I recently read a comment on a blog where the writer spoke harshly about classic sci-fi writers Jules Verne and H G Wells. He said in his judgment that they were outdated and overrated. Though I disagreed, it was his opinion and I had to respect that. But it made me think about analyzing a classic to see how it would hold up today. So I chose a favorite of mine, The Martian Chronicles by Ray Bradbury.
Bradbury’s The Martian Chronicles is not a novel but a collection of short stories tied together with a central theme, the colonization of Mars. The stories, set in the future, were written by Bradbury in the late 1940s. There were no main characters, though some were mentioned in more than one story. Instead, Bradbury has stories which are complete in themselves that come together as episodes in a larger tale.
Right off the bat, you may think that Bradbury missed the mark. Humans had not set foot on Mars by 1999 as Bradbury had written, much less by 2011. Due to the immense cost and the difficulties of a long spaceflight, all we were able to send to the red planet are robotic surveyors. Rockets are not as plentiful as in the book. We have not found a Martian civilization or at this point any aliens. And the canals on Mars thought to be viewed by 1940’s telescopes were not canals filled with water; in fact the planet is a rocky desert with many impact craters.
But as you read from story to story, you realize Bradbury was not really talking about Mars. Like every great Science fiction writer, he used the exploration and colonization of Mars not as glimpse into a perfect future but as a metaphor for the present day late 1940s when the stories were written. It was a warning for the future and a social commentary of what he saw as deficiencies in the makeup of man.
When he wrote about the dangers and cruelties of the colonization of Mars I couldn’t help but think about the plight of the Martians mirroring the hardship of the Native Americans. They were pushed from their home land, devastated not so much by the conqueror’s superior weapons but by the diseases they brought with them, with little respect for their land, culture, and way of life. In And the moon be still as bright, the character Spender summed it up, “We’ll rip it up, rip the skin off, and change it to fit ourselves.” Then he went on to say, “We Earth men have a talent for ruining big, beautiful things.”
One poignant story, Way in the Middle of the Air, reflects attitudes toward racism in the segregated south. It tells of a Ku Klux Clan member, Samuel Teece (without even mentioning the clan) and his ignorant confusion about all the African Americans boarding a rocket and leaving for Mars. Gone was his delusion of power over these departing people and he tries to stop them from leaving. One in particular, Silly, he tries to unsuccessfully stop. Silly asks Samuel as he leaves, “What you goin’ to do nights, Mr. Teece?” referring to his night-time visits to terrorize African Americans with lynching’s and destroying of their homes. People today might look at this story as being off base due to the fact our country is led by an African American President, enforcement of civil rights laws, and a change of attitudes (though still far from perfect). Bradbury might have missed what he thought were the attitudes in 1999 but he was right on for the racial injustices of the late 1940’s. I imagine it was not a welcomed story by certain parts of the population but brave writers like Bradbury needed to put racism in print to help the civil rights movement.
In Ushers II, Bradbury brings to the forefront, censorship. Suppression of creative writing and the burning of books was nothing new by the late 1940’s. However, it was the time of McCarthyism when people were afraid of the government if they thought outside of the excepted norm. Even today, there are certain books or courses not allowed to be taught in some schools. Books and classes about Darwin’s theories on evolution come to mind.
It has been thirty years since I read The Martian Chronicles the first time in High School. The story that I remember the most and had the biggest impact on me was, There Will Come Soft Rains. Even though the mention of the threat of nuclear war was brought up in early stories, it is never mentioned in the story other than a radioactive glow over the city. But it is the focus of the story about an automated house continuing long after the occupants were shadows (literally). You read a story of this house devoid of life but you learn about and get a feel for the occupants and their normal day by the actions of the robotic house until it is gobbled up by nature. There was no mention of war or the politics of it, just a snapshot of an unassuming day in the aftermath. It made you shiver at the prospect of man’s ability to destroy the world with weapons of mass destruction.
Bradbury did leave us with a glimmer of hope for the future in The Million-Year Picnic. In the story a father takes his family to Mars for a fishing trip away from the nuclear devastation on Earth, promising to show them Martians. Once there he burns documents and papers in a fire as a symbol of letting go of the mistakes of the past and starting a new. He shows his family their reflection in the water of a canal to show them a reflection of the Martians and a hope for the future.
What Bradbury presented late 1940’s readers was a reflection of their selves, warts and all, and if man didn’t change or evolve, man was doomed to relive the sins of the past. What does the Martian Chronicles tell us today? There are wonders in this universe for man to explore and we should respect the places or things we find with the hope that wherever we go we find a better glimpse of man.