This is what the cover of my copy looks like.

This is what the cover of my copy looks like.

I recently finished reading Ray Bradbury’s The Martian Chronicles. This is probably the third or fourth time I’ve read it, but it’s been a while. I remember that my parents gave the book to me as a gift a few years back, but I don’t remember exactly when. I think it was a birthday gift, but I could be wrong about that, because I seem to recall reading it during a long road trip in the middle of the summer, and my birthday is in early September. At any rate, I have come to associate that book with summer in general and with summer road trips in particular. I’m not taking a road trip this summer, with the exception of the drive when I moved here at the end of May, so I read the book in bits and pieces over the course of last month.

Ray Bradbury is known as one of the pioneers of the science fiction genre. He was by no means the first to write stories taking place in the future and in space, but his books are old and outdated by comparison with current science fiction books, movies, and TV shows, and his ideas were influential for subsequent science fiction writers. The last portions of The Martian Chronicles were written in 1950, and some of the chapters were published as short stories in magazines a couple years earlier, so the book predates the popularity of sci-fi as a television genre, and it also predates the existence of the space age in real life. I find it interesting to note that, for those reasons, The Martian Chronicles is devoid of the technological lingo and made-up scientific concepts that characterize newer science fiction.

Mars RoverAs far as I can tell, Bradbury’s time didn’t have quite the same degree of optimism about the progression of technology that people had in the 1960s, and Bradbury’s estimate that Earth explorers would reach Mars in 1999 was more realistic than other many other early science fiction predictions. After all, the awesomely high-tech Curiosity rover arrived on Mars last summer, only thirteen years after 1999, and the first Earth machine to land in Mars was in 1975, well before the setting of Bradbury’s book. True, no humans have yet been on the Mars’ surface, but for all we know, there could have been Earth colonies on Mars by 1999 if space exploration had continued to be a major priority and if Mars had turned out to be a little more similar to Earth, as Bradbury had predicted. (The Martian Chronicles describes the atmosphere as being somewhat deficient in oxygen due to the lack of vegetation, but aside from that, the geographical and atmospheric conditions of Mars are depicted as being very much like Earth.)

This cover looks cooler than mine.

This cover looks cooler than mine.

However, Bradbury did not foresee many cultural changes. It’s a little amusing to note the ways in which the characters and events of The Martian Chronicles reflect the mid-twentieth century. For example, Bradbury did not anticipate the Civil Rights movement or second-wave feminism, and he depicts African Americans, (to use a term that’s more polite than the one used in the book) housewives, and white men as having the same relationships with each other that they did in the 1940s and 1950s. And, like most non-contemporary science fiction writers, Bradbury didn’t expect such remarkable technological advances in the entertainment industry and in communication devices. In The Martian Chronicles, there is no such thing as the internet, there are no cell phones, and the only machines described are a few robots, rocket ships, and the occasional car.

Bradbury’s depiction of the Martians themselves is interesting and not entirely consistent. At the beginning of the book, they are quick to kill the Earth explorers, but later, we are supposed to see the Martians as a peaceful and gentle race of people, devoid of the negative qualities of Earth people. In some chapters, they are bureaucratic and seem to be a satire of humanity on Earth, while in others, they seem like innocent victims of colonization, who had until then been living in an elegant, simple, utopian society. Even the styles of their names and the description of their physical appearances vary from chapter to chapter. But one detail is consistent; Martians have a superior intellect and telepathic capabilities. They can communicate with English-speakers, they can cause people to see things that aren’t real, and in at least one case that I can remember, a Martian is able to act as a shapeshifter that responds to people’s thoughts and expectations.

MarsBradbury’s Martians actually aren’t that different from alien races that one might see in the original Star Trek series or Doctor Who. In fact, even the theme of an alien civilization dying out under an Earth colonizing boom is something that is fairly typical of science fiction, as is the apocalyptic prediction of Earth’s fate. The main thing that sets The Martian Chronicles apart from newer science fiction is the near absence of technology in major plotlines and expositional passages.

Look what a cute cat he had!

Look what a cute cat he had!

Despite this, I think that Ray Bradbury actually understood how time travel worked. I think he deliberately left those concepts out of the book in order to conceal the fact that he himself had used time travel in writing it. I say this because he stole an idea that I had many years later, but before I had ever read The Martian Chronicles. I wanted to write a story that didn’t have any characters. The plot would be subtly conveyed through the description of physical objects, (without personification, which would be cheating) the order of these descriptions, and the choice of wording, which would offer suggestions and implications about preceding events that would have involved people. But the plot would not be explicit, and it would be a very unique kind of story. That is, it would have been unique if Ray Bradbury hadn’t done it in one of the last couple chapters of The Martian Chronicles. So I presume that he time-traveled into the future, after I will have had written my story following that idea, and he stole that idea from me. At least, I’d like to think that’s what happened.

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