Shortly after he published The Martian Chronicles, Ray Bradbury met one of his great heroes, Aldous Huxley. The author of Brave New World had not only read the younger man’s book, he had found it profound. “You know what you are, young man,” Huxley asked. When the 30-year-old Bradbury admitted he did not, Huxley replied: “A poet.” “Well, I’ll be damned,” Bradbury answered. “No, quite the opposite,” the Englishman answered, “You are blessed.”
When I first read The Martian Chronicles sometime in fifth or sixth grade, the grand adventure of it all swept me away in ways that only Tolkien had done thus far in my young life. I devoured the book, thought about it incessantly, drew pictures to accompany it, and. . . and. . . well, you get the idea.
Bradbury’s Mars—complete with breathable atmosphere—had become a critical part of my life as a young boy, second only to my love of all things Middle-earth. Tall golden men, books that sang, deserted canals, crumbling cities, blue spheres, two strangers of different times encountering one another at some kind of temporal nexus.
What imaginative young boy would not love the red planet as described by the famous Illinoisan-turned-Californian? Some part of me must have understood what Huxley has proclaimed with such eloquence about Bradbury.
Since I first read it in the late 1970s, I’ve had the privilege to reread The Martian Chronicles several times. I’ve even been able to teach the text in several classes, including a class specifically enjoying dystopian literature and in courses dedicated to Christian Humanism. As with another prairie writer (to use biographer Sam Weller’s apt description) Willa Cather, Bradbury’s writing often appears simple in style. But, as with the Nebraskan, Bradbury’s surface has depths and layers below it, visible only upon repeated readings of his works. Just as I’ve tried to read Death Comes for the Archbishop every two years or so in my adult life, so I’ve done with The Martian Chronicles.
In interviews, Bradbury admitted that much of the story’s actual structure and inspiration comes from Sherwood Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio.
With each reading, I’ve discovered more and more in terms of philosophical insights. That Bradbury wrote the novel as a series of short stories while only in his late 20s astounds me. The man overflowed with ideas, and unpacking each as it appears in The Martian Chronicles would take volumes to analyze them properly or with any sense of justice. In many ways, The Martian Chronicles is not just poetry, but a work of philosophical and theological speculations wrapped in the fantastic rather than merely (if such a thing even exists) a work of the fantastic. One might even consider it a bit of a modern Wisdom of Solomon. Bradbury’s stories deal with family, community, patriotism, imperialism, soul, mind, dignity, alienation, myth, sacrifice, revenge, and almost anything else imaginable in the human condition. He draws upon real and mythic history from Egypt, Greece, Rome, and North America. His Martians might be equal parts Socratic philosophers, Ciceronian republicans, and Crazy Horse warriors, all imbued with a strong ethical and aesthetic sense.
A few selections from the book help reveal its depth and profundity:
On an integrated life
They quit trying too hard to destroy everything, to humble everything. They blended religion and art and science because, at base, science is no more than an investigation of a miracle we can never explain, and art is an interpretation of that miracle. They never let science crush the aesthetic and the beautiful. It’s all simply a matter of degree. An Earth Man thinks: ‘In that picture, color does not exist, really. A scientist can prove that color is only the way the cells are placed in a certain material to reflect light. Therefore, color is not really an actual part of things I happen to see.’ A Martian, far cleverer, would say: ‘This is a fine picture. It came from the hand and the mind of a man inspired. Its idea and its color are from life. This thing is good.’
On imperialism and commercialism
“No matter how we touch Mars, we’ll never touch it. And then we’ll get mad at it, and you know what we’ll do? We’ll rip it up, rip the skin off, and change it to fit ourselves.” “We won’t ruin Mars,” said the captain. “It’s too big and too good.” “You think not? We Earth Men have a talent for ruining big, beautiful things. The only reason we didn’t set up hot-dog stands in the midst of the Egyptian temple of Karnak is because it was out o f the way and served no large commercial purpose. And Egypt is a small part of Earth. But here, this whole thing is ancient and different, and we have to set down somewhere and start fouling it up. We’ll call the canal the Rockefeller Canal and the mountain King George Mountain and the sea the Dupont Sea, and there’ll be Roosevelt and Lincoln and Coolidge cities and it won’t ever be right, when there are the proper names for these places.”
On the bigotry and arrogance of a majority
Who are we, anyway? The majority? Is that the answer? The majority is always holy, is it not? Always, always; just never wrong for one little insignificant tiny moment, is it? Never ever wrong in ten million years? He thought: What is this majority and who are in it? And what do they think and how did they get that way and will they ever change and how the devil did I get caught in this rotten majority? I don’t feel comfortable. Is it claustrophobia, fear of crowds, or common sense? Can one man be right, while all the world thinks they are right? Let’s not think about it. Let’s crawl around and act glamorous and run around and pull the trigger. There, and there!
On thought control
In 1999 it was a grain of sand. They began by controlling books of cartoons and then detective books and, of course, films, one way or another, one group or another, political bias, religious prejudice, union pressures; there was always a minority afraid of something, and a great majority afraid of the dark, afraid of the future, afraid of the past, afraid of the present, afraid of themselves and shadows of themselves.
On too much reality
All the beautiful literary lies and flights of fancy must be shot in mid-air! So they lined them up against a library wall one Sunday morning thirty years ago, in 2006; they lined them up , St. Nicholas and the Headless Horseman and Snow White and Rumpelstiltskin and Mother Goose— oh, what a wailing!— and shot them down, and burned the paper castles and the fairy frogs and old kings and the people who lived happily ever after (for of course it was a fact that nobody lived happily ever after!), and Once Upon A Time became No More! And they spread the ashes of the Phantom Rickshaw with the rubble of the Land of Oz; they filleted the bones of Glinda the Good and Ozma and shattered Polychrome in a spectroscope and served Jack Pumpkinhead with meringue at the Biologists’ Ball! The Beanstalk died in a bramble of red tape! Sleeping Beauty awoke at the kiss of a scientist and expired at the fatal puncture of his syringe. And they made Alice drink something from a bottle which reduced her to a size where she could no longer cry ‘Curiouser and curiouser,’ and they gave the Looking Glass one hammer blow.
Through his series of vignettes–nearly all set on the fourth planet from the sun–Bradbury examines the human condition. Yet, however dark his own vision and imagination might appear, the author remained an eternal optimist. No matter how foolish, humans as a species seemed to survive, and, God willing, even progress from time to time.
As the author himself noted, Anderson’s small Ohio town gave him the inspiration for these stories set on Mars. But, when it came to the human condition, Bradbury seems much more like a famous New Englander than the famous Midwesterner. Just as Nathaniel Hawthorne reminded us that we must always remember sin as a primary fact, so Bradbury cautioned us about pride, its attractions, its follies, and its ultimate destructiveness. As he said time and time again, in the end, there’s only love.
Never a bad message, for a 10-year-old or a 46-year-old.
Books on the topic of this essay may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore.