I’ve been trying to broaden my horizons in science fiction reading, and this week I broadened them all the way to Mars, by reading Ray Bradbury’s The Martian Chronicles. I saw the movie years and years ago, remembering it only faintly, and this was my first trip through the book.
I have great respect for Mr. Bradbury…but, and I may get myself into trouble saying this, I had enormous amounts of trouble with The Martian Chronicles.
First, the essential plot: the story of humans colonizing Mars, over the recent graves of the previous civilization. There are a series of failed exploratory missions, whose crews disappeared mysteriously. When one finally lasts, they realize that the previous visitors infected the Martians with chicken pox and, barring a handful of survivors, the entire civilization died. Humans get on with colonizing, but just as they’re beginning to flourish, their efforts are disrupted by atomic war back on Earth.
The presentation of the story is interesting, a series of anecdotes with no major characters throughout and only a few recurring ones. This is almost a series of short stories, and some apparently have been published as independent stories. I liked Bradbury’s writing, and there was something about the concept I liked. I did feel I was reading a classic icon of a certain kind of science fiction, when there were canals on Mars and interplanetary travel could be accomplished quickly.
A few of the stories, as independent stories, were very good. The third (failed) expedition’s experience reads like an excellent episode of The Twilight Zone, and there’s a wonderful funny story about two people who believe they’re the only man and woman on Mars.
But I had two major problems. First, I didn’t understand the Martians. And second, I didn’t understand the humans.
The Martians were different every time we saw them. I couldn’t figure out what the rules were. They’re an advanced civilization and they’re telepathic, but beyond that… In one story they’re almost comically absurd, with names like Mr. Zzz and Miss Ggg and Mr. Iii. In another they’re classical philosophers, with keys to the meaning of life. In a third they’re shapeshifters, telepathically assaulted by other people’s desires, and with little control over themselves. There seemed to be a lack of internal consistency, and I didn’t ever feel I could clearly say, this is what Martians are like.
As to the humans, I didn’t feel they behaved in a believable way. When they emerged as individual characters they did, usually, but the attitude of the masses was baffling to me. When the fourth (and first successful) mission lands, they realize three things: 1) Mars was home to an intelligent civilization, on an equal or more advanced level than humans; 2) this civilization died two weeks ago, because of Earth-brought disease; 3) a few Martians have survived, to disappear into the hills.
Any one of those facts should change human history. I mean–come on! There’s a civilization! On Mars! We accidentally killed them! A few of them are still out there if we want to try to talk to them!
Every scholar, every government official, every architect, philosopher, religious leader, psychologist, scientist, visionary and dreamer should be intensely interested. Instead, with the exception of a few characters, the overall reaction seems to be: yeah, they had nice towns. Shame they died. Sorry about that. Let’s get on with building our shops and houses and roads.
No one seems to be interested in seeking the remaining Martians out. That, at least, seems like it would be the most basic of impulses, shared by everyone. After the mere fact of seeking them, you’d get different reactions. I’m sure you’d get the Fear of the Other, with people wondering what weapons they have or if they’re hostile (since we did accidentally kill most of them), and some people would want to kill them before they get us. In a more idealized world, you can’t really apologize adequately for accidental genocide, but you can at least try. And if the Martians were willing to forgive and make friends…oh, the questions.
What’s your religion? What are your family structures like? What was in your history? What do you understand about science? What do you eat? How do you stay out of each other’s heads, if you’re all telepaths? And for me, I might be most interested to hear–what are your stories? What’s your mythology? What are your fairy tales? Do you have Cinderella or Sleeping Beauty? Are universal stories really universal? What stories does every Martian child know?
But no. The humans are more interested in building shops and installing juke boxes.
I can accept telepathic Martians who live near canals, because that’s the world Bradbury has put us in. But I have trouble with humans who don’t behave according to what I understand as human nature.
I respect Mr. Bradbury, and I appreciate his place in science fiction. But in the future, if I want to read about some classic sci fi Martians, I’ll be spending my time with Mr. Burroughs instead.
Author’s site: http://www.raybradbury.com/