The Martian Chronicles was published over 60 years ago, in 1950, and it reads like it. Ray Bradbury imagined amazing technology, but the social norms feel very grounded in mid 20th century to the point where I struggled to even understand, let alone empathize, with any of the characters. Every female character is either resignedly submissive to an overbearing husband or an innocent child even in adulthood (or sometimes both—I’m looking at you, Ylla).
There is greater variety in the male characters, but they too seem outdated. They all feel like characters from old TV shows, either the stern but kind father figure, the intelligent and care-worn authority figure, or the brutish and ignorant everyman.
The technology is an extension of what was cutting edge in the 1950s—robotic houses and people and rockets. Which, of course, we still don’t have today, but that isn’t the direction technology went. There is no way Bradbury could have anticipated the microchip and then the Internet, but those inventions changed how our entire society thinks about technology. To way oversimplify, we’ve gone smaller, not bigger, and into intangible information-sharing realms, not large metal structures. So, it reads a bit like looking down a path we didn’t take as a society, but less interesting.
And then, even more pervasive but harder to describe, there is the overall messages of the book. The United States had dropped atomic bombs on Japan, and the Cold War was brewing. People were starting to think about and be terrified by the power of destruction we as a society held. Sadly, at this point, this is all pretty old hat. Sure, we all have the power to blow each other up; it probably won’t happen, but if it does, well, that’s life, right? I think previous all-consuming fear has turned into mild concern but mostly apathy for today’s population, and that early panic feels melodramatic and a bit naïve.
As with Lord of the Flies, I wondered how I would have felt about this book if I’d read it in high school 20 years ago. The book starts in the year 1999, and concentrates mostly in the early 2000s, so it would have still been set in the (very near) future. 20 years ago, our space program was still thriving, and our idea of the cutting edge of technology was still concerned with the idea of androids instead of nanorobotics.
I was commenting to a friend how disjointed the book reads, and he told me that it was a compilation of short stories that Ray Bradbury had previously published individually in magazines. That helped me understand the structure of the book somewhat better, but it made me wonder if perhaps Bradbury had shoehorned short stories into a Mars setting that had previously nothing to do with Mars?
My favorite section, the recreation of Poe’s House of Usher as an automated haunted house, had very little to do with colonizing Mars, and was much more a Catch-22-like commentary on out-of-control bureaucracy. Maybe I liked that part so much because that’s one aspect of our society that hasn’t changed a bit.
I think that’s both the positive and the negative of The Martian Chronicles; it doesn’t read like one complete book, so it shifts in tone, characters and plot wildly. That means if you don’t like one section, there’s a good chance you’ll like another one.
(I should cut Bradbury some slack; this review is even more scattered than The Martian Chronicles! I will call it an homage.)