I just finished reading The Martian Chronicles as a 48-year-old man in 2019. Or, it seems appropriate to point out, I had it read to me by my global internetwork-connected smart phone connected to my half-electric car as I drove on an interstate highway to my job helping to make computer software for virtual reality headsets.
The reason I point all that out is to acknowledge that the book is so well-known and highly-regarded at this point that I don’t have much to add to what’s already been said about it, except the accident of timing means I can say what it feels like to read now. (I’d read “There Will Come Soft Rains,” probably the best known of the book’s stories, as a teenager). The events of the book are due to start about a decade from now.
At least, it’ll start a decade from now according to the edition I read. Apparently, the original started in the 20th century’s favorite year for science fiction, 1999. Which was in reality a dud, seeing as how we didn’t start settling Mars, the moon did not escape from Earth orbit, and the sky didn’t even turn all purple, nor were there people running everywhere. Instead, to those of us in the United States, it just meant the Y2K scare and school shootings, or in other words the combination of dull stupidity and cyclical horror that have pretty much defined the 21st century so far.
In retrospect, just the act of pushing the dates of the novel back seems like an optimistic move. It’s like hitting the snooze bar on human advancement, confident that in just another 30 years, we’ll have gotten our shit together enough to be able to realize the kind of dystopian future people imagined in 1950.
Reading the book in 2019, that sense of optimism and faith is the part that feels the most curiously dated. More than all of the analog technology, or the belief in the coming ubiquity of rocket-based travel, or the casual assertion of breathable atmosphere on Mars, or blue sand or canals. Bradbury asserts in the forward that it’s not a work of science fiction. It quickly becomes clear that Bradbury has no interest in futurism, either, as the book remains un-self-consciously locked in a perpetual 1950. Not just in technology but in society: attempts at humor are steadfastly in same school as The Honeymooners or The Flintstones, women are flighty and gossipy and look to their husbands for assurance, and American exceptionalism extends to space. The Martian Chronicles is a story about America, and humans’ attempts to turn Mars not into a New Earth but specifically a New America.
For the most part, though, it’s charming and wonderful. In “The Silent Towns,” the attitude finally overwhelms everything else, and the attempt to be light-hearted instead comes across as misogynistic, fat-phobic, and mean-spirited. But for the rest, it’s a kind of benign chauvinism that I hadn’t realized I’d been missing.
It’s undoubtedly a vision of a world dominated by white American men (saying “straight” is irrelevant here, since it’s a universe where non-straight people don’t even exist), but it’s not the stupid version we’re surrounded by today, full of people wallowing in willful ignorance, taking their refusal to acknowledge their own biases and blind spots to a ridiculously absurd extreme. Bradbury writes about the pioneer spirit without forgetting to acknowledge everything that the pioneers helped destroy.
Actually, much of the book reminded me of Epcot. I’m not sure if that’s because I know of Bradbury’s involvement with Spaceship Earth, or just my pathological need to associate everything with Disney parks, but whatever the case, it was a wonderful sense of nostalgia for a feeling of optimism that everyone seems to have abandoned. The Martian Chronicles isn’t too concerned that Mars doesn’t actually have canals or a breathable atmosphere; it’s just an inconvenience that can be overcome not with any particular technology but with pure human ingenuity.
So reading the book in 2019 felt almost transgressive. It was a break from the faux Progressives who’ve introduced a kind of New Puritanism, which would insist we focus on the “problematic” in the work instead of appreciating the beauty of its intent. The Fahrenheit 451-esque story “Usher II” felt as depressingly relevant now as it probably did when the Hays Code and HUAC were still fresh in memory. Resisting my first impulse to dismiss the stories as dated because of their antiquated technology, or their chauvinistic or sexist assumptions, meant that I was able to appreciate the universal insights that Bradbury was exploring. Unlike, for example, The Illustrated Man, which felt more fixated with Twilight Zone twists than universal experiences.
I think the story in The Martian Chronicles called “The Musicians” perfectly captures the tension that makes this book transcendent, and in fact the qualities that make Bradbury’s work such masterpieces. The story is about a bunch of Earth boys desecrating the corpses of Martians in their dead cities — Martians who were more or less murdered by humans, in fact — and Bradbury somehow makes it simultaneously a lamentation of the tragic needless loss of life, and a pitch-perfect celebration of boyhood in America. It loses nothing because of its lack of diversity; in fact, it’s that specificity that makes it universal. Bradbury so wonderfully understands that very specific experience that he recreates it perfectly. Even for those of us who spent our childhoods mostly indoors and afraid of breaking the rules.
Bradbury’s ability to perfectly convey how something can be simultaneously horrible and beautiful, sinister and nostalgic, and joyful and tragic, is beautifully realized throughout this book. Yes, much of the book is about Americans and the optimism of the pioneers, but ultimately it’s about how civilizations rise and fall and will continue to do so for eternity. He can write about the wonderful comfort and serenity of life in small-town America while simultaneously acknowledging what had to be destroyed for it to come about, how fragile it is and susceptible to corruption, and how it will inevitably fall to ruin, just as every wonderfully comfortable and serene world must.
That unshakeable faith in the inevitable death that leads to the inevitable rebirth imbues the entire book with an optimism that I hadn’t even noticed had disappeared. I can now recognize so many more familiar things in “There Will Come Soft Rains” than when I first read it. I have the lights in my home scheduled to turn themselves on and off, and appliances programmed to make me coffee, and devices by the bed to answer my questions, and of course my complete reliance on the handheld pocket computer that was so alien that Bradbury’s stories didn’t even speculate on it.
But even as darkly sinister as that story is, it still has faith in a world that will survive us. Bradbury’s stories mention an Earth that maxes out at around two billion people, where the devices controlling the house aren’t all aggressively corporate-driven and designed to have us consume even more than we can keep on reserve, and where nuclear warfare is the worst we could possibly do to the world. Even as Bradbury wrote about callous Earth men tossing garbage into the Martian canals, he seemed to see the damage it did more as disrespect than active destruction. He captured the risk of our destroying each other, but underestimated our desire to take as much of the Earth with us as possible.
So maybe we should take comfort in “The Green Morning,” where Bradbury conjures Johnny Appleseed to describe how humans can create an atmosphere on Mars with a combination of American tenacity and Martian magic. If Bradbury can make me vividly remember my boyhood in small-town mid-century America that I never actually had, maybe we can use that tenacity and optimism to stave off the collapse of our civilization for at least another thousand years or so.