Thursday, April 16, 2020

The Martian Chronicles

Ray Bradbury
Completed 4/13/2020, Reviewed 4/13/2020
5 stars

I first read this book in high school.  I think it was my second adult science fiction novel, after “2001: A Space Odyssey”.  I couldn’t believe how good it was.  It fit into the paranoid apocalyptic vision I had of the world, that is, leaving Earth for Mars because of the possibility of atomic war.  I read it again about fifteen or so years ago.  I had a better appreciation for science fiction at that point, but still hadn’t read any other Bradbury.  Again, I found it a brilliant collection of short stories, creating a depressing vision of the future.  Now, I’ve read it again, this time as an ancillary book for book club, sort of an ad hoc selection of a few people online looking to read something while our original April selection is postponed until the pandemic is over.  For a third time, I loved it.  I have read some Bradbury since, mostly short stories.  I love his short stories.  I think that’s where Bradbury really excels.  And to have a collection of short stories woven into a pseudo-novel is Bradbury at his best.

The book recounts America’s attempts at colonizing and settling Mars.  One could call to mind the discovery and settling of the New World while reading this.  There are multiple attempts before people survive on the Mars, the indigenous Martians are wiped out by a virus, and then it is settled like the Old West.  All this is done under the shadow of atomic war.  It should be noted that this book was first published in 1950.  So we had just come out of World War II and were entering the Cold War.  There is definitely a ‘50s feel to the novel.  In that way, it’s pretty dated, particularly with his treatment of women.  They are all housewives or sex objects.  The towns that spring up all have a “Leave It to Beaver” feel to them.  In terms of race, the only African-American characters are in the story where all the black people leave to go to Mars.  It is chock full of racist epithets used by the racist white people in the story.  This story was censored from the latest edition because of the language.

The form of the books is like a journal, or well, chronicle.  The stories are headed by dates.  It takes us from 1999 to 2026.  (In a more recent edition, the dates were advanced to be “in the future” again)  There are short stories and these are connected with very short entries of a page or less.  Sometimes there’s one, sometimes two of these really brief passages.  It’s a really clever way to create an overarching narrative for short stories that are only mildly connected.

I can’t say I really liked many of the characters.  They are mostly good examples of colonization mindset that settled the New World.  The characters are unsettling at best (hmm, I guess pun intended).  There’s one story, “--And the Moon Be Still as Bright”, concerning the fourth expedition, where most of the men on the spaceship are raucous idiots, shooting up the abandoned Martian cities, abandoned due to the unintentional genocide.  There’s one character, Spender, an archeologist who has respect for the remains of the Martian culture, who goes nuts because of his conflict with his idiot crewmates.  He’s somewhat likeable, despite how he acts out.  There are also some characters in later stories that are almost likeable, but they are pretty sad people.  It makes the whole novel a particularly sad, emotional affair. 

I give this book five stars out of five.  I felt really emotional while reading it, feeling everything from anger to frustration to despair.  It’s probably not a great book to read if you are feeling down from being in isolation due to the coronavirus pandemic, which we are in as of this writing.  But I do think it’s pretty brilliant, especially for its time.  One could probably argue that Kim Stanley Robinson’s Mars series is better, but I would argue it’s a whole different beast, written when we know more about Mars, and lots more about sending lots of people into space.  Despite feeling pretty down at the end of the book, I’m pretty happy to have read it a third time, something I probably won’t do with Robinson’s books.

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