The Martian Chronicles
The Martian Chronicles
by Ray Bradbury
THE LITERARY WORK
A series of short stories set on the planet Mars in the near future; published in 1950.
Humans arrive on Mars in search of scientific knowledge and a better life, as well as in flight from rising nuclear tensions at home. As the humans encounter telepathic Martians, Earth’s problems become at once more distant and more immediate.
While Ray Bradbury (1920– ) is best known as a science-fiction writer, no one genre adequately subsumes all of his work. Bradbury is at once deeply interested in technology and suspicious of its misuse. He has refused to drive a car or to ride in an airplane, yet has written lyrically about space travel, and his stories are full of speculations about the benefits and dangers of machines (Mogen, p. 22). He tends not to share the traditional interest of other science-fiction writers in speculating on how a new technology might physically operate. Instead, Bradbury’s work is often very like a complex and intelligent fairy tale, in which machines, for good or ill, work the magic. While Bradbury’s stories always have some element of the fantastic, this element may just as easily take the form of a pretty young girl as that of some more classically science-fictional creature, such as a Martian or a computer-run house. His second book of short stories (after Dark Carnival, 1947), The Martian Chronicles, was followed by novels, drama, poetry, and children’s stories. Included in Bradbury’s works (see Dandelion Wine and Fahrenheit 451, also in Literature and Its Times) are poetic reveries on childhood and small-town life, meditations on love, and protests against censorship, along with tales about spacemen on rockets. All these elements appear in The Martian Chronicles, whose stories reflect an earth-threatening contest for world power in Bradbury’s time.
The Cold War
The Second World War ended in Europe with Germany’s surrender on May 7, 1945. At the Potsdam Conference, held from July 17 to August 2, 1945, the “Big Three”—the United States of America, the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, and Britain—agreed to “demilitarize, de-Nazify and democratize Germany” (Graebner, p. 72). Germany was accordingly divided into Soviet, British, French, and American administrative zones, while the city of Berlin, which sat deep within the Soviet zone, was also placed under joint administration. In September 1946, the Western authorities merged the British, French, and American zones into one territory, that of West Germany; the Soviet zone became East Germany. These divisions would determine the map of Europe until the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989.
The division of Europe between the Soviets and the West did not end with Germany. The Soviets maintained control of the Eastern European countries, from which they had driven the Germans, and nothing short of another war was going to drive them out. America and Western Europe began to fear that Soviet expansion would not stop with Eastern Europe. The Soviet prime minister, Joseph Stalin, made no secret of his desire to control the rest of Europe. The United States’ first reaction to this threat was the Truman Doctrine, a “vague and indeterminate promise to support governments under Communist attack” (Graebner, p. 77). U.S. policy aimed to contain communism—that is, to prevent its spread. While the Truman Doctrine was general and highly ideological, the administration also adopted the specific, highly practical Marshall Plan, named after U.S. Secretary of State George C. Marshall. Under this plan, the United States offered the war-ravaged European countries financial aid to help rebuild their economies. Marshall explained that the policy was “directed not against country or doctrine, but against hunger, poverty, desperation, and chaos” (Graebner, p. 77). Marshall even offered to extend aid to the Soviets and their satellite nations, but the offer was refused. The Marshall Plan had its strategic as well as its humanitarian goals. Economically viable and militarily stable European nations made far better allies against Soviet expansion than unstable nations would and, again, the foremost U.S. goal was to stop the spread of communism. In 1949 the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), came into existence as an alliance against the Soviets, who responded by forming the Warsaw Pact in 1953. American precautions against Soviet aggression became more and more open, and the escalating hostility between the two nations gained a name. It became known as the “Cold War.”
The Red Scare
In a reaction to the threat of Soviet expansion, anticommunist hysteria in America grew widespread. The House Committee on Un-American Activities (HUAC, founded in 1938 to root out both communists and fascists) tried to eradicate subversive communist agents who were thought to have infiltrated all levels of U.S. government and industry. In 1947, HUAC held much-publicized Hollywood hearings. These hearings, which were intended to clear the film industry of subversive agents, were based on Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) files and on denunciations by informers, among whom was the actor and future president Ronald Reagan. These hearings exposed “a handful of communists, mostly screenwriters”; ten men went to jail for contempt of court and “more than a dozen people committed suicide” (Rose, p. 35). In the aftermath of the hearings, studio officials refused to hire anyone who might be suspected of “un-American” leanings. Hundreds of actors, writers, producers, and technical workers were blacklisted as a result of the HUAC hearings; the committee’s actions had a good measure of popular support. Across the country, people denounced, harassed, or refused to employ individuals suspected of being communist sympathizers. Bookstores stocked their shelves with anticommunist tracts. The major magazines printed anticommunist articles. The Catholic Church issued pamphlets with titles like Communism Means Slavery and The Enemy in Our Schools (Rose, p. 35).
While “hot” battles would be fought outside the United States and the Soviet Union, in Korea, Vietnam, and Afghanistan, the Cold War on home soil remained “a war of nerves, a war of images” (Von Bencke, p. 10). Two of the defining images of the Cold War are the mushroom cloud and the rocket. While the distinctive cloud raised by the detonation of an atom bomb remains the symbol of utter destruction, the rocket is more ambiguous: it is the delivery vehicle of both the bomb and the astronaut, symbolizing progress and adventure as well as the possibility of catastrophe.
The arms race
During the Second World War, scientists in the United States, the Soviet Union, and Germany researched the possibility of nuclear weapons. America was the first to succeed. On August 6, 1945, the American plane Enola Gay dropped an atom bomb on the Japanese city Hiroshima, and three days later the Americans dropped another bomb on Nagasaki. Each city was devastated. According to U.S. sources, 64,000 people were killed instantly (Japanese sources have the figure closer to 200,000) and thousands more died from radiation sickness. By 1950, when The Martian Chronicles was published, the long-term effects of radiation from nuclear bombs (increased cancer rates, thyroid disorders, birth defects) were becoming clear (Rose, pp. 81-82). Already some physicists were adamantly opposed to further research and testing in nuclear weapons.
After the war, research in atomic weapons continued in America at a slower pace, until the Soviet Union exploded its first atomic device (based on the American plans) in September 1949. This event was described in the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists as a “new Pearl Harbor,” and it led to intensified American research (Rose, p. 72). The first atom bombs were comparatively limited in scope, depending on a single fission reaction of uranium and plutonium. But subsequent bombs, developed in America in reaction to the Soviet atomic weapons, grew substantially more powerful and destructive. These so-called “super” bombs were hydrogen bombs. H-bombs depended upon fusion reactions that added hydrogen to the explosion of the rarer elements (uranium and plutonium) already in the A-bombs. A conventional A-bomb acted as a trigger mechanism for the significantly more powerful H-bomb, which was developed independently in each of the two countries this time. Its development led to years of nuclear escalation and stockpiling by both sides.
The nuclear threat was very present in daily life. Schools instituted “duck and cover drills,” in which children would practice putting their heads between their knees and shielding their eyes, a maneuver that would supposedly help them to survive a nuclear attack. Instructional film strips offered similar advice, showing idyllic scenes of summer picnics whose picnickers (mother, father, son, and daughter) would protect themselves from the sudden dropping of the bomb by hiding under their picnic blankets. Homeowners—including John Wheeler, one of the designers of the A-bomb—erected private fallout shelters in which to survive the effects of a nuclear attack.
The space race
Modern rocketry was initially developed for military use at the time of the Second World War. The technology that would eventually send astronauts to the moon was first used to send explosives to their targets. While gunpowder-fuelled rockets had been around for centuries, mostly as fireworks or signal flares, the military had no use for these rockets since they flew only very short distances and could not carry heavy payloads. This problem was overcome in the 1920s, when scientists in Germany, America, and Russia began building liquid-fuelled rockets. Rocket-enthusiast engineers, encouraged by their childhood science-fiction reading and by military funding, began developing rockets capable of carrying large explosives. The German V-2 rocket was the first ballistic missile, launched from the ground and aimed at targets up to 190 miles away.
SCIENCE FICTION AND ROCKET DEVELOPMENT
The German mathematics teacher Hermann Oberth was one of the first to design a rocket using liquid fuel instead of gunpowder. Working in the 1920s, Oberth borrowed a number of ideas from the science-fiction writer Kurd Lasswitz, including his proposal for an orbiting space station, which among other things would have giant solar reflectors “to keep the shipping lane to Spitsbergen and the North Siberian ports ice-free by concentrated sunlight” (Heppenheimer, p. 6).
After the war, the Soviets and the Americans took what information they could from the Germans. The Soviets seized plans and prototypes of V-2 rockets, and the Americans hired many of the German scientists to form a team led by Werner von Braun, who had designed the V-2. The American and Soviet space programs both began from the same base, that of V-2 technology. For the next 40 years, rocket development remained a practical as well as a symbolic tool of Cold War aggression. Rocket science became a forum in which the Soviet Union and the United States vied to demonstrate their scientific—and, by implication, military—superiority.
The growing importance of science fiction as a literary genre and a cultural indicator dates to the 1950s. In this, as in the previous decade, science fiction reflected the mood of uncertainty and paranoia in mid-twentieth-century America. One very clear example of how science fiction can highlight larger cultural concerns is the science-fiction movie Them! (1954), in which giant mutant ants threaten the American Southwest. The ants are mindless communist drones; the movie’s heroes, acting on the instructions of a white-haired scientist, eradicate the ants by burning them out. As literary historian M. Keith Booker explains, the bomb is both the problem and the solution in this film: the ants have mutated after being exposed to radiation at a test site, but they are killed off by soldiers wielding flamethrowers. Them! dramatizes both a popular fear that highbrow scientists and short-sighted politicians were putting the American public in the way of unknown and unspeakable dangers, and the popular hope that those same scientists and politicians, employing American know-how and elbow grease, would be able to get out of whatever trouble came along. Similar hopes and fears are addressed with more psychological and artistic complexity in The Martian Chronicles.
The Martian Chronicles consists of a series of linked short stories and vignettes. While some characters appear more than once, the real focus of the book is not on a few individuals but on the American colonists of Mars as a group. Bradbury’s frontier Mars is also a picture of America: not only the nineteenth-century American frontier, which Mars resembles, but also modern, militarized America with its rural and suburban areas that produce the colonists. It is to this modern America that the outer-space colonists will eventually return.
The first set of stories chronicles the initial attempts of the human beings to reach and colonize Mars. The book begins with “Rocket Summer,” in which the heat generated by a rocket launch briefly melts the winter snow in a small Ohio town. The heat of the rocket is at once miraculous and unnatural: it causes housewives, taking off their coats, to “shed their bear disguises,” and melts the snow to reveal “last summer’s ancient green lawns” (Bradbury, The Martian Chronicles, p. 1). The everyday images of women in coats and snow over grass give way to a magical transformation: the melting snow and discarded coats reveal the women and the lawns behind the “disguise” of winter. But the transformation comes at the cost of a reddening sky and oven-level heat: clearly the rocket, as it is launched on the first page, is already a dangerous tool.
The first three expeditions to Mars fail because the astronauts are killed by the Martians. In each case, their deaths are connected to the Martians’ telepathic powers. The two-man crew of the first rocket is killed by a jealous husband, whose wife has dreamed of the Earth men. The men on the second rocket encounter Martians who mistake them for lunatics. The hallucinations of these lunatics (including their rocket and their human bodies) are infectious because of telepathy, think the Martians, who kill the lunatics so the “contamination” will not spread (Martian Chronicles, p. 30). The larger crew on the third expedition, wary after the failure of the first two, lands in what appears to be an Ohio town populated by their dead relatives; they have been hypnotized by the Martians, who then catch the men off guard and kill them in the night. These stories combine speculation about the nature of reality with musings on hostility between rival powers. “What,” wonders the captain of the third expedition, shortly before he is killed, “would the best weapon be that a Martian could use against Earth Men with atomic weapons?” The answer comes to him right away: “Telepathy, hypnosis, memory, and imagination” (Martian Chronicles, p. 46). The only way for the Martians to defend themselves against the brute force of nuclear weapons is to change the way the Earth Men think—to make the men on the third expedition believe they are in a kind of heaven.
The crew of the fourth rocket finds that the invaders, in their turn, have inadvertently killed off the Martians. They perish from chicken pox, which they apparently caught from earlier expeditions. There are a few survivors, but not enough to be a “native problem” (Martian Chronicles, p. 51). This begins the second phase of the book, in which American colonists arrive on Mars and modify the planet, planting trees and building American-style cities and towns. The colonization parallels stages of civilization in world history. The first colonists are sometimes crass and unpleasant. They smash the beautiful Martian cities and dump beer bottles in the Martian canals. The havoc wreaked by later arrivals is more subtly damaging. They bring to Mars censorship, intolerance, greed, and violence, elements of American culture that Bradbury himself disdains (Mogen, p. 22).
In the third phase of the book, the long-expected nuclear war breaks out on Earth, and with a few lonely exceptions, the colonists rush home. The last stories show how the few remaining settlers on Mars deal with loneliness. One man stores freezers full of steaks and watches movie after movie; another, at once more human and more terrifying, builds robots to replace his dead wife and daughters. At the very end, after the war on Earth is over, Mars becomes the home of a fledgling human society, a new social order, whose members have a second chance. In the final story, “The Million-Year Picnic,” the Thomas family arrives on Mars in a small private rocket. Mars has been evacuated at this point; all the colonists have gone home to Earth. The parents pretend at first that this is a fishing trip, and the children—three boys—are excited to see Martians. Slowly, however, the parents explain to their sons that they have come to Mars to stay. The Thomases blow up their rocket lest any unknown survivors from Earth use it to trace them, for their trip is actually illegal. With the exception of the Edwards family, who may be arriving in a similar small rocket, the Thomases do not want to be found. If the Edwards family make it to Mars with their four daughters (a number which Mrs. Thomas says will “cause trouble later,” the two families will together begin a new society (Martian Chronicles, p. 179). The story ends with the boys seeing their long-anticipated Martians when they look at their own reflections in a Martian canal. No longer citizens of Earth, they are the new population of Mars. Their birth planet has been unequivocally left behind, memorialized only by the Earth birds and plants that now thrive on Martian soil.
Technology and humanity
Bradbury’s ambivalence about technology is most evident in the second-to-last story of the collection, “There Will Come Soft Rains.” One of the few stories set on Earth, it tells the fate of the only house left standing in the town of Allendale, California, after a nuclear war. The house is fully automated, containing computerized elements like a speaking clock, a stove that automatically cooks breakfast, and mouselike robot cleaners. The humans for whom these luxuries are designed, however, are absent. We learn about their habits and interests as the house cooks their breakfasts and reads them poetry, but all we see of the people themselves are their silhouettes burnt by an atomic blast into the paint on the side of the house. At the beginning of the story, the house’s activities seem merely useful. When it becomes evident that the humans are gone, the house appears pathetic. By the end of the story, a fire had broken out and the house has gone insane, its different computerized elements frantically and uselessly
OUTER SPACE MEETS THE AMERICAN WEST
The critic David Mogen argues that The Martian Chronicles is about, among other things, the American frontier. “The Million-Year Picnic” is the last of Bradbury’s frontier visions, in which the colonists finally cut their ties with their first homes. Mr. Thomas and his family leave Earth in order to escape the problems that the machines in “There Will Come Soft Rains” are powerless to solve: war, violence, cruelty, indifference. The small rocketships that the fathers in “The Million-Year Picnic” have carefully obtained resemble the fallout shelters real-life people were installing in their homes. They are small, private attempts to save a single family from a world-shattering event.
trying to save themselves. “There Will Come Soft Rains” is a double warning to its readers. First, it shows a world in which all the people have been killed. Secondly, in the destruction of the house, it suggests that the tragedy came about through a human failure: the robots in the house, like the absent people, have a tendency to pay too much attention to trivial details (cleaning the house, washing the dishes) and not enough to more urgent demands (preserving resources for a true emergency). Throughout The Martian Chronicles, as throughout the post World War II years of the late 1940s and the 1950s, humanity reaches for technology to solve human problems. Bradbury’s stories suggest that technology is at least as likely to add to the problem as to solve it.
The story furthermore reflects a phenomenon in post World War II America—the rise of a consumer society. Economic growth gave people more “discretionary income—money to satisfy wants as well as need” than before (Nash, p. 923). At the same time consumer goods multiplied. Television sets found their way into more and more households while miniature electronic devices called transistors began to power computers, radios, and hearing aids now available to the average consumer. Using their discretionary income, families purchased electric gadgets for the home, from can openers, to toothbrushes and pencil sharpeners. Historians point to an “ominous technological trend” of the day, namely “the advent of automation” that made people expendable because a machine could do a task instead (Nash, p. 931).
Sources and literary context
The vision of small-town America in The Martian Chronicles is based on Bradbury’s childhood in Waukegan, Illinois, disguised here as Green Bluff, Illinois,
THE MYTH OF THE MARTIAN CANALS
In 1877, the Italian astronomer Giovanni Schiapparelli announced that he had observed that Mars’s surface was covered with a large number of straight lines, which he called canali, a word that may mean either “channel” or “canal.” English-speaking astronomers adopted the word with its English meaning, and imagined that the lines they saw on the planet (actually the result of an optical illusion [North, p. 578]) were built by intelligent Martians. This idea gave rise to the first Martian science fiction.
and elsewhere in his work as Green Town. Bradbury’s vision of space owes a great deal to contemporary researchers and earlier science-fiction writers, two disparate groups that may actually have had a good deal in common. T. A. Heppenheimer argues that space-travel science fiction like Fritz Lang’s movie Frau im Mond (The Woman in the Moon) and Hugo Gernsback’s pulp magazine Science Wonder Stories, may have helped shape the science that followed both by inspiring real-life scientists and by helping create groups like the American Rocket Society, formed in 1930 by science-fiction writers who wanted to assess the feasibility of space travel (Heppenheimer, pp. 33-34).
Bradbury draws specifically on a long tradition of literature in which Mars and Earth invade each other. He furthermore filters those invasions through the lens of surrounding events in the late 1940s. His Martians are not Russians, but in their focus on cultural conflict and the uses of psychological warfare, his stories are heavily influenced by the tensions of the times.
The death of the Martians in The Martian Chronicles has both literary and historical sources. The Martians’ extermination by chicken pox contracted from the early astronauts recalls the American Indians who perished by the thousands from diseases like smallpox, brought to America by colonists from Europe. Bradbury underscores the similarity of the fate of the Martians and the fate of the American Indians by placing a crew member named Cheroke (after the Cherokee Indians) aboard the fourth expedition. Cheroke is fairly sympathetic to the natives of the planet: “If there’s a Martian around,” he says, “I’m all for him” (Martian Chronicles, p. 59). The literary source for the Martians’ death is H. G. Wells’s The War of the Worlds (1897; also in Literature and Its Times). In Wells’s novel, Martians equipped with spaceships and death rays invade Earth. Humans have no weapons powerful enough to repel the invaders, and humankind survives only because the Martians unexpectedly die of Earth diseases.
The Martian Chronicles was written during the heyday of American science fiction. Hundreds of short stories were published in pulp magazines like Science Wonder Stories and Amazing Science Fiction. In the decade preceding the publication of The Martian Chronicles, George Orwell published Animal Farm (1945) and Nineteen Eighty-Four (1949), dystopian novels about corrupt communist dictatorships (both also in Literature and Its Times). Also E. E. “Doc” Smith published his “space operas,” interstellar adventure sagas. Robert A. Heinlein began a series of highly political novels, which were to include the well-known Starship Troopers (1959). And Isaac Asimov began publishing early versions of his Foundation trilogy, a series about scientific attempts to manipulate long-term political destiny, as well as I, Robot (1950), a novel that was to define the rules for later robot-specific science fiction (e.g., a robot must never hurt a person). Within this context, The Martian Chronicles is unusual for its poetic, meditative style and comparatively apolitical message and for the relative disinterest shown in a physically plausible scientific basis for the stories.
Publication and reception
The release of The Martian Chronicles brought Bradbury his first mainstream recognition, thanks to a review published by the important novelist and critic Christopher Isherwood in Tomorrow magazine in October 1950. For Isherwood, the quality of Bradbury’s work suggested that science-fiction writing, generally ignored by critics, might have literary merit after all, but it also, paradoxically, removed Bradbury from the classification of science-fiction writer. Comparing Bradbury to Edgar Allan Poe (whose work Bradbury overtly refers to in The Martian Chronicles story “Usher II”), Isherwood points out that “his interest in machines seems to be limited to their symbolic and aesthetic aspects,” a distinction that Isherwood believes separates Bradbury from the orthodox (and therefore inferior) genre writers of the day (Isherwood in Mogen, p. 16). Other critics followed Isherwood’s lead. Bradbury garnered positive reviews from Aldous Huxley, J. B. Priestley, Angus Wilson, and Kingsley Amis.
While Bradbury’s willingness to ignore the physical plausibility of his worlds pleased Isherwood, some science-fiction aficionados objected. Science-fiction ingredients, protested Donald A. Wolfheim, should be more central. Bradbury’s “stories are stories of people—real and honest and true in their understanding of human nature—but for his purposes the trappings of science fiction are sufficient—mere stage settings” (Wolfheim, p. 99). Many fans and reviewers were delighted to see a science-fiction writer gaining critical respect, but others doubted that Bradbury’s work really counted as science fiction at all.
The text of The Martian Chronicles has changed a little since its initial publication. “Way Up in the Middle of the Air,” a story dealing with race relations in the rural South, was removed after the 1950 edition, and “The Fire Balloons,” which features Episcopal priests who come to Mars, and “The Wilderness,” in which two women prepare to join their men on Mars, were added. Since the collection is composed of linked short stories, individual additions and subtractions fit easily into the collection. Several different versions of it have appeared over the years, always with the same focus on humans’ interactions with the world—or worlds—around them.
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