The Red Planet in 1950

Review: The Martian Chronicles by Ray Bradbury

I usually don’t go this far back.

Ray Bradbury’s take on the red planet was first published in 1950. Science Fiction from this era and earlier was rather pulpy, and honestly, I’m not a big fan. All of the elements that I really love about the genre — perspective on our place in the Universe, musings on human nature, mind-blowing yet plausible futures — are absent when you go this far back. Buck Rodgers holds no great sway over my literary imagination. Asimov, Heinlein, Clarke — that’s about when things start getting interesting.

Of course, there are exceptions. I’ve read Brave New World, 1984, and Fahrenheit 451 and they’re all great books. Bradbury has more than earned his keep.

The first portion of the book mystified me. The astronauts act like soldiers or sailors. They swear and have bad tempers, they carry guns, they set up camp on Mars like it’s the open range. There are plants and rivers on Mars. The astronauts tramp around in their uniforms and build fires and stick their feet in the water. They drink alcohol, and they hoot and holler. After all, they’ve had a hard trip, much like a voyage across the Atlantic in the 1700’s.

The Martians are strange, yes, but not so strange that they couldn’t be characters on Mad Men. Martian men control the coming and going of their wives, who are meant to entertain and do the cleaning and not to fuss too much. They have spats over how little they’ve been going out lately. The major difference seems to be that for dinner, they eat meat cooked in liquid metal and drink cups of electric fire.

All of this is to say that in 1950, we had no true concept of what Mars is like, or what it would be like to travel in space. We didn’t have well-developed concepts of alien life or the technology and protocols needed to make this kind of trip. Bradbury’s book seemed laughably unrealistic.

Then in the second half of the book, I realized that Bradbury wasn’t ignorant of this important contextual information so much as he wasn’t concerned with it. The book is not about what space travel is like, or what Mars is like, or what Martians are like. The real subject of is not Mars, it’s a country called the United States on the planet Earth in the 1950's.

Bradbury makes a broad and deep commentary on what was (and is) contemporary culture. The way men and women interact, how we send our least fortunate to settle rough lands for the wealthy, our endless desire to censor the thoughts and behaviors of others, our cheap commercialism, our utter disrespect for the environment and other cultures. Humans would culturally terraform Mars while turning Earth into a wasteland so that we have two awful, crumbling planets.

You should read the Martian Chronicles. Even if you don’t usually go this far back.