In the early 1980s, as a young teenager, I watched a television mini-series called The Martian Chronicles. I loved it! It was based on a book by Ray Bradbury. Years later I came across a battered old copy in a book exchange that I used to frequent, and bought it for $1.75 (the price is still scribbled on the first page). This edition was published to coincide with the release of the mini-series, and features photos from it on the cover.
Last year I discovered that the mini-series was released on DVD and so I purchased a copy, curious to see if it would live up to my teen memories of it. It was very interesting — quite slow moving and often ponderous, very dated and with some wooden acting and poor effects, it still managed to hold my interest despite its flaws. Watching it, I felt that the story would be better without the constraints of the production. I decided it was high time to read the book. So I located my battered old copy and placed it onto the must-read-soon pile. And there it sat until I picked it out to take with me on holiday to Singapore (see “TTFN”).
It’s an interesting and odd book. It’s a collection of linked short stories about the exploration and colonisation of Mars. The book divides roughly into three sections, dealing with the exploration of Mars and the encounters with the indigenous population, the colonisation of Mars, and the abandonment of the colony. In the background we have all the Earth-bound problems, including environmental issues, war and politics.
Although there are some recurring characters, it is less of a continuous narrative than the mini-series, which inserts the character of Col John Wilder (Rock Hudson) throughout. At times it feels a little disjointed, but the cohesiveness of setting and theme hold it together. The dialogue is also often rather stilted and not entirely convincing. But the concepts and created history are terrific. It is quite epic in conception, covering the years 1999 to 2026. Its other main strength is its commentary on human beings. How humans have the need to make the unfamiliar, familiar…
“The rockets came like drums, beating in the night. The rockets came like locusts, swarming and settling in blooms or rosy smoke. And from the rockets ran men with hammers in their hands to beat the strange world into a shape that was familiar to the eye, to bludgeon away all the strangeness…”
And there is a rather brilliant passage about why the first settlers came to Mars…
“They came because they were afraid or unafraid, because they were happy or unhappy, because they felt like Pilgrims or did not feel like Pilgrims. There was a reason for each man. They were leaving bad wives or bad jobs or bad towns; they were coming to find something or leave something or get something, to dig up something or bury something or leave something alone. They were coming with small dreams or large dreams or none at all.”
The book is also interesting for its discussion of faith and religion. Much science fiction takes an atheistic view, whereas The Martian Chronicles laments the loss of faith in favour of the rise of science. But in its presentation of the Martians, suggests that science shouldn’t preclude faith.
“They knew how to combine science and religion so the two worked side by side, neither denying the other, each enriching the other.”
The book is rather dated, starting as it does with the first rocket to Mars in 1999. It is also dated with its attitude towards women and to racial issues. Nowhere in the stories does a woman hold any position of authority, and it’s the men who are the explorers and the first settlers, with the woman (either wives and girlfriends or prostitutes) following later on. And “Way in the Middle of the Air” portrays an American South with black servants, very near to slaves, working for their white masters in the year 2003.
“… the women came in with flower-pots and chintz and pans and set up a kitchen clamour …”
The Martian Chronicles has a really interesting publication history. It began life as short stories published separately in magazines. These stories were collected together with short linking pieces. According to Wikipedia (font of all knowledge… I bow to thee), Bradbury referred to it as “a book of stories pretending to be a novel”.
The book was published in the UK under the title of The Silver Locusts, with slightly different contents. The story about censorship (“Usher II” — which has been adapted for the small screen as an episode of Ray Bradbury Theatre) was dropped in favour of a story about a group of missionary priests (“The Fire Balloons”). In fact, the edition I read was thus structured. Interestingly, the mini-series, which was US made, included the storyline about the priests, but not the one about censorship. I’m going to have to seek out a US edition of the book so that I can read “Usher II”.
An updated version of The Martian Chronicles was published in 1997. The dates were pushed forward from 1999-2026 to 2030-2057. It included both “Usher II” and “The Fire Balloons”, but replaced “Way in the Middle of the Air” with “The Wilderness”, a story first published in 1952, two years after The Martian Chronicles was originally published.
For the most part I found the book to be way better than the mini-series. There is just one scene where the mini-series improves on the book. In the book, one of the last surviving Martians, finds himself trapped by the memories of human beings. Being telepathic, and desperately lonely, he takes on the appearance of people that are strongly in the minds of the humans he comes into contact with — a long dead son, a missing daughter, etc. In the mini-series he goes into a church and finds himself taking on the appearance of Christ, because the priest is desperate to meet Jesus. It’s a fascinating scene, but one that is not in the book.
I really enjoyed reading The Martian Chronicles. I shall have to seek out some more Bradbury.
Catch ya later, George
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