The Martian Chronicles: Two reviews and a “Book Chat”

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fantasy book reviews science fiction book reviewsThe Martian Chronicles by Ray Bradbury science fiction book reviewsThe Martian Chronicles by Ray Bradbury

The Martian Chronicles is a collection of Ray Bradbury’s stories about the human colonization of Mars which were previously published in the pulp magazines of the late 1940s. The stories are arranged in chronological order with the dates of the events at the beginning of each story. In the first edition of The Martian Chronicles, published in 1950, the events took place in a future 1999-2027, but a reprinted 1997 edition pushes all events forward to 2030-2057. Because it’s a story collection, The Martian Chronicles has an episodic feel which has been made more fluid by connecting the stories with short vignettes, similar to the structure of Bradbury’s collection The Illustrated Man.

In the first story, “Rocket Summer,” we visit a small town in Ohio while the first human exploratory spaceship takes off for Mars. Bradbury explains in the introduction to The Martian Chronicles that this small-town mid-America feel was influenced by Sherwood Anderson’s novel Winesburg, Ohio: A Group of Tales of Ohio Small-Town Life which Bradbury admired and hoped to emulate.

The next two stories, “Ylla” and “The Summer Night,” show us what the Martians are like. They’re humanoid in form with brown skin and round yellow eyes. Like humans, they live in houses and towns, eat and drink, sleep, age, read books, study science, desire love, become jealous and irritable, and commit murder. (I find it amusing that the Martians have the same kinds of depressing marriages we see in Bradbury’s stories set on Earth.) But the Martians are telepathic and the humans’ approach is causing them to quote our poetry, sing our songs, and adopt other aspects of human culture without understanding why.

fantasy book reviews science fiction book reviewsThe first spaceship was unsuccessful, so a second expedition was launched a few months later (it seems reasonable for Bradbury to expect that by 1999 we’d be able to get to Mars a lot faster than we actually can). In “The Earth Men” we learn the fate of this crew and we learn that Martians, just like Americans in 1950, have to live with bad psychiatry and insane asylums. Stephen Hoye, the narrator of Blackstone Audio’s 2009 version of The Martian Chronicles, was particularly brilliant with this story.

Next comes “The Taxpayer” in which an Ohio man is trying to get on the third expedition to Mars (the second one failed). This very short vignette tells us that things are going badly on Earth and that an atomic war is expected in about two years. “The Third Expedition” (originally published in Planet Stories as “Mars is Heaven!”) describes what happens when the third doomed mission lands on Mars. This story doesn’t quite work with the chronology of The Martial Chronicles because it portrays astronauts from 2030 growing up in the small Midwestern towns of early 20th century America. It also ironically highlights the biggest problem with The Martian Chronicles when one of the astronauts asks “Do you think that the civilizations of two planets can progress at the same rate and evolve in the same way?” Clearly the astronaut doesn’t think that’s possible, but in these early stories, Bradbury’s Martian culture is just too much like ours. Even so, “The Third Expedition” is a clever little horror story and one of my favorites in the collection.

“And the Moon Be Still as Bright” is the story of the fourth, finally successful, expedition to Mars. The Martians have mostly died of chickenpox — humans, in our blundering way, have inadvertently killed them off. Most of the men of the expedition don’t care, eager to begin exploration and colonization, but Captain Wilder and an archaeologist named Spender regret that humans have destroyed such a beautiful civilization, like they destroy everything else they touch. There’s a lot of social commentary about 1940s American culture in this story.

The next several stories are about the rapid spread of humanity on Mars. “The Settlers” and “The Shore” describe the type of people who came to Mars from Earth, “The Green Morning” follows a Johnny Appleseed type of character who plants trees to increase oxygen levels, and “The Locusts” and “Interim” describes how men and women made Mars look just like another Earth. In “Night Meeting,” we learn that “even time is crazy up here” when a colonist from Earth meets a Martian who seems to be in a different time-stream. This story also reminds us that civilizations both rise and fall and that perhaps it’s best that we don’t know the future of our own civilization.

fantasy book reviews science fiction book reviewsI especially liked the next story, “The Fire Balloons,” in which a group of missionaries prepare to bring the Gospel to the Martians. They don’t know what the Martians will look like and must consider how a different culture, and even a different anatomy, might dictate the types of sin a society is prone to. (It seems unlikely that the missionaries don’t know what the Martians look like by now, but we must keep in mind that The Martian Chronicles is a story collection, not a novel with a continuous story.) When the missionaries meet the Martians, they have even more theological questions to deal with. “The Fire Balloons,” has a beautiful ending.

Male explorers and settlers have been the main characters so far but “The Musicians,” a story original to The Martian Chronicles, shows us what boys do for fun on Mars, “The Wilderness” features two women who are getting ready to emigrate from Earth, and “The Old Ones” focuses briefly on the elderly. Those first courageous men won’t be forgotten, though; in “The Naming of Names” we learn that they’ve been immortalized — many places on Mars have been named after them. These human names, and other industrial-sounding names, have replaced the nature-focused names used by the Martians.

In “Usher II” Bradbury returns to one of his favorite pet peeves — book burning. A man who has left Earth to get away from the “moral climate” police is angry that they’ve now shown up on Mars. To get back at them for outlawing Edgar Allen Poe’s work, he uses his fortune to build his own House of Usher and he invites them all to a party. This story is entertaining, but I’m not sure that Bradbury makes his case. After what happens, I think the moral climate police will feel they have even more grounds for banning Poe.

“The Martian” is a terrific horror story which shows us what becomes of one telepathic Martian when humans, full of painful memories and wanting to start over, arrive on his planet. This is one of the best stories in The Martian Chronicles.

The next few stories, “The Luggage Store,” “The Off Season,” and “The Watchers,” tell of the nuclear war on Earth that was predicted in earlier stories. It can be heard on the radio and seen from Mars and soon the colonists get an urgent message: “Come home.” And so they go back to Earth.

“The Silent Towns” tells the story of Walter and Genevieve, living hundreds of miles apart, who assume they’re the last humans left on Mars. This story is entertaining, but highlights the rampant sexism so often found in the science fiction written for pulp magazines. Where does Walter decide is the most likely place to find a woman? The beauty shop. (Genevieve, what the heck are you doing in a beauty shop on a deserted planet?) Then, after driving for hundreds of miles to find her, Walter rejects and runs away from the last woman on Mars because she’s overweight. Really.

Bradbury is back to doing what he does best with the next two stories. “The Long Years” tells of Hathaway, one of the crew of the Fourth Expedition, who stayed on Mars with his family when the rest of the colonists left. When Captain Wilder, his former commander, returns to Mars after exploring other planets in the solar system, he finds Hathaway and wonders how his wife and kids stayed young while Hathaway kept aging normally.

fantasy book reviews science fiction book reviews“There Will Come Soft Rains” returns us to Earth where the atomic war has wiped out most of the people. An automated house (common in Bradbury’s stories) still stands in California, going about its daily routines as if the family who lived there is still alive. This story was inspired by Sara Teasdale’s post-apocalyptic poem “There Will Come Soft Rains” in which we see nature taking back the Earth after humanity is destroyed. This imagery in this excellent story is chilling and unforgettable. Unforgettable.

After all of the destruction that humans brought upon themselves (we nearly obliterated the population of two planets), the last story, “The Million-Year Picnic,” offers a bit of hope as two families escape the devastated Earth and plan to start over. To ensure that humans don’t make the same mistakes we made before, they burn books, maps, files and anything else that contains the sorts of ideas that may have led to our destruction. (A little ironic, I think. Apparently, Bradbury thought it was noble to burn some of our literature.)

Whenever I read Bradbury, I’m struck by his lofty visions, in the early 20th century, for future technological developments and space exploration. He envisioned a degree of achievement by the 21st century that we’re not even close to yet. However, at the same time, it seems that he didn’t foresee how much American social culture would change even during his lifetime. Thus, in most of his stories set in the future we find the juxtaposition of robots and rockets with the same sexism and racism experienced in 1950. Fortunately, the nuclear world war that he and many SF writers imagined has also not happened. Perhaps we can give Bradbury some of the credit for warning us so vividly.

The Martian Chronicles is some of Ray Bradbury’s most-loved work and foundational reading for science fiction fans. If you’ve never read it, or haven’t read it recently, I encourage you to try Blackstone Audio’s version.

~Kat Hooper


fantasy book reviews science fiction book reviewsThe Martian Chronicles by Ray Bradbury science fiction book reviewsThe Martian Chronicles: A melancholy meditation on failed American ambitions

I really didn’t like The Martian Chronicles when I first read it last year. Considering its legendary status in the genre and its very high ratings by other reviewers I respect, I was really looking forward to finally reading this classic SF tale. But what I discovered was a series of loosely-connected vignettes with some connecting material that seemed fairly superfluous. While I found the first few stories actually featuring Martians very well written and intriguing, once the Martians went offstage and were replaced by an endless series of annoying, hokey Midwesterners from 1950s America, my interest died more quickly than the Martians themselves.

However, I knew I must be missing something.  This is considered one of the greatest works of mid-20th century science fiction, and is highly regarded even by the literati outside the genre. So I decided to try the audiobook version, which is narrated by Scott Brick (there are several versions available on Audible). I’m glad I did.

Ray Bradbury’s lyrical, melancholy, poetic writing is ideally suited to narration with the right voice. The stories take on added emotional weight when you can hear his beautiful descriptions of the Martian landscape, empty crystal cities, rocket ships lifting off from Earth, and the silent viewing of nuclear holocaust from space. The imagery is powerful, and the events of the stories are humorous, tragic, melancholy, and ironic by turns.

After a second exposure, I think I understood the themes of the stories better as well. Initially I thought Bradbury was again wallowing in nostalgia for a long-lost Midwestern America of the 1920’s (like he did in Dandelion Wine), particularly in stories such as “The Earth Men,” “The Third Expedition,” “The Martian,” and “The Long Years.” On further reflection, his critique about the American dream of space flight, colonization of outer space, conquering of alien races, and striving to remake the alien into our own image became much clearer. His tone is far more ironic than I first recognized, and his vision of America’s foolhardy confidence and arrogance in colonizing Mars is expertly achieved with parallels to American’s treatment of the American Indians in their colonization of the Western frontier.

fantasy book reviews science fiction book reviewsHere were the standout stories for me:

“Ylla” is the opening story and the most impressive. It’s about an older Martian couple in a strained marriage. It’s the only story told entirely from the Martian perspective, and details the tragic events triggered by the arrival of the First Expedition to Mars. It is filled with universal truths and the savagery that can lurk underneath the surface of any relationship.

“The Earth Men” is an incredible mix of irony, horror, and humor. The Second Expedition to Mars successfully makes contact with a Martian town’s inhabitants, only to be thoroughly ignored. The Earth Men become increasingly frustrated by the indifference of the Martians, until they are finally granted attention by a particular Martian. However, although he is receptive to their claims of being from Earth, his reasons are far more sinister than anyone could have anticipated.

“The Third Expedition” tugs at the nostalgia strings in a very subversive way. The Third Expedition touches down in a different location, hoping to escape the mysterious fate of the first two Expeditions, which were never heard from again. But instead of finding golden-skinned Martians with almond-shaped eyes, they encounter their loved ones from the past impossibly living again in a perfect recreation of their childhood homes. Things are not what they seem, as the Earth men again discover.

“—And the Moon Be Still as Bright” and “The Settlers,” in which a member of the Fourth Expedition in entranced by the mysterious beauty of the lost Martian civilization, and disgusted by the crudity of his fellow American astronauts, who cannot appreciate what he says. He turns on them with tragic consequences, saying “we Earth Men have a talent for ruining big, beautiful things.”

Unfortunately, the other stories lost a lot of momentum for me. There is a lot of filler material here, and it was hard for me to relate to some of the stories. Although I enjoyed “The Fire Balloons,” “Usher II,” and “The Martian,” the other stories that followed were fairly unimpressive.

In particular, I thought “The Silent Towns” was a very sexist and insulting depiction of women, as the last man on Mars finds the last woman on Mars after nuclear war on Earth causes Earth Men to leave Mars. Instead of an Adam and Eve story, he discovers the last woman to be overweight, homely, trivial, and all-around pathetic. Bradbury really does seem to have a condescending attitude towards women, and we can’t just excuse that as being a product of the times. The housewives of Fahrenheit 451 are equally contemptuous, and it’s disappointing to see this in such a beloved writer.

~Stuart Starosta


And here is a “Book Chat” by Bill and Jana:

Hi all. We thought we’d try something a little different around here. When Jana said she was planning on reading The Martian Chronicles, I (Bill) mentioned I’d been thinking lately about rereading some Ray Bradbury and wondered about maybe having a little conversation about the shared experience. Nothing formal, no particular goals or constraints, not a shared review as we’ve done in the past — just a pair of readers bouncing some reactions off each other. 

fantasy book reviews science fiction book reviewsThe Magicians’ Guild by Trudi Canavan fantasy book reviewsBill Capossere: I can’t recall which Bradbury title it was I first read, though I know that I immediately fell in love with it, such that by high school I owned and had read (and re-read) his four best known novels and ten of his nineteen collections out by then. I kept up with him through the 80’s, buying new ones and re-reading the old ones, but it’s been some years now since I’ve cracked a Bradbury book and so I admit to having some trepidation. That’s always the fear in re-reading a beloved work/author — because you can’t un-think that new response you always run the risk of ruining not just the work/author but your memory of it, and even worse, all the possible future memories of it. That’s a pretty heavy price to pay.

I would have sworn before starting that I could have described nearly all the stories in The Martian Chronicles, so I was more than a little humbled when only one of the first five (“Ylla”) was at all familiar, and even that one, I shame-facedly admit, called up memories of the 1970s mini-series rather than the actual story (Oh, how disappointing that TV adaptation was — I remember Rock Hudson, his gun and mask, and the rest is a benumbed sense of total dullness). It wasn’t until I reached “The Third Expedition” that I hit a story I had fully remembered going in, though I had thought it was the first in the book.

What surprises me in this early going, besides my lack of memory, is the humor. The poetry, the nostalgia, the sense of sorrow, the inventiveness — all of that was all in my head with regard to Bradbury. But I’d forgotten how playful he could be. Which makes the tragic in all of this — the deaths, the despoiling, etc. — all the more effective and jarring.

The Magicians’ Guild by Trudi Canavan fantasy book reviewsJana Nyman: I love Bradbury’s style in The Martian Chronicles — so much of the stories and vignettes are composed of poetry. A Martian dwelling in “Ylla” is described as “a house of crystal pillars on the planet Mars by the edge of an empty sea,” which flows beautifully into the reader’s ear. Obviously, his imagination was more important to Bradbury than strict adherence to science; we know that Mars has neither blue sky or blue sandy hills, and certainly not enough atmosphere to sustain human life without the aid of pressurized suits. But Bradbury’s fantasies work because of his skill with language and the type of stories he’s telling: these are allegories, morality plays, and frontier stories.

fantasy book reviews science fiction book reviewsBill: So many of those smaller poetic vignettes reminded me in this reread of Steinbeck’s interchapters in The Grapes of Wrath, another book filled with “allegories, morality plays, and frontier stories.” So much so that I Googled the two to see if Bradbury had ever mentioned this and it turns out he did in one of his interviews (Listen to the Echoes: The Ray Bradbury Interviews), saying he’d loved The Grapes of Wrath and believed he’d “subconsciously borrowed” its structure. It’s so out there that part of me even wonders how “subconscious” it was (not that there’s anything wrong with out and out theft).

Jana: You know, I hadn’t thought about it until you mentioned it, but you’re absolutely right. Even the rhythm of some of the poetry in Bradbury’s inter-chapter vignettes sounds the same to me. There’s nothing wrong with borrowing, subconsciously or otherwise, but I’m sure Steinbeck would have appreciated a little acknowledgement.

I’ve always liked Bradbury’s commentaries on censorship and the fight against it, on the importance of intellectual freedom, on the need for preservation of history and nature. When Spender says, “We Earth Men have a talent for ruining big, beautiful things,” he is the author’s direct mouthpiece, ostensibly speaking about Mars but also referring to man’s encroachment onto green spaces from urban environments. At the time that he was writing that statement, arguing against the infallibility of concepts like Manifest Destiny, I wish he had been as brave or forward-thinking when considering the changing roles of women in American society.

Bradbury’s gender politics bring me much less joy. Every woman in the book is a wife or someone’s wife-to-be, frequently given agency only in relation to her male counterpart. Ylla treats her husband like a father figure, and he condescends to her as though she’s a child. In “The Silent Towns,” when Walter Gripp hears a phone ringing, he assumes that a woman is on the other end of the line because “Only a woman would call and call. A man wouldn’t. A man’s independent.” Rather than play with a reader’s expectations for male/female behavior, Bradbury indulges in the worst aspect of science fiction fans: the exclusion and vilification of women. Genevieve Selsor is a pathetic creature who is fat, sticky from constantly eating chocolates, and desperate for a husband. And we’re supposed to cheer for Walter when he abandons her!

On the whole, I still do enjoy reading The Martian Chronicles. There is tremendous humor, skillful wordplay, and insightful commentary on human nature. If readers keep the book’s historical and literary context in mind, its flaws are understandable and forgivable.

Bill: Well, you hit two of the points I wanted to make, Jana — the fact that this book (and nearly all of Bradbury as I recall it) is science fantasy rather than science fiction and the role of women. And it’s funny how easily I let slide nearly all of the “so they up and built a rocket” kinds of statements, but how difficult it is for me not to wince at so many, many moments involving the women. It always strikes me reading the “old masters” how odd it is that these men can imagine so much unlike their own time — alien races, interstellar travel, time travel, etc. — and yet again and again can not break out of their own time when it comes to gender. Oh, a few authors manage, and some who don’t manage a lot do so now and then, but I’ve always found that aspect fascinating even as yes, I understand they should be judged by their time.

Jana: Exactly! I could go on and on about the really fuzzy science Bradbury employs — he says that it takes about a month for the Third Expedition to travel 50 or 60 million miles to Mars in the year 2000. Even with our modern technology, it would take an expedition anywhere between 150 and 300 days depending so many factors: speed of launch, alignment of Earth and Mars, and resultant length of journey. (According to NASA’s website, the closest possible distance from E to M is 33.9 million miles, but the average is around 139.8 million miles.) So as a reader, I’m supposed to imagine that technology has zoomed ridiculously far ahead of what we’re currently capable of, but society has stagnated in the 1950s…? It’s a small thing, but a big thing, too, because these “old masters” were writing about possible futures without including any of the interesting gender- or race-related issues that were in full percolation at the time of their writing.

Bill: Somewhat in the same vein, though not wholly, I found it interesting that the Kindle version I just downloaded is missing a story, “Way Up in the Air,” relating how all of a town’s black citizens (having up and built a bunch of rockets apparently) are heading to Mars, much to the dismay of many of the white residents, but especially one particularly bigoted one (what will these nightriders do for entertainment in the dark now?). This I find interesting on several levels — one, I’m curious as to why it was removed, especially in the context of a Bradbury work that includes the story “Usher II.” And two, it’s interesting that as with gender, he seems to have not foreseen major changes coming with regard to race, though in this instance the oppressed group takes the initiative to build their own ships and leave, while he doesn’t (if I recall all the stories right) give that same sense of agency to the women in these stories.

Jana: That is interesting! How odd that, of all the stories to remove from that Kindle edition, “Way Up in the Air” was chosen. Since Bradbury specifically addressed censorship in “Usher II,” that’s especially troublesome. In my print edition, “The Fire Balloons” was left out — again, troublesome because of the implications. Apparently it’s fine to read several stories about genocide and destruction of other cultures, but not about missionaries who reach a broader understanding of their universe and faith through contact with other life forms. (The most recent print edition I’ve seen in stores appears to be complete, so that’s a relief.)

To your point about the nonexistent changes regarding race: It’s weird, right? And then that particular oppressed group is never seen again in any of the following stories, leading me to wonder if their rockets did blow up on the way to Mars (as predicted by Sam Teece). Or, more cynically, if the publishing market wasn’t interested in stories about African-Americans on Mars (or women who built and flew their own rockets) because it wouldn’t connect with the magazines’ audience.

fantasy book reviews science fiction book reviewsBill: Huh, my Kindle version does have “The Fire Balloons.” Who the heck is making all these decisions? And why do they seem so arbitrary? Odd indeed. As for why we don’t see any of those characters from “Way Up in the Air” again (or their descendants), it turns out he does have a story in The Illustrated Man called “The Other Foot,” where after the nuclear war that destroyed Earth, a single ship arrives on Mars to ask for help. The “twist” is that Mars is apparently made up of all those colonists from “Way Up in the Air” (or at least this area is), and in anticipation of this white man’s rocket ship heading their way the town starts to paint signs and arrange things so as to recreate Jim Crow/segregation but with the whites being the oppressed — the shoe’s on the “other foot.” Instead, by the end, they change their minds and decide it’s time for a fresh start between the races, both starting off equally. Personally, if we’re going to start changing the make-up of these books, I’d have kept “Way Up in the Air” and moved “The Other Foot” into The Martian Chronicles (even though it isn’t wholly consistent).

It is interesting to speculate about what the reaction of his editors/agents were to those stories.

Jana: They do seem arbitrary, and I genuinely have no idea how anyone comes to those decisions. Perhaps it has something to do with getting the publication rights for each story from the magazine/editor/publishing house they’re registered to? (Be aware that I am displaying my massive ignorance of the publication business, so it’s thoroughly likely that I have no idea to what I’m referring.)

After you’ve described the story to me, I really wish it had been included — even if it isn’t wholly consistent, as you say, it’s a conclusion to the narrative arc for those characters rather than (say it with me now) leaving their fates… up in the air.

Bill: Ouch! And on that (somewhat painful) note, we’ll end our conversation here. Anyone want to jump in, Readers? Any memories of reading The Martian Chronicles? Or seeing the TV mini-series? Any thoughts on the presentation of women in these classic works, on the genre of science fantasy or more particular on Bradbury’s own inimitable style? What about the removal of certain stories from later versions of collections? We’d love to hear what you think. And also, again, what you think about this format — would you like to see more of these book “chats”?

Leaving behind a world on the brink of destruction, man came to the red planet and found the Martians waiting, dreamlike. Seeking the promise of a new beginning, man brought with him his oldest fears and his deepest desires. Man conquered Mars and in that instant, Mars conquered him. The strange new world with its ancient, dying race and vast, red-gold deserts cast a spell on him, settled into his dreams, and changed him forever. In connected, chronological stories, a true grandmaster enthralls, delights, and challenges us with his vision, starkly and stunningly exposing our strength, our weakness, our folly, and our poignant humanity on a strange and breathtaking world where humanity does not belong.

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KAT HOOPER, who started this site in June 2007, earned a Ph.D. in neuroscience and psychology at Indiana University (Bloomington) and now teaches at the University of North Florida. When she reads fiction, she wants to encounter new ideas and lots of imagination. She wants to view the world in a different way. She wants to have her mind blown. She loves beautiful language and has no patience for dull prose, vapid romance, or cheesy dialogue. She prefers complex characterization, intriguing plots, and plenty of action. Favorite authors are Jack Vance, Robin Hobb, Kage Baker, William Gibson, Gene Wolfe, Richard Matheson, and C.S. Lewis.

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STUART STAROSTA, on our staff since March 2015, is a lifelong SFF reader who makes his living reviewing English translations of Japanese equity research. Despite growing up in beautiful Hawaii, he spent most of his time reading as many SFF books as possible. After getting an MA in Japanese-English translation in Monterey, CA, he has lived in Tokyo, Japan for the last 13 years with his wife, daughter, and dog named Lani. Stuart's reading goal is to read as many classic SF novels and Hugo/Nebula winners as possible, David Pringle's 100 Best SF and 100 Best Fantasy Novels, along with newer books & series that are too highly-praised to be ignored. His favorite authors include Philip K Dick, China Mieville, Iain M. Banks, N.K. Jemisin, J.G. Ballard, Lucius Shepard, Neal Stephenson, Kurt Vonnegut, George R.R. Martin, Neil Gaiman, Robert Silverberg, Roger Zelazny, Ursula K. LeGuin, Guy Gavriel Kay, Arthur C. Clarke, H.G. Wells, Olaf Stapledon, J.R.R. Tolkien, Mervyn Peake, etc.

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BILL CAPOSSERE, who's been with us since June 2007, lives in Rochester NY, where he is an English adjunct by day and a writer by night. His essays and stories have appeared in Colorado Review, Rosebud, Alaska Quarterly, and other literary journals, along with a few anthologies, and been recognized in the "Notable Essays" section of Best American Essays. His children's work has appeared in several magazines, while his plays have been given stage readings at GEVA Theatre and Bristol Valley Playhouse. When he's not writing, reading, reviewing, or teaching, he can usually be found with his wife and son on the frisbee golf course or the ultimate frisbee field.

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JANA NYMAN, with us since January 2015, is a freelance copy-editor who has lived all over the United States, but recently settled in Colorado with her dog and a Wookiee. Jana was exposed to science fiction and fantasy at an early age, watching Star Wars and Star Trek movie marathons with her family and reading works by Robert Heinlein and Ray Bradbury WAY before she was old enough to understand them; thus began a lifelong fascination with what it means to be human. Jana enjoys reading all kinds of books, but her particular favorites are fairy- and folktales (old and new), fantasy involving dragons or other mythological beasties, contemporary science fiction, and superhero fiction. Some of her favorite authors are Bradbury, James Tiptree, Jr., Madeleine L'Engle, and Philip Pullman.

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15 comments

  1. This was fun, Bill and Jana!

    I too am so amazed that the male SF writers of the early 20th century foresaw so many technological developments (that we haven’t even reached yet) and essential zero cultural developments. I would guess that they just saw that sort of sex- and class-based society as the “natural order” and assumed it wasn’t going to change. It would be interesting to ask one of them (who’s still alive) about this.

    (Readers who need a reminder about what each of the Martian Chronicles stories is about could check out my review. I’ve mentioned a little about the plot of all of them, I think.)

    How bizarre that some stories are missing in the different editions. I wonder if there is a difference in opinion about which stories belong? I know that there have been reprints that have changed the stories by updating the years, so maybe you’re reading two different versions of the collection.

    Did your versions contain “There Will Come Soft Rains”? I loved that story.

    • Your review of The Martian Chronicles was thorough for each story, Kat, which is how I figured out that my copy incomplete. Also, my copy contained most of “There Will Come Soft Rains” — the last few paragraphs were cut off, which is a shame, because it’s a lovely story.

      The read-together was a lot of fun, and Bill and I already talking about what to read for next month. Current front-runner is Something Wicked This Way Comes, in case anyone’s interested!

    • Mine had “There Will Come Soft Rains” as well. I can still recall reading that story in a seventh or eight grade anthology–loved it then, love it now.

  2. I love this format, but I find the discovery both of you make that neither print copies nor electronic copies contain the complete collection. I love that Bill asks “Who is making these decisions?” I would love to know the answer to that. I’m not being snarky. I am genuinely interested in what kind of pruning is going on as 21st century mores are applied to this 20th century work.

    Thank you both for engaging in this discussion! I hope we do more of these.

  3. E. J. Jones /

    This is a really cool idea! I’d love to see more of these.

  4. I share a lot of your reactions. “Usher II” was fun, but there was no need for it to be set on Mars. And I agree about “The Silent Towns,” although the beginning had a good depiction of a sense of isolation.

  5. Sorry Stuart, but gotta disagree with you on this one, too. :)

    What makes Bradbury so great is the humanity inherent to his stories. I won’t argue the hokie Midwestern thing; there are certainly some outdated elements of the collection. But I think the fact his science fiction elements play second fiddle (how’s that for a hokie idiom?) to the human elements is not something to brush aside. Like John Steinbeck, who won the Nobel for a very similar style of literature (sans Martians, of course :), I think if you look through the anachronistic exterior of The Martian Chronicles you’ll find some enduring ideas.

    But the point I think I would contend with most is Bradbury’s portrayal of women. I don’t know if there’s enough of a common theme in The Martian Chronicles to judge the collection mysogynistic. But certainly the portrayal of Mildred in Fahrenheit 451 is intended to go beyond such a simple woman good/bad reading. Her character representative of the decay of American culture and the negative influence of commercialism, she, in fact, is the real heart of the novel, and not Montag’s book burning. Were Bradbury to have portrayed that idea through Montag, would you have called him a man hater?

    I like the fact that contemporary culture has made us sensitive to the manner in which women are portrayed in fiction, but I can’t help but wonder if sometimes we (myself included) are too sensitive. If every female need be portrayed as kind, loving, emotionally troubled but well-intended, blah blah blah, I think we would be preventing ourselves from seeing certain colors, as dark as they may be, from the rainbow of humanity in the fiction we appreciate. Is Mildred a realistic portrayal of a person, I think more yes than no, and for this we shouldn’t criticize Bradbury strictly along gender lines.

  6. Hi Jesse, I’m happy to hear dissenting opinions, especially on Bradbury! It’s better than no response at all.
    I stand by my criticism of the hokey Midwestern characters of Martian Chronicles, as they were pervasive throughout the collection. True, there were enduring humanistic undercurrents that ran through the book (the first few stories were excellent), but the “Mayberry on Mars” theme got irritating in the later stories. Can Bradbury do anything other than nostalgia for a simpler time? It doesn’t seem that way judging by the 4 books I read (Martian Chronicles, Fahrenheit 451, Dandelion Wine, Something Wicked This Way Comes), but I haven’t read his numerous short stories.
    And finally, I didn’t see Mildred as a 3-dimensional person. Other than the brief appearance of Clarisse at the beginning, every female character in 451 is shallow, hysterical, and mind-numbed by the invasive entertainment wall. In contrast, Montag and Beatty are strong, intelligent, emotionally-complex characters. So yes, I don’t feel that Bradbury gives female characters much depth. That’s not misogyny, it’s just a failing of him as a writer (and he has many strengths, no question).

    • The litmus test I often use is: have I ever met such a person, and in the case of Mildred, and her friends, I think I have. More to the point, is it so strange that a person whose life revolves around daytime television would have a personality as vacuous – as two-dimensional? I agree Bradbury’s portrayal of women is not the cutting edge of feminism. But at the same time, do I think Bradbury went out of his way to be “condescending” and “contemptuous”? I don’t know… I admit it’s been a while since I read The Martian Chronicles, but memory tells me the first story features a visionary Martian woman who must deal with the jealousy, irrationality, and violence of her husband. And I may be mistaken, but I think the point of the last-man-on-Mars story was not how ugly the woman was, but how shallow the man was for placing his own desires ahead of the species’ – not a flattering statement about testosterone, either.

      I don’t know. I see your point, and I agree Bradbury should remain accountable for being a product of his times. But at the same time, I don’t think Bradbury was intentionally malevolent toward women – certainly nothing to warrant being described as “contemptuous”… Those types of words should be attached to Vox Day.

  7. I concede “contemptuous” is probably too strong a word (though not enough for Vox Day). I do encourage you to read Martian Chronicles again. In every case, even that of Ylla (who we can sympathize with as the victim of a jealous husband), the female characters are invariably secondary, passive, and not in control of their lives (such as “The Wilderness”, in which two women ponder their fates on Mars as they follow their men like pioneer women). I think you might also re-assess “The Silent Towns”, since it’s all about “looking for where a woman would most likely be”, which is the beauty salon, and Genevieve is busy stuffing her face with chocolates and blathering on so it’s hard to feel any respect for her.
    Believe me, I don’t go into SF classic with the agenda of hunting down sexism, since I understand that was part of the times, but since we are talking about the universality of the themes Bradbury introduces, it seems a waste that his sympathies mainly reside with pensive Midwestern men and their stalwart but uncomplaining wives.

    • Now that you make me think about it, it seems I do need to go back and read the collection as there were some things I missed. But I still think you miss the point about “The Silent Towns”. It’s not only about looking for a woman. It’s also about mankind missing its last chance to continue the species because of one man’s idiocy. Had the man discovered that the ‘last woman on Mars’ was average looking, working a mid-level accountancy job in a bank (i.e. an everyday, normal person), he probably wouldn’t have had the reaction he did, and therefore the story would have fallen flat. We’re meant to be critiquing the man for his inability to get over his own shallow need for attraction – that he chose no woman over a woman when the fate of mankind hung in the balance. The woman is the plot device which exposes the human element in need of criticizing/correction. Yes, Bradbury could have accomplished this differently, but were the roles reversed (a woman finding a slovenly man at the other end of the phone, instead), would you be as critical of Bradbury?

      “And there he sat at the bar, swilling beer, ass crack hanging out of his pants, swearing and blathering on about who will win the football championship this weekend…” I think you’d laugh. :)

      The fact that Bradbury chose two fallible people for a story of humanity in dire straights, rather than a superficial Ken and Barbie tale of heroism and romance, is something to be commended rather than critiqued, I think.

  8. Hmmm, we definitely interpreted “The Silent Towns” in opposite ways. That’s the fascinating part about fiction, isn’t it? Anyway, I do like the idea of switching the roles and having the man be the uncouth goon that the woman couldn’t stand. Maybe we need to “update” the book to fit modern social standards?

  9. I’m loving this discussion of “The Silent Towns!” I guess the story is successful because it works through either lens.

  10. Paul Stevenson /

    Absolutely agree. And I feel the same about most of Bradbury’s work. Meh. I never felt like I learned anything from reading his books. To be fair, reading about people that never find any sort of solution and just essentially fade away (or quit or whatever) feels like just a waste of my oh-so valuable time. I prefer (or my “shtick” is) to learn something from a book, rather than just be entertained. I can (and do) drink booze and entertain myself with the silliness in my own head but the effect remains the same as an entertaining book. Time wasted. I will even read a book (or re-read a book) if the protagonists are even trying but still fail to find a solution. Lots of points for trying. After all, imho, life is about an ultimate solution, and the search. There are a few who have found solutions (and they may not be right for you and me) but I love to read about their searches and their solutions. (I realize this type of approach is part of a very, very small percentage of readers.) Authors who I do enjoy reading for their characters’ searches are Brin, Dan Simmons, Tepper, De Lint, Crowley, Heinlein. I even like Feist, Chalker, and Eddings for both entertainment and (eventually) searching. Have fun reading!

  11. There Will Come Soft SFI first read this in the 60s but it was by no means my first SFF read. I did not know then that Bradbury did not regard Martian Chronicles as Science Fiction but I would have agreed. Bradbury knowingly put huge scientific inaccuracies in the collection of stories in order to create a great allegory. My personal favorite is There Will Come Soft Rains which could by itself be a true SF story. We just about now have the technology to implement it. But I can't imagine a system not having the sensors and the code to not detect the absence of people. LOL Ray said that Fahrenheit 451 was his only SF novel but I don't like it as much as MC.

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