The Martian Chronicles
has all the virtues and flaws of everything I've ever read by Ray Bradbury. He writes beautiful prose and he's particularly good at spooky and haunting imagery. He's in a different category entirely from other "golden oldie" SF authors — his stuff is deliberately thoughtful and crafted, and tends to be much more human-focused. Even when he's writing "hard" SF, it feels more like a science fantasy, sometimes edging closer to pure fantasy or horror. And you can read all kinds of metaphors into his work, often metaphors completely different from the ones he intended, if his reaction to interpretations of Fahrenheit 451
is anything to go on.The Martian Chronicles
is, as the title suggests, more a themed collection of short stories than a novel, chronicling humanity's exploration and exploitation of Mars. It starts with the first ill-fated Mars expedition, when the first Earthman on Mars is greeted by a Martian roused to jealousy by his dissatisfied wife's clairvoyant dreams, and continues through the inevitable follow-up expeditions and colonization, in which the Martians all but disappear, becoming ghosts haunting their own planet, and humanity brings its troubles and all its baggage to Mars. The final stories, in particular, after a war destroys life back on the home planet, are eerie, with vivid descriptions of robot houses on Earth still cooking breakfast for families that were long ago atomized in a nuclear war, and a few lone survivors trekking through the ghost towns and dry canals of Mars. There were parts of this book that were truly marvelous and timeless.
That said - the flaws. Ray Bradbury, like so many of his generation, writes like a cranky old white man and he always has. He seems unable to conceive of a family, a society, or a civilization that doesn't resemble Middle America circa 1950, when The Martian Chronicles
was published. Even the Martians, despite their elegiac voices and physical descriptions — brown skin, copper eyes, psychic powers, and evolution into non-corporeal bodies — are first introduced to us as a bored married couple following behavioral tropes that would not be out of place in a 1950s sitcom. The Martian household is imaginatively described, with its magnetic dust to clean and its fire chariot for transportation and the mask worn by a Martian man going out to hunt, with his rifle firing bee-like cartridges, but it's essentially a Flintstones or Jeffersons-like mapping of suburban America onto an alien landscape.
That said, Earthmen behaving exactly as they did back on Earth, and trying to remake Mars in the image of Smalltown, America, was no doubt part of the point. The Martian Chronicles
shows Earthmen ruining everything, like they always do, Mars being no exception.
This is a classic that deserves a good read, and there is a timeless quality about it, but there's also a datedness in Bradbury's characterization, an ability to imagine and illustrate themes beautifully but not characters, all of whom are as stereotypical and whitebread as those you'd have found on TV at the time of the book's writing.
3.5 stars for superior prose and imagination and vision, but dated tropes and characters who are simply mouths to voice ideas.