Stephen Gallup's Reviews > The Martian Chronicles

The Martian Chronicles by Ray Bradbury
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Jun 14, 2012

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Read in June, 2012

Bradbury was one of many nominal sci-fi writers I read in my teenage years, and I reread all his books in my late twenties because my wife admired 'em very much. I decided to go back for another sampling this week, since his death has prompted so much commentary (including even a guest blog post I wrote on request).

Reading The Martian Chronicles now, I recall having felt a sense of vague dissatisfaction with it years ago. My understanding then was that sci-fi was often simply an adventure story set in a unique environment, but that nobler efforts explored plausible consequences of new technology, some of which of course have become more than conjecture with the passage of time.

But Bradbury was writing something different from the other big names (Asimov, Clarke, Dick, Le Guin, etc.), something more allegorical, perhaps. In this collection, Mars doesn't necessarily have to be the physical planet. I think it may represent any new destination or objective. The people arriving there are incomplete, flawed, in need of something, and to make his points Bradbury has a lot of those people behaving unrealistically. Sometimes they remind me far more of stock mid-century TV characters (from shows like "Gunsmoke" and "Twilight Zone") than astronauts or pioneers. The real focus seems to be on their self-doubt, nostalgia, inflexibility, skewed notions of honor, and similar weaknesses. They travel to this other planet and immediately set about making it just like home, complete with hot dog stands, cars, gas stations (Seriously? Mars has fossil fuels?). I guess my problem as a younger reader was that the label "science fiction" raised expectations that were not being met with this. I wanted a painting by Manet or Winslow Homer and instead got Picasso.

This time, I tried to think of it simply as literature, rather than in terms of any genre. I made an extra effort to withhold judgment, because I sense that some readers of my blog post above felt I didn't praise Bradbury sufficiently.

Most of the first half of the book (or more) was a hard slog for me this time as well. Not only were the characters stereotypes (and sometimes hateful ones at that), but the prose tended to be just a bit too florid (I remembered that from earlier readings), and the philosophical concepts, while potentially interesting, felt only superficially developed.

But it got better toward the end.

The latter stories are classics. At least, I remember them and also remember that the ideas were imitated by other writers. I'm thinking for example of the last man left on Mars, rushing desperately to answer a ringing phone, only to have the caller hang up just as he got there; or the alien who could assume the identity of whatever person you wanted to see; or the man who created robots to replace his lost family. This much, at least, is good stuff.
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