Skip to main content
book review

Bradbury’s masterpiece is “ageless cautionary tale.”STEVE CASTILLO/The Associated Press

The spaceship was improbable, at best. Having been blasted from the Earth's surface, pushed hard to an incredible speed, and then having to endure a silent nine-month coast through interplanetary space, it was now being pulled unstoppably by the gravity of planet Mars, inexorably down into the Martian atmosphere. Jealously protecting its precious cargo, a carton-of-eggs rover named Curiosity, the ship gradually, deliberately gave its life to the wicked heat, the punishing deceleration and the sudden, final impact onto the dusty surface of Mars. And as the newly landed Curiosity slowly, safely awoke and began to look around, its robot eyes showed us a new place in our history – just south of Mars' equator, on an ancient sea floor in Gale Crater, forevermore known as Bradbury Landing.

The dreamers and scientists and engineers who guided Curiosity to the landing site chose that name because "many of us and millions of other readers were inspired in our lives by stories Ray Bradbury wrote to dream of the possibility of life on Mars." Those stories, the sparks of imagination that helped fire the flames that lifted Curiosity, are the ones you hold in your hands – The Martian Chronicles.

Ray Bradbury began writing these stories as a young man, and joined them into this completed book just as he turned thirty. More significant than his age, perhaps, is that World War Two had just ended, and the tens of millions of deaths and searing images of the atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki were painfully fresh in Ray's mind, and in the world's psyche. Rockets were still in their infancy, and very much a war technology, used to wicked effect through the invention of the V-2 ballistic missiles that bombarded London. The V-2s had been able to just barely rise clear of Earth's atmosphere, and orbital flight, first to be achieved with Sputnik, was still many years in the future.

Yet Mr. Bradbury, newly married and with an infant daughter, saw beyond that reality with its recent inhuman, global brutality, and carried our thoughts and dreams far higher, to Mars, to an untouched distant purity, on those same rockets. But most interestingly he bundled with them, too, our inevitable vices, our failings, and our perpetual arrogance.

I first read The Martian Chronicles over forty years ago, as an avid young fan of science and adventure fiction. With an imagination fueled by Jules Verne's Mysterious Island and the many stories of Arthur C. Clarke, this book was puzzling. It took so much of what my adolescent self yearned to read about – rocket ships, space exploration, clever brave men stalwartly facing the unknown – and minimized it. Instead, it focused on the normal people, their simple hopes and actions, and the ethereal incomprehension of Earthlings meeting aliens for the first time. It even dealt with macabre retribution, and the wilful human destruction of Earth itself.

So why is it that millions of us have read it? What about these Chronicles continues to attract and endure? Why do Curiosity's newly eternal tracks begin at a place named Bradbury Landing?

Being an astronaut, I'm going to start with Mars.

When I look up into the night sky, there is only one planet that glows red. Brighter than all but Venus and Jupiter, Mars has always been alluring to us in its brilliance and color. Egyptian astronomers were familiar with its unusual backward motion across the sky. When Galileo first started peering through the newly invented telescope in 1609 he looked to Mars to try and understand the distances and orbital motion. Fifty years later Christiaan Huygens, with a better telescope, reported seeing the large surface features of Mars, took note of the polar ice cap, and even calculated how fast the planet turned through a Martian day. It was Percival Lowell, however, who truly made Mars an object of intense study. He built a world-class observatory on a hilltop in the high, clear air of Flagstaff, Arizona, and with the best telescope available in 1894, started a concerted effort to see what could be seen.

And what Percival saw on Mars were canals. An Italian astronomer named Giovanni Schiaparelli from the Milan Observatory had written about seeing them, and, seated night after night with his eye pressed to the eyepiece, Percival Lowell saw those unnatural canals ever more clearly. Over the next dozen years he wrote three books describing what he saw and thought: Mars, Mars and Its Canals, and Mars as the Abode of Life. Those three volumes helped establish the world's mindset about the red planet; Mars was a place of ancient, intelligent life. As Mr. Lowell wrote: "We have carefully considered the circumstantial evidence in the case, and we have found that it points to intelligence acting on that other globe, and is incompatible with anything else." He also saw evidence of immense natural forces at work, of thin air and climate change. He concluded that the canals were huge construction projects designed to tap the polar ice caps as the planet slowly dried out; the incredible allure of a distant, newly understood sister planet with intelligent life like our own, desperately working to survive slow-moving yet catastrophic events.

Even though there were dissenting professional opinions amongst astronomers, Lowell's was the fanciful perception of Mars that took root in common thought. It helped inspire H. G. Wells' The War of the Worlds, and E. R. Burroughs' Barsoom series, starting with A Princess of Mars. Both authors based their stories on a dying Mars undergoing desertification. And this widespread view still prevailed when Ray Bradbury began to write The Martian Chronicles.

The tug of war between common belief and scientific discovery is relentless, though, and just fifteen years after the Chronicles were published our first probe flew to Mars. The intrepid Mariner 4, a small octagonal extension of human curiosity, took twenty-two grainy black-and-white photos as it sailed past in the vacuum of space, just ten thousand kilometres above the Martian surface. And what it unemotionally showed us was conclusive.

No canals. No oases, no cities. No signs of intelligent life at all. In fact, Mars looked simply barren and scarred with craters, just like the Moon. A dead planet, at least for the scale of life that most people had expected and hoped for and dreamed of. Mars was a cold, empty lump, and Lowell's canals had all been just imperfections in the telescopes' optics and tricks of the optimistic eye.

This should have been a death knell for Martian popular culture in general, and specifically for book sales of The Martian Chronicles. With the factual underpinnings all suddenly kicked away, the entire fanciful idea should have crashed down with an inglorious, somewhat embarrassed thud. Joining the ranks of failed beliefs based on poor science, like phlogiston and phrenology before it, the "intelligent Martian" house of cards should have collapsed and disappeared.

Percival Lowell's books certainly vanished, as did the learned works of Giovanni Schiaparelli. But Ray Bradbury's ideas, his gathered thoughts and notions as recorded in the Chronicles, have endured. In fact, as incremental discoveries are made on and about Mars, and public curiosity is piqued, successive generations take Bradbury's vision in hand, as you have, and read anew.

Again, I ask myself – why?

Part of the answer is in simple beauty. Ray Bradbury used English as a gifted painter uses colors and a brush. The Martian Chronicles don't read so much as flow and interweave; a delicate, subdued peripheral sketching of what is there, letting the exactness of detail fill itself into the reader's mind. They carried me along, sweeping gently and irresistibly into the glittering pastel shades of the Martian landscape. I found I could feel the dry, thin wind, hear its high-pitched keening, and see the weak sun setting redly across the languid, ancient canals. Despite my lifetime of technical training and practical engineering focus, the Chronicles are supremely seductive; a delightful impossibility that is too exquisite to discount or ignore.

A large part of the answer is in self-reflection. Bradbury's Mars offered unlimited new opportunity for exploration and discovery, and expansion of human awareness. Yet virtually every step in the Chronicles, as through much of human history, is a misstep. Mutual ignorance and distrust between normally peaceful peoples leads to violence and death. Greed causes unfathomably bad behavior; uncomfortably reminiscent of gold-hungry Conquistadors in the New World, five hundred years previous. Anger and frustration at the constraints of an intensely bureaucratic society somehow permit the craziest of personal behavior. And the ultimate threat of the destruction of it all somehow draws everyone back into the maelstrom, as if there is no escape. As if we all have a necessity to accept the consequences of everyone's actions, and take our punishment, no matter how deadly.

Bradbury's inclusion of the repeated patterns of human behavior, right down to inadvertent genocide caused by external pestilence and unfamiliar disease, makes The Martian Chronicles an ageless cautionary tale. It made me pause and ask myself – could it be possible that we are forever unable to go beyond who we were? Will every great opportunity of discovery be tainted, tarred and eventually destroyed by our own clumsy, brutish hand?

If the answer were simply yes, if this book stopped there, it could not have lasted. And possibly therein lies its longevity, and its ability to both challenge and inspire successive generations of readers. Perhaps the final part of the answer lies under the sea, in a space suit.

Preparing for actual flight into space, the job of astronauts, is lengthy and exacting. The consequences of real mistakes beyond Earth's atmosphere are so high that training needs to be meticulous, based on exact details and proven facts. Where possible, we make the simulation as environmentally realistic as we can. This helps us visualize our actions accurately and draw the correct conclusions from our mistakes. Thus, NASA has launch simulators that move, roar and shake, space-station mock-ups that go suddenly dark and fill with smoke, and space suits that hover underwater, neutrally buoyant, as if they were weightless.

Astronauts live in these simulators, spending years training for upcoming missions, to be physically and mentally ready for the rigors of the next launch and the ensuing demands of life in orbit. But we also visualize the more distant future, and have begun training for Mars.

Off the coast of Florida, about sixty feet under the water's surface, there is a man-made habitat. The surrounding environment is as unforgivingly foreign to human life as any we might find on the Red Planet; without extensive planning and life support, it would kill us in just a few breaths. Yet there, incongruously sprouting out of the seabed, is Aquarius – a bubble of human existence at the bottom of the sea, a bulbous home away from home, with room for six.

Aquarius houses astronauts for weeks at a time, and is incrementally laying the groundwork for our first actual settlement on Mars. Once inside, crews are unable to surface at will up into the sunshine; the rapid depressurization would cause our blood to bubble and kill us. Thus we are trapped. All communication with Earth is electronic, via email and recorded voice to Mission Control on the mainland. We simulate the vast distances to Mars, where even light takes fourteen minutes to travel between planets, by delaying all messages. And when we venture outside the habitat, we feel the gravity of Mars.

By carefully loading our space suits with just the right number of divers' weights strapped to our legs, arms and chest, we are pushed to the sea floor with thirty-eight per cent of our normal weight – exactly what we will experience when we first walk on Mars itself. It is helping us design the space suits and understand our limitations. How long can we work? What can we lift, and how far can we go? What does it do to us to be so isolated, relying heavily on each other, and only distantly on help from Earth?

Aquarius gives an early glimpse into the challenges we will face, and a place to develop the equipment and psychology we will need to live on Mars. And thus it is also starting to turn us into the people we will need to be.

During my second space flight, visiting and helping build the International Space Station, I was chatting with one of the long-duration crew members living there. In passing, she referred to an instruction from Mission Control as "Earth said …" My head turned like I'd been slapped. Even with virtually no time delay, and with our enormous Earth forever glowing in the station portholes, she already saw herself and her crew as something separate from everyone else – no longer Earthlings.

Imagine what it will be like for the first astronauts who strap themselves into a rocket ship that is bound for Mars. Once they are safely above the atmosphere and starting to hurtle across the solar system, Earth will begin to get small. Unlike for every astronaut who has gone before, the reassuring blue orb that we call home will not be omnipresent in the spaceship windows. Within a matter of days Earth will fade to a small blue circle, and, in just a few weeks, will be hard to pick out amongst the stars in the perpetual night sky.

Picture yourself floating around the dining table as a member of that crew. Each transmission to Earth will have a greater and greater delay, until real-time communication ceases. The traditional expertise of Mission Control will diminish to that of a help desk on interminable hold; twenty-eight minutes to get the simplest yes-or-no answer.

The crew will become ever more self-reliant, and at some point, will make a mental transition. Without even discussing it, inexorably, they will become … Martians. They will have to, to stay sane. Sitting alone at his typewriter nearly seventy years ago, Ray Bradbury somehow saw all this coming. Despite the recent horrors of worldwide brutality and nuclear war, despite our timeless necessity to succumb to our most base behavior, Ray recognized the very essence of who we are, and the goodness therein.

Their spaceship will be improbable, and the voyage will have been long. But as our first emissaries thump down onto Mars, stand up and look around, they will see who the Martians really are. And with that sense of belonging will come the responsibility and appreciation that has allowed us to flourish and grow on Earth for millennia, in spite of ourselves. By the time we land on Mars and first step onto the dusty, red soil, it will be alien no longer. We will know that we are home. And that may be what saves us.

Excerpted with permission from the Folio Society's new edition of The Martian Chronicles by Ray Bradbury ($67.95),