Great novels all share one common trait - a deep empathy for the human condition. After all, if there’s no reflection of ourselves in what we read, there’s no reason to be invested in it. Cultural values may change over time, but nothing in human history has entertained us more than seeing our own hopes, fears, victories and tragedies given the dramatic spotlight they’re due. The Martian Chronicles is definitely one to indulge in such activity. It might be surprising to find a collection of space stories, published way back in 1950, give such importance to these themes. The genre’s love for B-movie silliness - especially in the early 20th century - is well documented, after all. But Ray Bradbury’s breakthrough effort proved why he deserves a place among America’s greatest writers. The Martian Chronicles succeeds not just through its captivating storytelling, but through its profiling of that most alien creature of all: ourselves.
Time is also a good reason to why The Martian Chronicles remains highly regarded; it’s been awfully kind to this book. The prose within is light, free of clunk and flows effortlessly. The science fiction meanwhile, is similarly understated. It’s definitely not without its antiquated moments, amusing as they may (or may not) be. But it’d be foolish to think an anthology released in 1950 wouldn’t be completely devoid of datedness. What is important is its core - a distinctly human tapestry of Martian space conquest, told in a series of short stories - which remains as powerful as it was then. Some of these stories enthrall, some disturb, one most definitely provokes in our current day. But not a single one of these pieces fail to evoke some kind of emotion out of the reader. That, in itself, might be the greatest defense it has against history condemning it to obscurity.
The kind of science fiction that Bradbury employs here is also crucial. The Martian Chronicles prefers to dabble in the ethereal than the technological, employing mystique over any love for machine. This is no more evident than in its early chapters. With humanity finally finding the means to colonize Mars in the late 1990s, they waste no time sending expedition after expedition to do so. But unlike reality, the Mars of The Martian Chronicles isn’t desolate. It had its fair share of advanced life long before mankind even got close to setting foot upon it. And the ancient Martians have definitely left their mark. The remains of their civilization lie dormant on the surface of the planet - sprawling, abandoned marble cities lined with canals and other opulent structures. It’s silent and derelict, but it’s still hauntingly beautiful. And it’s this allure that initially reels the first human landers in - and ultimately leads to their downfall.
For within these old cities, the Martians are definitely still present. Whether their existence is physical or spiritual - and the book leaves it ambiguous - they're still able to affect their will on these hapless human explorers. All kinds of psychological illusions are inflicted. Some are disoriented through seeing old family members; others are lured into replicas of the smalltown America they grew up in. One ends up so completely enraptured by this culture of such a different age and people, he ends up turning on his own comrades, disgusted at humanity’s certain, inevitable destruction of it. Whatever the method though, the effects of the ghostly Martian influence on them leads them all down the same, grisly path: full-on madness, and inevitable death.
Existential horror is a frequent theme throughout The Martian Chronicles, but it’s not a dominant one. Despite being subjected to plenty of creepy mind-bending in the early chapters, humanity’s colonization of Mars continues on. Mankind’s own cities build up, and thus, later chapters focus on more thoughtful narratives. The darker sides of humanity continue to get a focus - the vanity of our galactic Manifest Destiny, and the zealous destruction of ancient cultures in the name of progress, are particularly repeated themes. But there’s also room for poignancy, and even comedy. Short pieces involving the first successful settlers offer gentler perspectives, its central figures presented as both humble and hopeful in the midst of gaining a new life on Mars. Others poke fun at less respectable types - from gormless hot-dog stand owners to loners looking for love. There are no 'main' characters in this loosely-connected anthology whatsoever. One or two may turn up in other stories further along, but not a single one gets focus outside of their own arc. Within the grander picture of its space epic setting, some of these stories might also seem a bit twee and out of place. But as a collective, they serve to make a key point: that no matter the frontier humanity sets forth on, it is that ‘humanity’ - both our good and bad traits - that will define us, and our legacy.
Inevitably, it is the worst two of these traits that provide the platform for The Martian Chronicles’ most contentious moments - that of our love for war, and the blight of racism. Without giving too much away, it is war that ultimately spells the end of the Martian colonization. The closing stories leave plenty of room to dissect the idiocy of our violent nature, with a few barbs reserved for the folly of our science pursuits if all we’re going to do is blow each other up anyway. Meanwhile, 'Way in the Middle of the Air' - a centrepiece slap bang in the middle of the collection - is memorable for its controversy alone. Depicting a great migration of African Americans escaping the American South for new homes in space, its main focus is on a group of white men witnessing the ‘audacity’ of this event - dropping plenty of N-words in the process. It’s a revolutionary piece for its time, showing plenty of sentiment for racial equality when the Civil Rights Movement was a few years off from igniting. But the depiction of the black characters within also carries its fair share of stereotyping. Eyebrows will still be raised at its reading, despite the good intentions of the story as whole.
In a way though, it’s also another argument towards why The Martian Chronicles remains so well-regarded. It’s not just spooky sci-fi or human pathos behind the words. The bullish, pioneering spirit prevalent in a postwar America emerging into the Diner era is also on show - with all its infallible optimism, and the ugly social ignorance that continued to rumble beneath it. Bradbury captures it all and then some. Another common trait that all great books share comes to mind: that a good story remains a good story, even if you change the setting. The fact that The Martian Chronicles has so many good stories within it - ones that could work under any other genre - tells you all you need to know about its enduring legacy. As it is though, it’s compelling, relatable, emotive science fiction. It remains as essential now as it was seventy years ago.