A Book That Sings: “The Martian Chronicles” by Ray Bradbury

Did you know that the natives of the planet Mars read books by gently gliding their fingers over the pages? As they touch each letter and word the book makes music. It sings the story.

Ray Bradbury may have passed away last week, but his work will live for many years to come. He loved telling the story of how, when he was a boy, he met a carnival magician who touched him with an electrified sword and shouted, “Live forever!” He began writing every single day and the rest was history.

The Martian Chronicles, though I read it for the first time only a handful of years ago and already in my 20s, has had a kind of formative influence on me as a writer. Before this book came into my life I didn’t know it was possible to make a novel out of a short story collection. The idea appeals to me and I want to make part of my career the exploration and further definition of the form. Bradbury didn’t set out to write such a book, of course; he stumbled into it largely by accident when his publisher persuaded him to collect his “Mars stories”. Interspersed between the stories themselves are vignettes, prose poems that bridge gaps of time in the chronicle of humanity’s colonization of the Red Planet.

The first thing to note about The Martian Chronicles, however, is that it isn’t science fiction. There is no special regard for the physics of actually landing people on Mars. The planet even has a breathable atmosphere and an entire native civilization. The word “astronaut” never appears that I can remember, and all the expeditions arrive on the planet in “rockets”. This is the Mars of our mythic imagination, complete with canals and waterways.

Gradually, slowly, the people of Earth come to Mars. It begins with a series of expeditions, each with a tragic end for the crew until the Martian race is all but annihilated by human disease. But their ruined cities and the occasional encounters they have with human beings continue to haunt those who come to Mars. There is a kind of tension in the book between the wonder of living on another planet and the tragedy of pushing out the people who already live there. Between the end of one world, one way of life, and the beginning of a new one. The confluence of emotions prevents too simplistic an interpretation of the material. Mars is both the next iteration of what happened when Europe colonized the Americas and the chance to find heaven again when people lose everything they have.

Bradbury liked to teach the value of surprises. He wrote his stories by a process almost of word association. It’s no wonder then that so much of his writing, though prose, reads like poetry. He works hard to create a mood and an atmosphere, with less emphasis on realistic dialogue for characters. Their words flow into and out of the narration like the natural flow of a stream. It’s the feeling and emotion of the words that gives them depth rather than a lot of backstory exposition. They are woven into the setting like the threads of a tapestry, by turns contrasting and complementing their surroundings and thereby forming the pattern itself.

This book has joined a handful of others on my shelf as an indispensable part of my library. But I’d be remiss if I didn’t point out something to anyone planning on getting their hands on a copy. The original edition of The Martian Chronicles came with dates for each of the stories, the first taking place in “January 1999”. Given that this far-flung future has now become our past some of the modern editions have updated the dates by roughly 30 years — a useless gesture, in my opinion, since those years will only seem old-fashioned again sooner than we can blink. More serious is the cutting of a story deemed “less topical” today than in 1950 (it deals with racism, though not itself racist). I made the mistake of buying this edition, but can’t bring myself to read it. It’s not the same book I fell in love with. The song it sings is different, and has a new harmony line added that I think distracts from the lead melody. The original is fortunately still available in a paperback for the time being, with the cover pictured.

I can’t promise that you’ll love The Martian Chronicles. I can only hope that when you touch it, it will sing to you as it does to me.

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