As I recently noted, Ray Bradbury died last month. At the time I heard the news, I hadn’t read much of his work beyond Fahrenheit 451, but the articles about his death kept mentioning The Martian Chronicles as another of his masterpieces. So when I happened across it at the library the other day, I grabbed it.
I’m glad I did.
The Martian Chronicles tells the story of humanity’s exploration and settlement of Mars. The fictional timeline spans from 1999 to 2026, a period which – at the time of the book’s publication in 1950 – was far future. Of course, as with any old sci fi, many of the ideas seem dated now. At one point the Martian colonists receive messages from Earth in Morse code. But if you can put aside such anachronisms, the writing holds up remarkably well.
Chronicles is billed as a novel, but it takes the form of a short story collection: twenty-seven stories, some no longer than a page, each one separate but intertwined with the others, each telling its own little piece of the journey to Mars. The overall effect is that of a mosaic, a pleasant fracturing of the narrative into many close-ups. You get to see the Martians themselves, with their masks and sand ships and telepathic premonitions of the coming human invasion. You meet Benjamin Driscoll, a modern Johnny Appleseed determined to invigorate the thin Martian air by planting trees. You read about a Poe fanatic who constructs his very own House of Usher on the Red Planet, thumbing his nose at the Fahrenheit-style censors. Each story is vivid and unique.
The version I read – the 40th anniversary edition – has an extra story, not included in the original, called “The Fire Balloons.” Normally I’m wary of such bonus material; if it wasn’t good enough for the editors back then, I’m skeptical I’m going to like it now. But this story, about a group of missionaries who must bring Christ to a community of spherical blue fire-spirits, turned out to be one of my favorites. Even if you’ve read Chronicles before, I’d recommend grabbing the new edition for that story alone.
Bradbury’s style is poetic but practical. Here’s a sample:
The wind hurled the sand ship keening over the dead sea bottom, over long-buried crystals, past upended pillars, past deserted docks of marble and brass, past dead white chess cities, past purple foothills, into distance. The figures of the Martian ships receded and then began to pace Sam’s ship.
I was worried, toward the beginning of the book, because the style threatened to be too much: too much lyrical sadness, too much melodrama, too much insistence on weeping for a lost world.
I’m glad I stuck around. The worry passed, the mosaic unfolded, and the book was brilliant.
I just got back from a five-day vacation in Florida, where I was able to do a lot of reading. Besides this book, I also finished Buzz Aldrin’s autobiography Magnificent Desolation, the excellent short play Twelve Angry Men (about a jury deciding a murder case), and Susan Sontag’s Regarding the Pain of Others. Now I’m on Ian McEwan’s novel Atonement, which is great so far.
What are you reading these days?