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Lit Matters: The Surprising Brilliance of “The Martian Chronicles”

by Matt Chiabotti

I am a firm believer that books find us when we need them to, so it’s no surprise that I didn’t find my way to reading Ray Bradbury’s The Martian Chronicles until this past summer, a summer that found me celebrating my 35th birthday and anticipating the arrival of my firstborn child, a summer that found me equally eager for the future and nostalgic for the past.

A lifelong fan of science fiction, I had avoided this particular title, despite knowing that it was a supposed classic of the genre. Perhaps it was the paperback editions with cover art that looked like it belonged on a bad ‘70s prog rock album, but I was expecting nothing more than bland Buck Rogers-esque space conquests with square-jawed alpha males exerting their will on the galaxy and earning the fawning admiration of females, both human and inhuman alike. Damn was I wrong.

MartianChroniclesIn “Ylla,” the first full story of the collection, Bradbury shows us the arrival of the first two human astronauts on Mars. He does this not by placing us in the cockpit with the astronauts, who are no doubt square-jawed, but rather by giving us a glimpse into the domestic life of a Martian couple who, despite their inhuman appearance, experience the very human problem of a couple trapped in an unhappy marriage. Oh, and those two astronauts—SPOILER ALERT—they die. Off-stage. Unseen by the reader.

Instead of the vapid space opera I was expecting, The Martian Chronicles contains myriad tales of meaningful melancholy that derive their strength from the fact that as a race, we humans are just as likely to use rockets to obliterate ourselves with nuclear payloads as we are to explore the outer reaches of space.

Bradbury’s short-story-collection-cum-episodic-novel clocks in at less than 250 pages and is packed with more ideas than many books over three times that length. A book lover builds a replica of Poe’s House of Usher on Mars as a trap to destroy would-be book burners. A shape-shifting Martian takes on the burden of filling in as the dead loved ones of elderly humans. A fully automated home continues to operate in futile perpetuity after its tenants have been long destroyed by a nuclear holocaust. The list goes on.

Many of Bradbury’s stories are so imaginative that in the hands of a lesser storyteller, they would float away into the thin, Martian atmosphere. But Bradbury tethers his flights of fantasy to a solid foundation of moral and emotional imperative. His robots, rockets, and Martians are much more than vehicles for flashy fantasies of intergalactic conquest. Rather, they undermine the traditionally expansionist, industrial, and colonial bravado of such stories. In the process, Bradbury explores topics such as racism, colonialism, environmentalism, religion, censorship, bureaucracy, and the narcotic effects of nostalgia.

In the end, The Martian Chronicles brilliantly combines a young boy’s imaginative enthusiasm for all things intergalactic with the wary wisdom of a man closer to the end of life, and it earns its place as a classic to be enjoyed by humans at any point in their journey.

This post is part of our annual Lit Matters series, in which writers and readers express why supporting and elevating literary arts—the mission of Lighthouse Writers Workshop— is important to them. If you agree, consider supporting Lighthouse on Colorado Gives Day. Mark your calendar for December 8 or schedule your gift now. Thank you!

Matt Chiabotti received his bachelor’s degree in digital media studies from the University of Denver. When he’s not reading or writing, he works as a freelance art director and graphic designer. You can view more of his work here.

2 comments on “Lit Matters: The Surprising Brilliance of “The Martian Chronicles”

  1. Jenny Itell
    November 10, 2015

    I’ve always meant to read The Martian Chronicles; now I’ll make sure I do! Thanks.

  2. keithosaunders
    July 26, 2016

    I just finished Martian Chronicles and while much of it is beautiful and imaginative, I found that it became bogged down in sentimentality and characters that were caricatures. (The brash hot dog salesman from New York and the ‘last man on mars’ who dials through the phone book searching for the ‘last woman.’)

    I realize this was written in the 40s but the female characters are particularly maddening with their fealty to their often barbaric mates.

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This entry was posted on November 9, 2015 by in Good Books and tagged , , .

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