“‘There they are,’ said Dad….The Martians were there—in the canal—reflected in the water….The Martians stared back up at them for a long, long silent time from the rippling water…” (268).
Earth has been engulfed in war and many of the humans have left Mars to try to save their loved ones back home. Only a few remain on this desolate planet. We’ll see how their story concludes. I’m Veronica, and this is The English Chronicles, the book club for English language learners.
Today we’ll finish The Martian Chronicles by Ray Bradbury by talking about the stories “November 2036: The Off Season” through “October 2057: The Million-Year Picnic.”
Last week, we met one of the last Martians on the planet. Using telepathy, he’s able to change into whomever a person thinks of most. Unfortunately, so many people try to claim him that the stress leads to his demise. The humans continue to makeover Mars to their liking, imposing their own Earthly naming system on the foreign planet. We see the results of the rule-pushers who attempted to force their own beliefs about morality on those who live there, and, finally, we learn that the Earth is in danger of a massive nuclear war. We also discussed the history of book censorship in the US and Banned Books Week, which starts on September 26. Let’s see what fate has in store for the Martians and the humans and their interstellar existence.
“November 2036: The Off Season” reintroduces us to Sam Parkhill, one of the crew members from the successful Fourth Expedition. He’s bought a hot dog stand—Sam’s Hot Dogs—and is planning on making his fortune selling food to travelers who pass through. He knows that the trucks from Earth Settlement 101 will be coming by all day long, so his location couldn’t be more perfect. His wife Elma isn’t so sure, saying that she’ll believe it when she sees the rockets arrive with “one hundred thousand Mexicans and Chinese on them.” (As we can see, even when everyone is an immigrant, Americans still expect others to do the bulk of hard physical labor. Social structures do not seem to change just because we’re on a new planet.)
One day, Sam is unexpectedly visited by a Martian. Sam yells at him to leave, saying if he doesn’t, he’ll give him “the Disease,” a reference to the chickenpox that killed so many of the indigenous people. However, the Martian says he’s already had it and is one of the few survivors. He tells Sam that he means no harm, but Sam says he means the Martian harm, for he doesn’t like Martians, even though he’s never seen one. With prejudice driven by fear, Sam believes the Martian is harassing him and wants to take back the land that Sam says he rightfully owns because there are more humans than Martians. Plus, he has a gun.
The Martian says he wants to show Sam something and pulls out a bronze tube. Sam panics, pulls the trigger on his gun, and kills the Martian. Elma picks up the tube and realizes that it wasn’t a weapon but a message. But, because Sam can’t read the Martian language, he decides it’s meaningless. Elma tells him that he shouldn’t have shot the Martian, but Sam says it was an accident. He says he hated seeing the Martian take out his weapon (which was never a weapon). His policy is clearly shoot first and ask questions later.
Soon, other Martians come to the hot dog stand on sand ships, and Sam and Elma jump on their own repaired sand ship to try to escape them. A Martian catches up to them and tells them to go back; they have to talk to him. He threatens the Martian with his gun, and even when she insists that they don’t want to hurt him, he shoots her, too, and she falls down dead. As Sam and Elma speed away, they reach a city where they’re met by a fleet of ships. Sam starts shooting indiscriminately into the crowd, but they have him surrounded. When they force him to stop, he cries out, “I didn’t do anything!” despite having killed two innocent, unarmed Martians simply because he was afraid of them. He pleads with them, saying he just wants to sell hot dogs and chili and drinks. When the Martians are finally able to speak, they tell him to prepare for a grand celebration. They hand him the message the first Martian tried to deliver; it’s a land grant, giving Sam one hundred thousand miles of territory. The thing he feared, that the Martians were going to take away the land that he actually stole from them, is the opposite of what’s happened. The murders were in vain.
Six other land grants are produced, and Sam then owns half of Mars. He’s ecstatic, thinking of all the money he’ll make. “Good old wonderful Earth,” he says. He attempts to recite the poem on the Statue of Liberty: “Send me your hungry and your starved. Something, something—how does that poem go? Send me your hungry, old Earth.” It’s not surprising that Sam doesn’t remember much of it, for he has behaved exactly like those who came to colonize the Americas, arriving in the name of freedom while forgetting that all others are deserving of that same freedom. That night, as Sam’s preparing all the food for the feast, he and Elma look up in the Sky and see the Earth burst into flames. Burning right along with it are Sam’s fortune and his moral conscience. It is the price he pays to be the most profitable hot dog stand on Mars.
The Earth has exploded, engulfed in nuclear war. Through the distance comes a message that tells of the atomic destruction of Australia and the bombings of London and Los Angeles. “Come home,” the message urges. People start to worry about the family members they left behind, and they visit the luggage store in preparation to make the long journey back to a planet at war.
After many people have left to try to save their home planet, Walter Gripp remains one of the few humans on the now abandoned Mars. Walter is all alone and desperate for some human companionship. He tries calling some phone numbers and, eventually, someone picks up at a beauty parlor in New Texas City. He and the woman, Genevieve, are overjoyed at having found each other, but their joy will be short-lived, for she is not the idealized beauty queen he had pictured. Walter is so disappointed by her appearance that he’s annoyed by everything she has to say. Genevieve tells him that she was supposed to go back to Earth on the last rocket, but she stayed because everyone picked on her. In her excitement, she brought a wedding dress to her meeting with Walter, figuring that as he’s the only man left on Mars and she’s the only woman, they’ll naturally be married. In response, Walter drives away until he reaches a town called Holtville Springs, where he spends the rest of his life in solitude.
Two decades after the Great War on Earth, we reunite with Hathaway, the physician/geologist from the Fourth Expedition. He’s been by himself on Mars all this time, living in a house with his wife, Alice, and their son and two daughters. He visits a graveyard and looks down at the four graves that were dug long ago. When he looks up in the sky, he’s surprised to see a red flame. It can only mean one thing. He runs back to his home to tell his family that a rocket is coming. He remembers that on the day Earth broke out in war, all of the rockets were called home, but he and his family were out doing archeological work in the mountains. When they returned to the city, they were a week too late. Everyone was gone and America had been destroyed.
The rocket lands the next day and Hathaway is shocked to see Captain Wilder step out. Wilder has been off exploring Jupiter, Saturn, and Neptune for the last twenty years. He and his crew circled Mars twice and found only one other man there—Walter Gripp—who refused to come with them. Hathaway invites Wilder and the crew to his house to have breakfast with his family. He asks Wilder if he remembers Spender; Hathaway walks past his grave once a year, and he supposes that Spender would be happy to know that all of the humans have left Mars. He also mentions Sam Parkhill, saying that he opened a hot dog stand but ended up returning to Earth the following week to fight in the war. Wilder and the crew go to Hathaway’s house, but Wilder notices something odd as he looks at the family. He asks the son how old he is, and he responds that he’s twenty-three. Williamson, a crew member, says that can’t be right, for he’s forty-three and he was in school with Hathaway’s son many years ago. Wilder says the daughters also don’t appear to have aged in the twenty years since he last saw them. He then compliments Mrs. Hathaway on how young she looks.
As they sit down to eat, Williamson slips away. When he returns, he says that he found the four crosses marking four graves, those of Alice, Marguerite, Susan, and John Hathaway. Underneath their names, the crosses read, “Died of an unknown virus, July 2038.” Hathaway’s family has been dead for nineteen years.
Wilder and the crew continue to eat the meal as if they haven’t found anything. Hathaway raises his glass to toast to being with old friends, but when he drinks his wine, he falls over onto the table. He tells Wilder that he’s poisoned his breakfast and to say goodbye to his wife and children for him. Wilder tells Mrs. Hathaway her husband has passed away, but she’s emotionless, saying that Hathaway told the family he would die one day and he didn’t want them to feel bad about it, for the worst thing is to be sad. After a while, he even forgot he made them; he came to love them as his real wife and children. He had been so lonely up there.
Williamson asks Wilder if they’re going to shut down Hathaway’s artificial family. Wilder says no; they’re going to leave them just as they are. Williamson wants to know how Wilder can do this, but Wilder tells him that if he can think of something better, he should do it, and hands him a gun. To his own surprise, Williamson is unable to kill Hathaway’s family. They’re so much like humans that shooting them feels like murder. Wilder agrees. The crew returns to the rocket and they take off, leaving behind four robotic figures keeping a house in order on Mars. Every night, a woman can be seen coming out of the house, looking up at the sky and the burning Earth. She goes back into the house, and the planet persists in its loneliness.
This sense of desolation exists everywhere. “August 2057: There Will Come Soft Rains” features neither humans nor Martians. This is the story of a house, one built to provide the greatest conveniences to its inhabitants. At 7:09 in the morning, the kitchen produces toast, eggs, bacon, coffee, and milk. At 8:01, a reminder sounds that it’s time to go to work and school. At 9:15, the kitchen begins cleaning itself. This is the one house left standing on Earth, in a city that’s been ruined by nuclear war. At 9:05 at night, after the children have been sent to bed, the house asks Mrs. McClellan if she’d like to hear a poem. When there’s no response, the house selects one by the American poet Sara Teasdale, the one that gives the story its name. That night, a large tree branch crashes through a window, knocking cleaning fluids onto the stove. A fire blazes up, and though the house tries to save itself by spraying water all through the rooms, the water supply has been diminished after years of clearing for no one. The house, once a living being, dies while repeating over and over again, “Today is August 5, 2057.”
In the book’s last story, “October 2057: The Million-Year Picnic,” a family takes a vacation to Mars. Mom, Dad, Timothy, Robert, and Michael jump into their family rocket and leave Earth behind to go fishing on a new planet. Timothy looks up at the sky, trying to see Earth and the ruins from the war that has been going on since he was born. Michael asks when they’ll get to see the Martians, and his father says it’ll be soon. His mother, who, unbeknownst to the boys, is pregnant with their sister, explains that the Martians are a dead race; however, his father says they’re not and that he’ll show them some soon. Timothy thinks back on the trip; they came millions of miles just to go fishing, yet there was enough food on the rocket to last them for years. As he’s pondering this, he hears two big explosions followed by a bunch of small ones. His father had set the rocket to blow up so no one would know where they landed or where they went and they’d have no way to get back. His father says there will be no more rockets except maybe one, if the Edwards family is successful with their launch.
The family reaches a city and the father says this is where they live now: no more Minnesota, no more rockets, no more Earth. In a few days, he’ll go back to where the rocket was to collect the food and look for Bert Edwards, his wife, and their four daughters, a seemingly perfect pairing for the group of similarly-aged boys. Timothy wants to know where his father got the rocket, and he responds by saying that he had saved it for twenty years. He should have given it to the government to aid in the war, but he kept thinking about going to Mars. When he saw the direction Earth was going, he packed everyone up and they left. He then explains some things to Timothy. People got lost on Earth. Science was too far ahead of them; they were too focused on creating and having machines, rather than thinking about how to run the machines. Ever-increasing wars killed Earth. He reveals that this isn’t really a fishing trip; Earth is gone and interplanetary travel won’t be back for centuries. They’re alone. With a few others, they’ll start over on this new planet. Finally, he tells the family that he’s going to show them the Martians. Together, they look down into a canal and see their own faces reflected in the water. They are the Martians.
IN THE AUTHOR’S WORDS
While Ray Bradbury embraced the label of science-fiction writer, there are still some who dismiss this genre as low-brow. When asked in a 1979 interview with the Washington Post what he would say to someone who looks down at science fiction, Bradbury responded, “The snobs don’t realize that we are talking about exciting changes wrought by the birth of ideas. Ideas and philosophies change just as machines do. Religions changed because of the birth control pill. Politics changed because of the hydrogen bomb. All because of science fictional inventions. So people should realize that we are talking about very serious things—but sometimes we pretend not to be serious in order to educate you.”1
In response to Johnny Carson’s question about society progressing past some of the ideas of science fiction, Bradbury said, “That’s the great challenge, of course, not only to predict futures, but to see if you can prevent them by being some sort of…moral instructor.”2 Carson further put forth the idea that Martians may come to us with solutions to our current problems that they worked out a thousand years ago. Bradbury welcomed that possibility, saying, “Simply by arriving, maybe they’ll teach us that we’re five billion people with a single skin around us, and if they teach us only that, then the encounter will be worth everything.”
This last quarter of the book illustrates some very real concerns plaguing the country in the middle of the 20th century. Following World War II, at the end of which the US dropped two atomic bombs on Japan, tensions grew between the US and the Soviet Union.3 The US feared that the Soviet Union would expand in Eastern Europe in a plan to exert control over the world. Meanwhile, the Soviet Union resented the American buildup of weapons and their delayed entry into the war. The hostility between the two countries led to the Cold War. One of the results of this was an “arms race,” in which the Soviets tested their own atom bomb and President Truman announced that the US would build the hydrogen bomb, which was an even more powerful atomic weapon.
The threat of nuclear war greatly influenced American domestic life. People built bomb shelters, children practiced attack drills in school, and films portrayed the possible devastating effects of the weapons. Additional events fueled these fears, including the Space Race, which culminated in Apollo 11 landing on the moon in 1969, the Bay of Pigs Invasion in 1961,4 which was an attempt to overthrow Fidel Castro in Cuba, the Cuban missile crisis in 1962,5 during which the US and the Soviet Union maintained a 13-day deadlock over the installation of nuclear weapons on Cuba, and the 10-year-conflict in Vietnam. The Cold War officially ended in 1991 when the Soviet Union dissolved. However, fears of nuclear war persist today.
We’ve come to the end of our third book. Next week, we’ll start talking about Ling Ma’s millennial zombie story, Severance, covering the Prologue through Chapter 4. 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. As always, I’m eager to know your thoughts on this month’s book and any of the issues it raises. You can 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. Did you know The Martian Chronicles was adapted for television in 1980? If you’re subscribed to The English Chronicles on Patreon, you’ll get to find out all about this three-part miniseries starring Rock Hudson in a new episode of From the Page to the Screen, the bonus podcast that talks about stories and the movies and television shows they’ve inspired. Until then, keep reading.
- Stephen Banker, “Interview with Ray Bradbury,” September 23, 1979, The Washington Post, https://www.washingtonpost.com/archive/entertainment/books/1979/09/23/interview-with-ray-bradbury/f2a4ba44-eadf-4f84-88b5-d983e2bde2ec/.
- Venetta Nealy, “The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson 03 01 1978 Ray Bradbury,” YouTube Video, February 21, 2017, 16:09, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=k1UaSpNumX8.
- “Cold War,” History, accessed August 4, 2021, https://www.history.com/topics/cold-war/cold-war-history.
- “All the Way the Bay of Pigs Invasion Failed,” History, accessed August 4, 2021, https://www.history.com/news/bay-of-pigs-mistakes-cuba-jfk-castro.
- “Cuban Missile Crisis,” History, accessed August 4, 2021, https://www.history.com/topics/cold-war/cuban-missile-crisis.