Study guide for Ray Bradbury's The Martian Chronicles (1950)


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Introduction

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Clearly Bradbury had a certain vision of the Mars in which these stories are set, a fantasy world based far more on Edgar Rice Burroughs novels (A Princess of Mars and its many sequels) than on contemporary science. Bradbury returned to this fantasy Mars in other stories not included in this volume ("The Exiles," "The Fire Balloons" and "The Other Foot" in The Illustrated Man, "Night Call, Collect" and "The Lost City of Mars" in I Sing the Body Electric,; and "Dark They Were, and Golden-Eyed" in A Medicine for Melancholy). To a certain degree, Bradbury is also writing to counteract the image of a menacing Mars as portrayed first in H. G. Well's War of the Worlds. In this work humans from Earth play the role of "invaders from outer space."

The Martian Chronicles is best read as a collection of linked short stories rather than as a novel. Although such collections are unusual in "mainstream" fiction they are common in science fiction. Bradbury has always been more of a short story writer than a novelist, and most of the stories can be read separately from their present context. When that fact is realized, some of the inconsistencies and contradictions in The Martian Chronicles diminish in importance. The tone of the stories varies markedly. Some are very much in the mode of the horror tales which he had at first specialized in (collected in The October Country ), and others are earnest parables of human folly. The Martians sometimes behave like monsters and sometimes like saints. A collection-novel such as this is often called a "fix-up" in SF, and Bradbury has clearly tried to fix this one up by adding connective bits between the main stories to smooth the joins; but that this smoothing-out process was not entirely successful is made clear by the fact that when the television miniseries was created the scriptwriters felt the need to impose far more unity on the stories than Bradbury had. But if the stories are considered as variations on a theme rather than as chapters of a unified novel, these variations should cease to be troubling.

One striking feature of many of these stories is the progressive political values which they embrace. Written during the height of the Cold War anti-Communist hysteria, they criticize imperialism, racism, environmental pollution, censorship, and the nuclear arms race. Bradbury was not alone. Several SF writers critiqued smug assumptions about the superiority of American values during that period. But that such a volume could become the single most widely-read SF book during the fifties is a tribute to the charm of Bradbury's style, a compound of sentimental nostalgia, idealism, and above all delight in the pleasures of the senses. Note how often colors, textures, smells, and sounds are used in these stories to bring a scene to life.

But the qualities which made Bradbury America's most beloved SF writer conceal other qualities more often associated with horror fiction: deep cynicism about family life, pessimism about progress, and disdain for people in the mass to a degree that approaches misanthropy (note his occasional preference for robots over human beings).His work reflects an adolescent discomfort with sexuality common among "Golden Age" SF writers, often viewing love and marriage as a trap to be evaded. Dialogue is also sometimes a weakness in his work, with speeches made more for poetic effect than for realism, and too many of the characters speaking the same peculiar Bradburian dialect (though similar complaints could be made about many fine writers, William Faulkner, for instance).

These stories made Bradbury's reputation. They were embraced by many readers who never opened another SF book, so that many hard-core fans were jealous of his success and disdained him as not the "real thing." With the passage of time, the book has been accepted with all its flaws as a SF classic whose charm and vividness still appeal. Many of the stories are as artfully crafted as anything in the genre.

Rocket Summer, The Summer Night,, The Earth Men, The Third Expedition, And the Moon Be Still as Bright, The Green Morning, The Locusts, Night Meeting, The Musicians, Way in the Middle of the Air, The Naming of Names, Usher II, The Martian, The Luggage Store, The Off Season, The Silent Towns, The Long Years, There Will Come Soft Rains, The Million-Year Picnic,

Rocket Summer

Bradbury knew as well as anyone that no conceivable number of rocket launches could literally change the weather in this way; this is simply a fantasy, a tone poem evoking enthusiasm for the coming space age.

Ylla

What features of this story make the setting and the characters alien and strange? Identify some specific "exotic" touches. What is Martian technology like? What features make them seem all too human, even old-fashioned? What are the unspoken assumptions about men's and women's roles in this story? What kind of relationship does this couple have? "Drink to Me Only With Thine Eyes" (set to a poem by Ben Jonson) was a sentimental popular song, old-fashioned even in 1950. If all Martians have last names that consist of a letter of the alphabet, there would seem to be only 26 possible names--rather restrictive. Can you think of any explanation for this pattern?

The Summer Night

How is this linking tale similar in theme to "Ylla?" "She Walks in Beauty" was written by Lord Byron in 1815 as a deliberate contrast to the tradition praising only "fair" (that is, blonde, light-skinned) women as beautiful. What qualities in the four lines quoted make it appropriate for its use here? Is the Martian ability to read thoughts an advantage or a disadvantage? Identify and discuss a familiar process that takes place among human beings for which this story could be read as a metaphor.

The Earth Men

How is Bradbury working against the standard expectations of a "first contact" story? Belief in telepathy (direct mind-to-mind communication of thoughts) has little or no scientific basis, but it is a staple of science fiction because it makes possible interesting plots and because as here it solves the knotty problem of how alien races can communicate with each other. What prevents the Martians from realizing that the men are really from Earth? Why might people who believe in "flying saucers" and other alien contacts like this story? In the previous stories the Martians had no problem in perceiving that the thoughts invading their minds were alien; can you come up with any explanation for why they might now view the earth people as manifestations of their own minds?

The Third Expedition

Bradbury nostalgically evokes his early 20th-century midwestern small-town upbringing in many stories, notably those collected in Dandelion Wine. Yet for all its sentimental appeal, he also repeatedly uses the setting for the evocation of nightmares. Here he portrays an America which by 1950 was already vanishing and would be quite unlike the background familiar to any probable astronaut young enough to be sent to Mars in the year 2000. Because we are reading this story long after it was written, this incongruity strikes us more forcefully than it would have struck those who first read it, for they shared Bradbury's nostalgic memory. How does he rationalize his use of this setting? The music mentioned was popular during the first two decades of this century. When this story was first published, it was titled "Mars is Heaven." Explain this title. The Martians in "The Ear th Men" seem to have acted out of confusion rather than malice. Is this true of the Martians in this story? What do you think their motives are? Why might those motives have developed since the time of the earlier story?

And the Moon Be Still as Bright

The title comes from the Lord Byron poem, "So We'll Go No More A-Roving" (1817) which is usually read as a meditation on the inevitability of death. What might its meaning be in this story? This story seems modeled on World War II movies about a small troop of men from various ethnic backgrounds faced with a dangerous environment. The token minority figure here is a Native American named "Cheroke." In the TV version, one character was made into an African-American instead; but why is Bradbury's choice especially appropriate for this story? To what historic event does the death of the Martians correspond? The crew seems much like that of a traditional adventure novel: rough, ill-educated sailors, very unlike the astronauts of our day. Aside from the question of realism, why might Bradbury have wanted to use a group of "average guys" as his explorers? What is the point of Spender's speech about the tendency of Earth Men to rename everything? (This theme is continued later in the story "The Naming of Names.") What critique does Spender make of American civilization as regards art in his final conversation with the captain? What does Spender see as the two cultural forces that clashed on Earth but which the Martians succeeded in blending? How did Martians answer the question, "What is the meaning of life?" according to Spender? In 1950 tape recording on reels was brand-new cutting-edge technology (brought back from conquered Germany by GIs), so Bradbury has the Martians record their music in this futuristic fashion. What is the significance of the captain's meditations on majority rule while he is hunting down Spender? What is the attitude of this story toward democracy?

The Green Morning

Even in 1950, it was known that Mars had little oxygen in its atmosphere. Its reddish hue suggested that at one time there had been more free oxygen on Mars which had slowly combined with iron to produce iron oxide. The standard science fictional Mars was an exhausted planet whose ancient civilization if any would have died with the atmosphere. Humans could live there only in sealed environments or by "terraforming" the planet to render its atmosphere more breathable: a project recently explored in the novels Red Mars and Green Mars by Kim Stanley Robinson. Bradbury characteristically ignores scientific plausibility here to create a poetic image loosely related to such projects. What makes this account different from such a scientific project?

The Locusts

What significance do the similes used of the rockets have?

Night Meeting

One of the favorite SF themes with only very slim scientific justification is time travel. No rationale is offered here for communication between eras: Mars is magic. But it's pointless to criticize Bradbury too much for this fact: very few time-travel stories even by the most rigorously scientific authors cannot be reduced to self-contradiction by a little elementary logic. What is the emotional impact of this encounter between two eras? What indication is there in this story that when it was written Bradbury was not thinking of a Mars covered by the trees described in "The Green Morning?" Is there a message in this story? What does the closing paragraph convey about the nature of life and time?

The Musicians

Bradbury gives no rationale for this determined obliteration of the Martian cities, much more thorough and deliberate than anything ever attempted in the history of Earthly colonialism. It is here that he first introduces the concept of "Firemen" who light fires rather than putting them out, a concept developed more fully in his novel Fahrenheit 451. What seems to be his attitude toward humanity here?

Way in the Middle of the Air

This story seems very dated--even condescending--now: but it was written during the first stirrings of the post-World War II civil rights movement, and was outspoken for its time in its attack on Southern lynching, segregation and racism generally. What would be the significance of naming a rocket "Over Jordan?" To what Biblical events one past, one future is this escape from Earth compared? Note that although in "The Shore" it is implied that only Americans can afford rockets, they are here available to poor people. These stories do not all exist in exactly the same fictional universe. Is human nature portrayed any differently in this story than in the stories immediately preceding it? There is a sequel to this story called "The Other Foot" in The Illustrated Man, in which the African-American immigrants to Mars have to decide whether to take their revenge on the whites who follow them into exile, making up a new minority group.

The Naming of Names

This theme of this story is more fully developed in "The Exiles" from The Illustrated Man. What quality of the later immigrants to Mars serves to introduce the next story?

Usher II

This story was omitted from the television version, probably partly because it would have been too expensive to produce; but also because it has no necessary connection with the other stories. It might just as well have been set on Earth as Mars. It reflects the Bradburian affection for fantasy and horror literature combined. The attack on censorship which it embodies (foreshadowing the more fully-developed attack of Fahrenheit 451 ) is justified by reference to fairy tales and other sentimental children's favorites; but the works being defended most passionately are the horror tales of Edgar Allan Poe. Why do you think he includes the other seemingly unrelated, non-horror works? Many works by Poe are referred to in this story. How many can you identify? What movement active in 1950 seems to have inspired this attack on censorship? (Hint: Stendhal refers to it in his conversation with Bigelow.) The mentions of a number of characters from Oz will be unfamiliar to those unfortunate enough to know that land only from the Hollywood movie an d who have not read the long series of novels by L. Frank Baum. What is a Babbit? (Look it up.) Does this story successfully convey an anti-censorship message? Why or why not?

The Martian

From this point on, having seemingly exterminated the Martians, Bradbury brings them back again and again in various forms. Rather than view this as a damaging inconsistency it makes more sense to read these stories as variations on a theme. What human characteristics is Bradbury commenting on in this story?

The Luggage Store

This story seems wildly implausible now, but it was modeled on the flight of émigré s from Europe back to the U.S. at the beginning of each of the great World Wars; and would have seemed familiar to readers in 1950. What motivates the immigrants to return to Earth?

The Off Season

Visions of atomic apocalypse were published in some numbers in the years immediately following the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Even though in 1948 the Soviet Union was far from posing any serious nuclear threat, Bradbury's story reflects the fears o f many that humanity had entered an era of unprecedented danger. In which earlier story did Sam Parkhill play a role? Is his behavior here consistent with that in the earlier story? Explain. How does this story compare with t he traditional battle-with-aliens-for-survival story? The description of the death of Earth is even more fantastic than the collapse of an entire city from the impact of a single bullet earlier in the story. Why do you think Bradbury uses such exaggerated language? What would a real nuclear war probably look like from Mars?

The Silent Towns

Bradbury wrote a variation on this story entitled "Night Call, Collect," published in I Sing the Body Electric. This story is probably the most stereotypically sexist in the book. What do you think its message is?

The Long Years

This story celebrates love, marriage, and other traditional family values. Does it make you feel better about the human race?

There Will Come Soft Rains

This story was partly inspired by the silhouettes of people burned by the bomb onto buildings and streets in Hiroshima. Like "Usher II," there is no obvious reason for it to be included in a volume of stories set on Mars, and was omitted from the television miniseries. It is an unusual story in that it has no living human beings in it. How does Bradbury manage to tell the family's story anyway?

The Million-Year Picnic

This was the first of the Martian Chronicles stories to be written, shortly after the end of World War II. It was first published in Planet Stories in the summer of 1946. Does the story make you feel hopeful for the survival of the human race? What measures does the father take to try to ensure for his children a better future? Do any of these measures conflict with values expressed earlier in The Martian Chronicles? Many people who have read and loved The Martian Chronicles forget entirely that the Earth is destroyed in a nuclear holocaust during the course of the book and are surprised to be reminded of the fact. Why do you suppose this is true?

Recommended reading:

Gary K. Wolfe: "The Frontier Myth in Ray Bradbury," in Martin Greenberg & Joseph D. Olander, eds. Ray Bradbury. New York: Taplinger, 1980, pp. 33-54.

Notes by Paul Brians, Department of English, Washington State University, Pullman

Version of June 6, 1995.

Copyright Paul Brians 1995

Last revised March 27, 2003

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