“Rocket summer. The words passed among the people in the open airing houses. Rocket summer. The warm desert air changing the frost patterns on the windows, erasing the art work….Rocket summer. People leaned from their dripping porches and watched the reddening sky” (1).
So begins Ray Bradbury’s debut novel, The Martian Chronicles, an allegorical tale about the dangers of leaving our home planet to live on another. I’m Veronica, and this is The English Chronicles, the book club for English language learners.
Today we’re going to talk about the first quarter of the novel, which includes the stories “January 2030: Rocket Summer” through “April 2031: The Third Expedition.”
The possibility of inhabiting another planet has long been a fascination of science-fiction writers, echoing our own worries about what might happen if we use up all the resources on Earth or, even worse, destroy it in a nuclear war. In this novel that is a series of collected short stories, Bradbury examines the themes of colonization (which is the action or process of settling among and establishing control over the indigenous people of an area)1, genocide (which is the deliberate killing of a large number of people from a particular nation or ethnic group with the aim of destroying that nation or group)2, and the moral uncertainty of scientific advancement. The question here is not whether humans can make a new home on Mars; it’s whether or not they should.
Life on Mars is idyllic. The soft light from the planet’s two moons shines over small towns and pools of calm water. In February of 2030, we meet Mr. and Mrs. K, a married couple with light brown skin and golden eyes. They go about their domestic life, living by a dead sea in a house that has been owned by generations of their ancestors. They’re not part of a new society; they’re as established as anything that exists on Earth. They’re even quite similar to couples on Earth, as Mrs. K wishes her husband would spend as much time holding her as he holds his books.
Mrs. K keeps having a troubling dream about a tall man who she describes as a misshapen giant with blue eyes, black hair, and white skin, dressed in a strange uniform. He came through the sky in something metal, which she calls “alien.” In the dream, he steps off the ship and says he’s come from the third planet and his name is Nathaniel York (“a stupid name,” says Mr. K). Mrs. K says that he used another language, but she was able to understand him through telepathy. She asks her husband if he ever wonders if people actually live on Earth, to which he replies that the planet is incapable of supporting life; their scientists have proven there’s too much oxygen in the atmosphere.
Mrs. K has the dream again and says the strange man York told her she was beautiful and kissed her, telling her that he would take her away in his ship to his planet. Mr. K demands to know where the ship landed, and Mrs. K insists that it was just a dream. The next day, Mr. K takes out a large weapon that shoots out poisonous bees and tells his wife that he’s going hunting. As Mrs. K waits for him at home, there’s a great feeling of warmth and something metal flies through the sky. The next thing she hears is the sound of the weapon. She doesn’t know why, but she starts crying.
Later, a song invades the minds of the Martians: “She walks in beauty, like the night,” from a poem by English Romantic poet Lord Byron. Children start singing English nursery rhymes. It’s as if their minds have been colonized even before the planet is. Invasion is inevitable.
The next we hear of the humans is when Captain Williams and his crew of the Second Expedition land safely on Mars, expecting to be met with a grand celebration. They knock on someone’s door and Mrs. Ttt, a Martian, answers. She corrects their use of the term “Mars,” telling them that the proper name of the planet is Tyrr, and she’s skeptical of their enthusiasm. She slams the door in their faces, but they knock again, insisting that they are important. She then tells them that they must want to see her husband. After keeping them waiting outside for twenty-five minutes, she tells them Mr. Ttt is too busy and they should really see Mr. Aaa instead. She hands them a piece of paper to take to him.
When they meet Mr. Aaa, they explain that they came sixty million miles to meet the Martians, but Mr. Aaa tells the crew they should really see Mr. Iii. Unsatisfied with this lukewarm reception, one of them suggests that they should take off and land again, giving the Martians time to organize a welcome party. Never once do they think that the Martians might not want them there. When they get to Mr. Iii, they explain their story again, saying that they’d like some attention, to be celebrated for their conquest. Eventually, Mr. Iii says there’s nothing for them to do but sign some papers, one of which is an agreement to euthanasia, and he gives them a key to a house. He says they can spend the night there and Mr. Xxx will see them in the morning. Williams is still a little disappointed, saying that maybe Mr. Iii could at least shake their hands. He does and stiffly congratulates them. Once the crew gets to the house, they’re greeted by a room full of people cheering for them and lifting them up, giving them the celebration that they’ve hoped for. However, it’s not long before they realize that something is wrong. Others say they’re also from Earth. One person says they’re from Saturn and another says they’re from Jupiter. The crew soon realizes they’re in what they call an “insane asylum,” an old term that is no longer used that refers to facilities that care for people with mental illnesses. They realize that no one greeted them with joy because they simply didn’t believe they were from Earth; they assumed they were mentally ill and were telepathically transmitting their hallucinations to them.
Finally, they meet the psychologist Mr. Xxx. Williams tries to convince him that he and his crew aren’t hallucinating, and Mr. Xxx agrees. Not all of them are unwell, just Williams; the other men are simply projections of his hallucinations. Even with this absurd diagnosis, Wiliams is eager to hear of the cure Mr. Xxx proposes until he learns that, for someone with primary and second hallucinations involving sound, smell, and taste, the only cure is euthanasia. He will be killed for his own good. Williams takes Mr. Xxx to the rocket to prove that he’s telling the truth, but all Mr. Xxx sees is further evidence of extremely strong telepathic hallucinations. In fact, he’s excited to write about the case and present it to the Martian Academy. With the diagnosis set, Mr. Xxx delivers the cure and shoots Williams. He’s shocked when the other crew members continue to exist, and even more surprised when their bodies and the ship persist after he’s killed them all. Certain he’s been contaminated with the hallucinations, Mr. Xxx decides that only the same fate can save him, and he turns his gun on himself and pulls the trigger. The rocket continues to shine on the hill where it landed.
The Third Expedition lands on Mars, carrying Captain John Black, Lustig the navigator, and Hinkston the archaeologist. What most surprises them is not that there’s enough oxygen in the air for them to breathe, but that the town is exactly like the small towns they left behind on Earth. Black wonders whether the civilizations of two planets can progress and evolve at the same rate, implying that other civilizations can’t possibly be as advanced as theirs. They assume this is either the work of the First or Second Expeditions, believing that their ships must have exploded but the crew survived to build a civilization with the Martians. They go out to look through the town, leaving the other crew members behind so, if anything happens to them, they can warn the next rocket to come well armed. Once again, they never stop to think that the native inhabitants might not want invaders from Earth on their planet.
When they explore the town, they’re surprised to be greeted by a woman in her 40s, wearing a dress that appears to be a century old. She says the town was built in 1868 and they’re in Green Bluff, Illinois; the current year is 1956. The crew starts to think that they traveled through time, rather than space, supposing that rocket travel actually occurred many years ago and the travelers got so homesick that they reproduced Earth as much as they could. Ironically, the crew believes the Martians to be under the greatest hypnosis experiment in history.
What’s even stranger about the town is that the people in it resemble their relatives, long since passed away. Lustig runs up to his grandparents in awe. They say that it’s not heaven, but they’ve been given a second chance. When Black takes the crew back to the rocket, they find the remaining crew members have abandoned it, likely to go off with their loved ones. Black is upset, but shortly thereafter he’s greeted by a man who looks like Ed, the brother he lost sixty-one years ago. Ed says their parents are waiting for them, despite the fact that they died in a train accident. Like the others, he’s overjoyed to see them, and when his father tells him there’s no need to return to the rocket to report back to Earth, he agrees that it can wait until the morning. Lying in bed with his brother, he thinks about a girl named Marilyn and whether Martians lived on Mars thousands of years ago or if it was always the way they’re seeing it at the present moment. He speculates what the best weapon would be to use against Earth men armed with atomic weapons: “Telepathy, hypnosis, memory, and imagination,” he concludes. He begins to get suspicious, wondering if this was all a plan devised by the Martians to kill them. He can’t be more right. When he tries to get up to get a drink of water, Ed tells him he’s not thirsty. The last we know of Black is that he screams twice before he even reaches the door. The next day, there is a funeral for the “unexpected and sudden deaths of sixteen fine men during the night.”
As the expeditions continue, people believe they have the right to go to Mars. In the story “March 2031: The Taxpayer,” we meet a man named Pritchard who argues that anyone with any sense will want to get away from Earth and the atomic war that is sure to come. They’ll want to get away from censorship, forced enlistment in the military, and the government controlling everything. He believes that even though the First and Second Expeditions disappeared, there’s still hope. Perhaps life on Mars was so great that Captains York and Williams simply decided not to return. As he sees a group of men walking to a rocket, about to embark on the Third Expedition, he begs them not to leave him there on the terrible world that is Earth. He has to be dragged away as he watches the rocket shoot into space.
While these expeditions were met with what the humans would call hostility, we’ll soon see that the Martians have reason to be wary of their visitors. Life on Mars is far from the scary, uninhabitable image that is often painted of the planet, but, contrary to what the Earth men believe, the native occupants aren’t exactly happy to see the newcomers in their world. From the very beginning they’re resistant to their arrival, a reaction that seems perfectly natural in the face of an invading race, for “invaders” is exactly how Bradbury depicts the humans. His description of the Martians as having brown skin while the Earth men’s skin is pink is no mistake, as it mirrors the history of colonization throughout time. Lustig is the only one who worries that they won’t be welcome in the town where they land. Even if the people in the town are humans who traveled there long ago, they came to escape Earth. It’s fitting that Lustig compares them to the Pilgrims, as the widely held belief that the Pilgrims left to escape religious persecution overlooks the fact that they arrived in the New World and imposed their own form of strict religious rule.3 Furthermore, even if those are humans up on Mars, they exist at the expense of the indigenous population and, by killing any newcomers, enact the very same persecution that they wished to flee. Accordingly, Lustig worries that those living there will make them leave or even kill them, but Captain Black isn’t worried about that. In the true spirit of those who colonized the Americas, he says, “We have superior weapons.”
IN THE AUTHOR’S WORDS
First, a little bit about the author. Ray Bradbury was born in 1920 in Waukegan, Illinois. He wrote more than 400 short stories and nearly 50 books, as well as poems, essays, screenplays, and other writings. He won an Emmy for the teleplay of his novel The Halloween Tree and was nominated for an Academy Award for the screenplay of the 1956 film adaptation of Herman Melvile’s Moby Dick. HIs stories were adapted for several TV series, including The Ray Bradbury Theater, The Twilight Zone, Alfred Hitchcock Presents, and The Alfred Hitchcock Hour. A number of films have been based on his writings, such as Fahrenheit 451, Something Wicked This Ways Comes, and A Sound of Thunder. He received many awards for his work, one of which is a Pulitzer Prize Special citation.4 He died in 2012 at the age of 91.
Bradbury has always been a proponent of books and, especially, libraries. In 2010, Fahrenheit 451 was chosen for the National Endowment for the Arts Big Read, an initiative that “exposes people to new genres and ideas and challenges their current tastes in literature” as well as “broadens our understanding of our world, our communities, and ourselves through the joy of sharing a good book.”5 In an interview for the program, he explained his love of libraries as child, saying, “I’d open the door of the library, and I’d look in, and all those people were waiting for me in there. You see, libraries is people. It’s not books; people are waiting in there, thousands of people who wrote the books, so it’s much more personal than just the book. So when you open a book, the person pops out and becomes you….So you go in the library, and you pull a book off the shelf, and you open it, and what are you looking for? A mirror. All of a sudden, a mirror is there and you see yourself….So you go into the library and discover yourself.”6
Furthermore, the planet Mars has always loomed large in Bradbury’s imagination. He said, “Alone at night when I was 12 years old and I looked at the planet Mars, and I said, ‘Take me home.’ And the planet Mars took me home and I never came back.”
It’s worth mentioning the publication history of this book. If you happen to have picked up an older version, like the one I bought when I was in high school, you’ll notice that the dates and some of the stories are different. The 1977 version starts in January of 1999 and ends in October of 2026. The updated 1997 version, which is the version you’ll find if you buy the book today, shifts these dates to 31 years in the future. It seems that as the world was about to advance past the years in which these stories were set, the publishers decided to change the dates so the stories could retain that futuristic feeling. It’ll be interesting to see what these stories look like in eight or nine years.
Most interesting is that several of the stories have also changed. The 1977 version contains the story “June 2003: Way Up in the Middle of the Air.” The 1997 version has omitted this and included “November 2033: The Fire Balloons” and “May 2034: The Wilderness.” If you’ve read the 1977 version, it’s not hard to see why this change was made. The story takes place in the American South and centers on the Black residents’ departure from Earth. The White residents are both incredulous that they somehow found the money and at the notion that they’d ever want to leave. “I mean, every day they got more rights. What they want, anyway?” says one White man discussing the problem with his friends. “Here’s the poll tax gone, and more and more states passin’ anti-lyinching bills, and all kinds of equal rights. What more they want? They almost make as good money as a white man, but there they go” (96). The story shows the hypocrisy of a society that doesn’t understand that almost being free is not the same as actually being free and the irony in condemning an entire race for wanting more freedom while also colonizing another planet to gain that freedom for themselves. The problem is that Bradbury employs a racial slur. I’ll admit that I had trouble accepting this word from my favorite writer, but I recognize it as a product of the time in which it was written and representative of the type of person Bradbury wanted to portray. I’m not sure that I agree that our literature should be wiped clean of this word, for our history can never be wiped clean of it, but the publisher’s decision to remove the story is understandable.
That’s where we’ll end today for the first part of The Martian Chronicles. Join me next week when we’ll discuss the stories “June 2032: —And the Moon Be Still as Bright” through “November 2033: The Fire Balloons.” We’ll find out more about what happens when Earth men try to start life anew on Mars. Thank you for listening. If you enjoyed today’s episode, subscribe and leave a rating and review in your favorite podcast app. I would really appreciate it, and it helps other book-loving English learners find the podcast. More importantly, what do you think of The Martian Chronicles so far? What’s your opinion of the way the Martians have greeted the Earth men? Leave a comment at theenglishchronicles.com, where you can also find a transcript of each episode, send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org, or find me on Instagram @theenglishchronicles. Until then, keep reading.
- Oxford Dictionary, s.v. “Colonization,” https://www.lexico.com/en/definition/colonization.
- Oxford Dictionary, s.v. “Genocide,” https://www.lexico.com/en/definition/genocide.
- Kenneth C. Davis, “America’s True History of Religious Tolerance,” Smithsonian Magazine, October, 2010, https://www.smithsonianmag.com/history/americas-true-history-of-religious-tolerance-61312684/.
- “Life,” Ray Bradbury, accessed July 28, 2021, https://raybradbury.com/life/.
- “NEA Big Read,” National Endowment for the Arts, accessed July 28, 2021, https://www.arts.gov/initiatives/nea-big-read.
- National Endowment for the Arts, “NEA Big Read: Meet Ray Bradbury,” YouTube Video, October 3, 2017, 22:18, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Pqp38_uS-eg.