposite end of the whole shit because the woman he met will not make a suitable romantic partner. 

PR: Nobody has ever been down as bad as Walter. Down benthic. While we’re having favorite chapter chat, I have a confession to make, which is that I first read this book as an 11- or 12-year-old and understood basically nothing in it, though the chapter about the House of Usher scared the shit out of me and ever since, my greatest fear in life has been doppelgangers but I never knew why until I re-read this book! For the outdatedness of Bradbury’s idea of family life and these eye-roll-inducing bouts of Americana, his robot stuff I thought was great. He understands that it’s scary for two things to be one thing.

KM: This really explains your preoccupation with Joe Kennedy III. But I also read this book way too young and didn’t understand it all. Because of that, it felt very much like a waking dream to re-read this. It all felt familiar, and yet none of it felt new. This I think added to the kind of mystique of the book for me. I recommend this book to 11-year-olds trying to win a summer reading contest at their library. You can just read it again later.

BP: I’m not scared of doppelgangers at all. Guess I’m just built different.

So, while reading this, two other, very different sci-fi works kept coming to mind: Stanislaw Lem’s Solaris and Kim Stanley Robinson’s Red Mars books. The first because its treatment of what alien intelligence might be like—totally unknowable and incomprehensible—was so different from the Martians here. And the second because in its way also attempted a “realistic” future of Mars colonization, with very divergent results. Whereas Bradbury seemingly wrote to explain why it wouldn’t work, KSR tried to imagine a way it might.

CT: I wish I could ask Lem whether this book is what inspired him to write Solaris. The books seem to be pursuing completely different things, so I can’t hold it against Bradbury that his only apparent use for Mars and Martians and the concept of alien life is to scold humanity, but an uncomfortable thing about this kind of storytelling—which has always been part of my experience of watching, for example, old episodes of The Twilight Zone—is that it makes the universe seem very confined and cruel, as if it only exists to punish humans and teach lessons and reflect us back to ourselves. If everything in my environment is a mirror, and everything outside of my environment is also a mirror, then I am trapped in a very tiny space! Solaris makes the universe unknowable in a way that can be extremely frightening, but also just the concept of the rest of the universe existing for its own purposes, far beyond our comprehension, is ultimately an expansive vision that at least allows the reader to hope that there is some patch of space and maybe even some form of intelligence out there that is not utterly trapped with humanity’s weak bullshit.

PR: Two things at the front of my mind while reading this book were Solaris and the James Webb Space Telescope photos, both of which make the same fundamental point about human civilization and our relationship to space: everything out there is fundamentally vast and unknowable and we are so cosmically insignificant in the face of either the majesty of the stars or, in Solaris’s case, life elsewhere, that it’s hubristic to conceive of ourselves ever mastering or even meaningfully comprehending the universe. And I think that’s a really beautiful and poignant limit to grapple with, certainly a more compelling one than a vision of Mars as a dark parable for what happens when you win a world war and everyone starts buying houses and appliances or whatever. Solaris is such a magical book because of all of its ambiguity, and though The Martian Chronicles must be situated in the right temporal context, it is not an altogether mysterious book, which means it is really about America and not space.

KM: So this is a question I have for all of you. With the exception of like the N.K. Jemisin books, I really have not read a lot of science-fiction or fantasy. I know that everyone speaks of Bradbury as a huge influential force for those genres, but does it feel to y’all (as people who read this genre more often) outdated or stale? 

BP: He’s a beautiful writer, and a good ideas guy, though not much of a story-crafter. (There’s a reason people remember the concept of Fahrenheit 451 but not, like, the plot or characters.) I do think his influence comes from showing that sci-fi could be written as literature. But yes, he was surpassed pretty quickly and comprehensively by other writers, in my opinion.

CT: I really appreciated all the little weird fiction things that kept popping up in the story. “Old Ones” and what-not. It was very fun to me to see “Old Ones” used to refer to crusty old American retirees. I guess to me I have always imagined Bradbury as more of a weird fiction guy than a sci-fi guy, but that’s maybe because I have read much more weird fiction than sci-fi. I almost hesitate to describe this book—which to be clear is titled The Martian Chronicles and is set mostly on Mars, in the future, and has robots and aliens—as science fiction, because it seems not really at all to be curious about the future or scientific advancements, and could in a different era almost have been set in, like, central Africa. In fact, it’s not so different in places from Heart of Darkness.

BP: I wish it had been weirder! Bradbury should have done drugs. I guess the useful ones weren’t around yet. But Asimov was notoriously sober and his shit was properly weird. I do think that here it’s just a case of Bradbury wanting to write about America.

KM: Right, but is that not a small bit a matter of the time period? It doesn’t seem to me that it would have gone over that well to come out on the heels of WWII with an anti-America book. I found it fascinating that this was the move Bradbury decided to make during a time of immense optimism. The kind of dread against the norm I think does work better if you just move it to Mars. It’s narratively a little lazy, but I didn’t mind it much.  

PR: It’s prescient, in its way, to see the contradictions of the post-war American boom resolving themselves as violently as they did in this book.

CT: I like to imagine Bradbury, Richard Matheson, Charles Beaumont, and Rod Serling smoking Chesterfields in a dim lounge someplace and getting each other worked up with these harrowing and eerily prescient but ultimately thinly imagined stories of the moral perils of the space age and booming American consumerism. I imagine a real challenge Bradbury faced is exactly what you’re talking about, Kelsey, which is how unpopular and mood-killing this kind of pessimism would’ve seemed against the media of the time. Even the atomic war propaganda had a weirdly optimistic face, as if the whole thing could be conquered by vigilance and patriotism and superior nuclear might.

BP: It’s all about the atom bomb. It’s hard for us to imagine what it might have been like living in the years after its invention and deployment. We’ve lived our whole lives in its shadow, but also with the knowledge that in 70-plus years, no one’s used it. People back then were probably thinking about nuclear annihilation 24/7. And it would have been impossible for any sci-fi writer, when considering technology, to not also think of how humanity had in real life used technological progress to come up with a potential species-killer.

KM: Barry, I was actually thinking about that yesterday because it’s been really hard for me to work after seeing the space photos because I’m like, “I am but a speck of dust why do I do anything.” Reading this book, I was like how the fuck could you do anything having just learned that everything can explode at any minute!? It’s terrifying. There’s a kind of paralysis to that knowledge similar I think to the one a lot of people are feeling right now about the state of the country. 

BP: I think that’s no small part of why this book still resonates. Hopelessness is a deeper and more accessible emotion than hope. Nice going, humanity!

PR: As bleak as Bradbury’s vision of the future is, I don’t know if I’d quite describe it as hopeless. Sure, he sees a Martian colonial mission as an inherently destructive endeavor, and he charts a grim course for Earth itself, but there’s a heart in there somewhere. The chapter that will ultimately stick with me is the one where Spender and the Captain briefly hold a truce, and the Captain has to admit that Spender’s anti-colonial vision is ultimately a more coherent, kinder one, even if it’s naive as hell. It’s a tragedy that he still opens the doors for the settlements to come, but for a moment there, Bradbury shows a glimmer of something. That it’s a doomed hope is a bummer, but it’s there.

BP: And at least they will get another chance. The last chapter ends with a human family on an empty planet staring at their reflections and declaring themselves Martians. That’s something the Earthmen of the preceding chapters never said, or felt. Maybe this time will be different.

DRAB will be in the comments for the next couple of days to hear your thoughts and chat with you. If you missed out on this month’s book, don’t worry! We’ll announce our next pick soon.