Monday, January 12, 2009

The Martian Chronicles Rivets, Unravels

Mars fascinates us. We’ve probed and photographed our neighbor for years but never managed to visit in person. Our pulp prophets have launched thousands upon thousands of occupying armadas from its orbit, their commanders green-skinned and tentacled and wanting to be taken to our leaders. Ray Bradbury, though, gently subverts fact and expectation in The Martian Chronicles, with humanity becoming both explorers and invaders of the Red Planet.

Chronicles binds 26 of shorts and short shorts -- most original to the collection, some not -- into an overarching narrative about man’s arrival on, settlement in and abandonment of Mars. The initial stories weave horror into the blend, the planet’s telepathic inhabitants considering the earthlings to be romantic rivals (“Ylla”), insane (“The Earth Men”) and, finally, marauders (“The Third Expedition”), with fatal results. Only after disease runs rampant among the inhabitants does man begin to colonize, ushering in a looser middle section. “The Green Morning” re-imagines the myth of Johnny Appleseed. “Way in the Middle of the Air” tackles race relations. A lonely couple mourning the loss of a child finds unexpected comfort in “The Martian.” But colonies can’t survive without support from the motherland, a theme the final stories tighten around. With war raging back home, a business owner gets ensnared by bitter irony (“The Off Season”), a frustrated Romeo learns that there are worse fates than loneliness (“The Silent Towns”) and a widowed inventor faces “The Long Years” with the family he fashioned for himself.

Despite Bradbury’s mastery of the short story, Chronicles never quite comes together. His infatuation with middle America (“Rocket Summer,” “Interim”), emphasis on the evils of censorship (“Usher II”) and embracing of facile humanism (“The Million-Year Picnic”) appear anachronistic when viewed from Mars’ desert wastes. Also, continuity isn’t his strong point; the capabilities, culture and even appearance of the Martians varies from piece to piece. But when read individually, the stories still have the power to steal both your breath and imagination. Chronicles’ threads are stronger than their frayed sum.

(Picture: CC 2008 by


Chestertonian Rambler said...

Continuity has never been Bradbury's strong suit. (He's kinda like Joss Whedon that way.) But I actually thoroughly enjoyed seeing a Martian perspective on Bradbury's continuing future history. And I think you gain something by throwing out continuity; a more organic, literarily-functional world with, as Ursula K. LeGuin would put it, "holes in the sleeves."

Loren Eaton said...

I'm resolving right now to read some more LeGuin. I've been working very slowly through Steering the Craft, which is excellent, but I've only ever experienced one of her novellas that was in some anthology. Suggestions as to where I should start?

Chestertonian Rambler said...

Depends on what you want--she is very diverse.

Everyone talks about Earthsea; the stories have brilliant characters, surprising wisdom, a thoroughly realistic world...but I'm not sure how much I like them, really.

My own "Middle Shelf" holds two of her heartfelt 1970's love stories: Very Far Away from Anywhere Else and The Beginning Place. It also holds The Compass Rose, arguably the best collection of short stories I've ever read.

The Compass Rose is itself pretty broad, ranging from a warm, life affirming dystopian tragedy to a silly log of shipmates accidentally destroying the universe. But it seems to avoid the sort of drab slice-of-life portraits that bore me, as well as (for the most part) her tendency to stereotype male American businessmen.

If you want interesting sociological SF dealing with questions of alterity and friendship, though, probably the general consensus is that she's at her best in The Left Hand of Darkness.

Loren Eaton said...

I guess it's The Left Hand of Darkness and The Compass Rose for starts, then. Man, my reading list is getting long ...