My book club met last Monday to go over Ray Bradbury’s The Martian Chronicles. It seemed like it had been forever since I listened to the audiobook and I found myself a little lost during the discussion. Luckily not all of the other participants felt the same way and we had a great discussion!
I’ll start off with Bradbury himself. A newcomer to our group was very well informed about him because of some research she’d done before coming (thank you!). Bradbury couldn’t afford college after high school and instead of being taught to write by a teacher, he taught himself by going to the library three times a week and reading as much as he could. (As a side note, I love stories like this that can make me turn my nose up at all the MFA ads I see in writers’ magazines. Ha!)
The Martian Chronicles was originally published as short stories and eventually, Bradbury wanted to publish them as a collection of short stories. He was living in LA at the time and he thought the collection would do well. His problem was that his scene was limited to those he knew on the West Coast and when he took the manuscript to a publisher in New York, the publisher was skeptical. He was told that no one wanted to read short stories and the publisher said that though the writing was good, it couldn’t be published as written. Not one to be discouraged, Bradbury spent the night writing segues and connecting the stories into a more fluid narrative line and went back the next day. He must have impressed the publisher! (Please note that my one-page Google search is not confirming this. I apologize if it’s wrong.)
Our moderator asked us to talk about our feelings on Science Fiction and this book before we started. Personally, I’ve never thought to myself “I’m reading Science Fiction” when I pick up a book but as people talked I realized that some of the SciFi titles they were mentioning were books I’d liked. I guess I’d always considered myself more on the Fantasy end of the SciFi/Fantasy genre. We talked about how there is a wide range of SciFi that goes from humanistic to techie. This was more on the humanistic side because it really didn’t delve too much into scientific inventions of the future. (I think this is what I prefer.) The only issue we raised is that it seemed unrealistic that they could import so much building material to Mars in rockets. Then again, it seems rather farfetched that there are people living in Mars to touché Mr. Bradbury.
The book was originally published in 1950, which is really important to consider for a few historical reasons. First, space exploration was in its early stages. Sputnik would not be launched for another 7 years and Neil Armstrong wouldn’t walk in the moon for nearly 20. However, Mars was known to have had canals of water in its history. These canals play a really prominent role in Bradbury’s book.
As the stories were written for magazines before publication, one knows that they were most likely written in the mid to late 40s, at the tail end of and following World War II. The end of the book involves a huge (presumably) nuclear attack in which the planet is destroyed and all life exterminated. We related this to guilt that Bradbury felt for the atomic attacks on Japan. At that time, many people felt the end of the world was all around them because there was war on most continents and civilian deaths were high. One of our participants mentioned that many of the women must have felt vulnerable because their husbands, sweethearts, fathers, brothers, and sons were off fighting overseas.
The other relations to the time we were able to make were the displacement of Native Americans in the US and the way in which the Mars settlers pushed the Martians away from the canals and the treatment of blacks under Jim Crow laws being similar to the way the settlers ignored and mistreated the Martians.
One of our members had a copy with pictures in it, which the rest of us were really jealous of. Her favorite depiction was from the short story Silent Towns and it was a drawing of Genevieve, the woman who annoyed Walter so much he shunned human contact for the rest of his life. Maybe that’s a negative outlook on dating on Bradbury’s part.
Before we get to overall opinions, I’ll share some chapter-by-chapter thoughts our group had. The story The Green Morning was interesting to us because of the reinterpretation of Johnny Appleseed. The character, Benjamin, wanted to become Appleseed in a way. His mission was the help make the air more breathable by planting trees and increasing oxygen content. Some of us wondered if the wood from the trees he planted helped build the new buildings on the planet for latter settlers.
My favorite story, and our moderator’s, was Usher II. I’m a big fan of Poe’s short stories so it was great to hear all of the references to the stories within this one. Someone pointed out that it seemed Bradbury’s other book, Fahrenheit 451, was referenced as well because there had been a mass destruction of literature back on Earth that was just starting to creep onto Mars as well. We found it ironic that the censor that came to destroy the house was killed in the same way one of Poe’s characters is killed in The Cask of Amontillado. If he’d been able to read the banned and burned books, he would have known he was about to be killed.
Another story we discussed was Night Meeting where one of the settlers runs into a Martian and the two talk about the city they see before them. The settler, Tomás, sees a dead and abandoned Martian city where there is no life, while the Martian sees a vibrant and thriving metropolis where he himself is heading to see his friends. Was the Martian dead? Did the two exist on different dimensions? One theory we had was that the Martians had continued to live on the plant but had projected to the minds of the humans with their telepathy that there were no more of them. While the human settlers built their own towns and lived on the planet, the Martians lived there, too, without notice and able to continue their lives uninterrupted. (Side note, I love this theory.)
To bring up Silent Towns and Genevieve again, we found it ironic that the woman who chose to stay on Mars so that she wouldn’t be judged by those around her for watching Clark Gable movies and eating chocolate with her hands ended up being judged by the only other man on the planet. On top of that, she was judged so harshly that he ran away as to never see her again. Ouch.
Okay, time to talk about some overall themes and opinions. We saw that art was a big part of Martian culture, including the beautiful cities they had created. When Bradbury was writing this, the Nazis were raiding museums and destroying art, but like the astronauts destroyed it in this book. Again we see the parallel between Bradbury’s experiences and the story.
Some members thought the book seemed a little ‘preach-y’ as far as talking about world peace and protecting the environment. I tend to agree a little, but I really enjoyed those stories, such as Usher II that didn’t preach as much.
We asked ourselves if the book was pessimistic or optimistic. I personally thought it had a pessimistic tone. The 50s were a pretty pessimistic time and I think the story reflects that. It also seems that Bradbury sees the worst in humans as most of the characters in this book show deep human flaws. One of the last paragraphs shows a much more optimistic view. In The Million-Year Picnic, the father is talking to his sons and tells them that they can form a better standard of living on Mars and now that the Earth is destroyed and there’s not much of an option left, he’s still glad they’re there. I think it’s a positive image of reawakening, saying that it’s not too late for us as humans to start over.
There’s also a strong theme of nostalgia in the book. In The Long Years, Hathaway has created a family for himself after his real family dies. This reminded me of the movie Cast Away where Tom Hanks’s character talks to a volleyball to have someone to interact with during his long time alone on the island. In The Third Expedition, the men see their dead relatives and are so overcome by love and happiness that they abandon their mission to see their families, which are really Martians using their telepathy to trick the settlers. When the Martians bury the bodies, they still weep for the death of their ‘family members.
Another theme we discussed was fear. The humans feared the Martians and the Martians feared the human settlers. This reminded one of our members of racial discrimination such as Jim Crow laws and the recent Trayvon Martin case. I suspect Bradbury himself was anti-discrimination.
Freedom was a big theme in the book. The blue orbs that the priests try to convert have given up their bodies and they are free because they don’t have to die. They have sacrificed feeling and control for self-preservation while the rest of the culture died. The people who came to Mars were trying to get rid of their earthly baggage and be free to start again. Ironically, many of them didn’t leave it very far behind them. In Way in the Middle of the Air, the blacks start to come to Mars, trying to be free of the oppression they’ve felt on Earth economically and socially.
Writers Takeaway: This was a great discussion to have after my continuing discussion about what makes a short story. My fellow bookies felt the second half of the book flowed better and was less ‘staccato.’ The second half tended to have more of the short segues to lead between stories and I think this helped.
Bradbury was able to imply a lot in his writing without stating it, which I think is a good thing in science fiction. He didn’t have to explain how there came to be hotdogs and soda fountains on Mars, they were just there. We could imply that they came on the big rockets and that there was some sort of monetary system established on Mars that the settlers were using to get their new goods
A lot of us liked that there were characters that were brought back in repeated stories because it helped connect the short stories and helped us learn about the men who had come exploring on an alien planet.
It was overall a great discussion. We’ll be reading Annie’s Ghosts next which I’ve already finished and you can read my review here.
Until next time, write on.
The Martin Chronicles, by Ray Bradbury- A Thesis|Yashvir’s Blog
The Martian Chronicles in retrospect|Jim Reilly’s Blog