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Ghosts on a Ghost World - The Martian Chronicles by Ray Bradbury

Reexamining a work that is considered canonical in some fashion is always an interesting undertaking.

Often, we find the works that used to be, or are still considered to be, classics hopelessly weighed down by the time they were written in. The prose is labyrinthine, the attitudes are squrimilicious, and/or the characters wooden, yet sometimes the greatness of a classic can still shine through regardless of the quirks of the time period. Sometimes, the most we can do is acknowledge a classic as an important stepping stone, but ultimately devoid of joy for anyone who isn't hardcore into that sort of thing (I'm looking at you, Dante).

When we say a work "transcends time," we don't mean that the time period in which it was written has no bearing on the piece. It clearly does - it has to - but it means that something about it taps into a particularly resonant vein.

It could be that when a work amplifies and crystallizes the anxieties of a society at a pinpoint in time that it pulls double duty as a historical document and thought-provoking narrative which forces the reader to reexamine and reinterpret commonplace values.


Baring in mind this attitude of reexamining classics, I wanted to chat a bit about one of the great pillars of science fiction: The Martian Chronicles by Ray Bradbury.

To get to the meat of my thoughts: yes, this book is absolutely a classic; yes, this book is a product of the forties and fifties; yes, that actually made me enjoy it more; and yes, I loved this book so, so much. The ending was one of the most chills-inducing things I've read in a while. Not just the ending - I got those good good narrative chills several times while reading.

If you're the sort of person who finds science fiction goofy or "not for you," then I would slide this book towards you on our metaphorical table during the metaphorical conversation we are having. It's laden with sci-fi tropes that I know turn some people off, but Bradbury is nothing if not a master of subversion.

For the uninitiated:

Ray Bradbury was a science fiction author who wrote countless short stories and novels. You probably read Fahrenheit 451 back in high school. If you were like me, that was probably one of your favorite required-reading books.

He wrote idea-driven sci-fi, sort of like Robert Heinlein if Heinlein were capable of feeling emotion and sensitivity. Bradbury's stories embody the collective psychoses and worries of the America of his day and he extrapolated them further down the road, showing how then-current values could lead to problems.

In my mind, there are two main types of science fiction writers. There's the people who are really into science and strive for scientific accuracy, and then there are those who use science as almost a fantastical device. Science becomes the lens through which the story is told, a prop for the characters to use, or the foundation for exploring an idea. Traditionally, you'd call the former "hard sci-fi" and the latter "soft sci-fi." Ray Bradbury is considered one of the greats of soft sci-fi, and many cite The Martian Chronicles as the reason.

This is not because his prose is lyrical or astonishing - it's pretty serviceable most of the time (which is frankly the way I prefer it) - or that his characters are staggeringly multilayered (some get the three-dimensional treatment, but most are 2D at best).

No, what makes him great is that he is able to, in his workman way, tell a compelling story that guarantees leaving the mind something to chew on. His stories point out our silly human tribalistic tendencies, question a certain sort of fanatic patriotism, rail against censorship, ask about the value of beauty and more.

The Martian Chronicles is a collection of short stories that are laid out chronologically to tell an overarching narrative about the human colonization of Mars. Every story in The Martian Chronicles forced me to put the book down and have a little think. Well, there was a story towards the end - for those who've read it, it's the one about the last man trying to find the last woman - that I found pointless and tonally out of place, but all the rest are masterpieces of short sci-fi.

Before gushing further, I do want to say - there are things a modern reader may take umbrage with.

As I mentioned before, Bradbury's prose is blunt. It makes it easy to read and understand, but I know some people would prefer to have a more beautiful word-picture painted for them. Which isn't to say Bradbury isn't capable of waxing poetic. He totally is and I highlighted what I think to be a staggeringly gorgeous passage. It's about how people feel leaving the Earth on their trek to Mars.

"And this disease was called The Loneliness, because when you saw your home town dwindle to the size of your fist and then lemon-size and then pin-size and vanish in the fire-wake, you felt you had never been born, there was no town, you were nowhere, with space all around, nothing familiar, only other strange men. And when the state of Illinois, Iowa, Missouri, or Montana vanished into cloud seas, and, doubly, when the United States shrank to a misted island and the entire planet Earth became a muddy baseball tossed away, then you were alone, wandering in the meadows of space, on your way to a place you couldn’t imagine."

Ray Bradbury also wrote these in the late forties/early fifties. As such, there is some values dissonance for the modern reader. Not enough to be unreadable, but it's something to note. His views on gender and race are, while being progressive for their day, archaic to a modern mind. Women still tend to conform to their traditional gender roles, even the Martians. Also, there's story about half way through about all the black people escaping Earth to go live on Mars so they won't be persecuted by white people any more.

Now that I've laid my main complaints on the table, I'm going to tell you that if you haven't read The Martian Chronicles and you like science fiction to any degree, you must give it a read.

The Martians are a fascinating species. They are capable of great art, are telepathic, but are ultimately too complacent. Their hallucinations can manifest into a visible reality. And yet, they have a marked lack of imagination. They're even worse than we are about accepting challenges to their beliefs. They aren't meant to reflect humanity, but they are definitely meant to be a lot of things that would make certain 1950s American attitudes inconvenient when dealing with them.

It's not a spoiler to say that the first several expeditions to Mars fail miserably. It really goes to show that hey, we earthlings are trying to master something that is unknown and dangerous. That sense of danger permeates Mars - not for the Martians, but for the humans. The Martian towns play with people's imaginations, the attempts to make Mars in the image of '50s America always meet unforeseen challenges.

But of course, people are people. "People are people" is one of the main points the Bradbury hammers home over and over throughout the novel, and he hits it in different ways so as not to feel stale or preachy.

This is where the '50s rears its head again in a very big way. There are certain plot points which highlight particular anxieties of the time period.

Segregation. McCarthyism. The Cold War. Nuclear arms.

For the late forties/early fifties? Oh boy, were those massive cause for anxiety. Especially for someone with their finger on the societal vein. Especially for someone with progressive leanings. These stories would be very different written today. Having the ability to see those anxieties in hindsight is one thing, but to have lived through it is another.

Bradbury envisions a bleak future of the human race in the year 2000. He gives Mars colonization technology to an America that never grew out of the attitudes of the '50s. There is a hyper-patriotism that is the downfall of several characters. Censorship is rampant (for those who've read Fahrenheit 451: there's a small sequence with firemen who burn books on the newly colonized mars... sounds familiar, doesn't it? In here, it's just an inkling of an idea that he took and later fleshed out in a whole other novel. I just find it Interesting to see how certain ideas really stoke the imaginations of creators) and humanity is on the brink of nuclear war as the first colonists arrive.

All of this still has resonance for today, but placing myself back into the 1950s, these stories are not merely poignant, but truly haunting.

One of the early colonists bemoans to another that soon, people will come and they'll start naming these ancient Martian towns after Lincoln or Mississippi, that they'll take boats down the Utah canal and drive along New Louisiana Lane. I'm not entirely sure why, but that speech hit me like a sucker punch.  Bradbury is commenting on how Americans are so obsessed with their mythologies, that they won't even really look at what the real Mars even is. They just want to make it New America. It has a ring of truth that gets to me.

Hyper-patriotism and jingoism are the real enemies of humanity, Bradbury says. This alien world with all its dangers... that's nothing.

The final story, "The Million-year Picnic" left me putting the book down and staring off into space for a minute or two, mouth hanging open, trying to come to terms with he numerous feelings I was having.

I felt astonished that Bradbury had created something which made me feel this way.

I felt drained. Mildly traumatized, like when reading certain parts of A Song of Ice and Fire.

I felt hope that these characters could build something better.

But mostly, I felt haunted. That's the only way I can describe the ending of The Martian Chronicles. Truly haunting.

Mars is a ghost world. The humans are all ghosts.

The ghosts linger and cling during that final story. It works because we got a chance to meet these ghosts over the course of other tales.

The ending stories are a requiem of silence.

The depth of that silence is what made my spine shiver in its core.

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