For some reason, I have a strong attraction to the novel that’s not quite a novel. No offense is meant to the regular kind, but I get especially giddy when I read something described as “kind of a novel, kind of a collection of short stories, etc.” It just seems to me that writers are often liberated by going this route. The sustained narrative, for all of its virtues, can be something of a brick tied around the ankle.
However, in this book Ray Bradbury may have taken things to the extreme! The Martian Chronicles is a work that is so scattered it’s hard to argue with critic Robert Plank’s judgement that it “is not a book.” Famously inspired by Sherwood Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio, Bradbury would later use the French term “pensees” to describe The Martian Chronicles. He was probably thinking of the philosopher Blaise Pascal’s famous work with that word as its title. The word means “thoughts” and Bradbury seems to have thought of the chronicles as just that. It provided a loose framework he could use when he had certain feelings and ideas he wanted to explore. While the book was first published in 1950, several of the tales had already appeared in pulp magazines. In fact, the work’s origins go back even further, to an uncollected story in Bradbury’s 1939 self-published “zine” Futuria Fantasia. Several other Martian tales were never collected in any edition of the book. Some appear in other books by Bradbury, most notably The Illustrated Man. A good number remain unpublished. Bradbury would fiddle incessantly with the book version, adding and subtracting stories, changing the chronology, until 1997. Even this final version did not have the feel of a “deathbed edition.” It seemed more like Bradbury simply felt he’d finally fiddled enough.
While all of this can drive even the casual scholar to tears, it might also convey a false impression of disconnectedness. The Martian Chronicles may not be a book, in the traditional sense of the word, but it is a unified work. What holds it together is Bradbury’s clear-eyed but glowing faith in humanity and its potential. To return to the Pascal term, it is my understanding that the philosopher’s work was largely a defense of the Christian religion. It is quite telling that Bradbury would use a word with religious connotations to describe the chronicles. Essentially, this book is a defense of the human race, and an expression of faith in it. It is crucial to understand, however that Bradbury’s faith is in humanity; it is emphatically not in human civilization.
A participant in a group discussion I led about The Martian Chronicles stated that she felt Bradbury was, more than anything else, a moralist. I think that is completely accurate, and it is what lies behind Bradbury’s lack of interest in civilization. Civilization, and all its accomplishments, is built by humanity. It must serve humanity. The moment the situation reverses itself, civilization becomes an empty shell and humanity is imperiled. To that end, Bradbury made The Martian Chronicles a post-apocalyptic work. In pieces like “The Taxpayer” and “There Will Come Soft Rains,” he depicts human constructs speeding towards oblivion. Yet he does so with a kind of serene calm. These constructs are not the human spirit. As long as intelligent life survives, that spirit will endure and, one day, rebuild. I used the term “intelligent life” in the last sentence because Bradbury’s definition of “humanity” is a broad one. “The Long Years” shows the transformation of artificial life into true humanity. Nothing miraculous happens. It is simply the power of love and the ability to connect. The native Martians, while they make a limited number of appearances, are as “human” as those who come from earth. They help remind clergymen of the true essence of Christianity in “The Fire Balloons,” a story notable for the touching sincerity of its religious belief and its subtle critique of dogmatism. On a darker note, in “The Off Season,” the Martians regally gloat over the foolishness of the decimated human race that had once imperiously displaced them.
The sharpness present in “The Off Season” is part of why The Martian Chronicles is such a masterful work. Bradbury’s exaltation of humanity is all well and good, but any intelligent person should know there is plenty in humanity not worth celebrating. Bradbury knew this too, confronted it head on, and emerged with his faith all the stronger for the challenge. A major clue that Bradbury’s vision is not as sweet as it might seem at first, comes in “-And The Moon Be Still As Bright.” The astronaut Spender finds himself horrified at the thought of colonizing Mars, and ruining it as Earth has been ruined. Spender’s speeches come pretty close to authorial voice, as he rails against artificial civilization and its menacing of eternal human values. Bradbury is stringing us along, however. There is a major catch and, through Spender’s descent, we see the dangers of ideology over humanity. While he is largely (and seductively) correct, Spender puts his beliefs above the humanity he shares with his fellow astronauts. This is close to what he condemns others for. Humanistic views are useless if they are used to destroy actual humans. Thus, Spender misses the entire point of his faith.
Humans missing the point are all over The Martian Chronicles. Sometimes this is depicted with incredible poignancy, as in “Way In The Middle Of The Air.” Bradbury removed this piece from the 1997 edition. In my view, that was a grievous error. In the story, southern African-Americans emigrate en masse to Mars, escaping centuries of racist oppression. The reaction of their white tormentors as they face up far too late to what the artificial construct of prejudice has cost them, is a remarkable evocation of societal catastrophe. Yet it also has a satirical edge to it. A colleague of mine pointed out that it is a wonderfully accurate jab at the old lie of the racist establishment that the inferior black race needed their masters to protect them.
Satire takes center stage in the amazing “Usher II.” This is probably my favorite part of the chronicles. All lovers and practitioners of fantasy, horror, and science fiction get used to living with condescension and even contempt. Bradbury’s story of a horror fan’s revenge against the society that has tried to abolish the dreams that give him so much pleasure, is balm to the soul of anyone who has ever had to endure sneers when they talk about how much they love vampire movies. However, as usual Bradbury’s gleeful fun has more to it than meets the eye. Daydreams and fantasies are part of the human experience. To denigrate and deny them is yet another false barrier, erected by those with a lust for control, to keep us from finding meaning in ourselves as human beings.
Yet despite all this, Bradbury would clearly rather be with the people he likes least than with no people at all. Perhaps the ultimate key to The Martian Chronicles is the very short story “The Musicians,” which depicts earth children using dead Martians as toys, and their resting place as a playground. Bradbury’s disapproval is palpable. But it is also gentle. The boys are innocent, as most people always are, whatever their failings. The boys, and by extension all of us, deserve a great deal of scorn. Yet most of us do not deserve hatred. What Spender, and so many others miss, is that ultimately we only have ourselves. We might as well embrace that fact, with as much joy and love as we can muster, because nothing can change it. Bradbury stubbornly insists, in the face of all naysayers, on celebrating humanity and declaring it more important than any of the wonders the universe has to offer. That is why, despite all the disasters, he leaves humanity alive, battered and bereft, but with everything it needs to start all over again.