Thursday, April 02, 2020

Lockdown Choices - Issue #2: The Martian Chronicles

This is the second in a new series of posts, my Lockdown Choices, where I seek to entertain you while in coronavirus-isolation, and remind you of Bradbury's great works in this, his centenary year.

In these posts, I cover each of Ray Bradbury's books, say something about the contents, then pick the best stories and adaptations.

Lockdown Choice #2: The Martian Chronicles


First edition, Doubleday 1950

The Book

The Martian Chronicles was Ray Bradbury's first book from a mainstream publisher, a collection of linked science fiction and fantasy tales published by Doubleday in 1950.  Many of the stories had previously been published in magazines ranging from Thrilling Wonder Stories to Mademoiselle. But there was also a lot of new material, mostly in linking stories and passages crafted to join the disjointed tales together. The result is sometimes called a novel, and sometimes called a short story collection. The label "fix-up" is also sometimes applied: this term from the science fiction field refers to a work originally published in sections in pulp magazines, but then stitched together as a novel for book publication. The best description, although it's a bit of a mouthful, is the term Eller and Touponce use: "novelised story-cycle".

Bradbury often told the tale of how this novel/collection/fix-up/novelised story-cycle came to be. He met with editor Walter Bradbury (no relation), who suggested to Ray that he could take some of his disparate Mars stories and weave them into a novel. In fact, Ray already had the idea of collecting his Mars stories as far back as 1948, when he wrote some notes under the title "The Martian Chronicles, a book of short stories".But perhaps it was Walter Bradbury's suggestion which gave him "permission" to link the stories together.

In this first major publication, Bradbury shows his influences quite clearly. Here you will find some remarkably spare and clear writing, reflecting the influence of Hemingway. In the "chronicling" approach with its explanatory and linking chapters you will find the influence of Steinbeck's The Grapes of Wrath. (Remember how Steinbeck alternates between his fictional narrative and his more journalistic interstitial chapters?) And in the stories themselves, with their quirky character portrayals, you will see the influence of Sherwood Anderson's Winesburg, Ohio. All of these literary influences, of course, sit alongside the tropes of science fiction, since Bradbury's Mars is an extension of the common-coin concepts of Mars which Ray knew from his childhood reading of Edgar Rice Burroughs.

Ah yes, science fiction.

That's a problem with Bradbury. And it was a problem for Bradbury.

The first problem is that Bradbury uses the backdrop of Mars, but it's not at all a scientific backdrop. It's based on Burroughs, who based it on the work of astronomer Percival Lowell... whose work was discredited the moment it was first published. By 1950, when real rockets had been developed, Bradbury's presentation of Mars was decidedly quaint. He caught a lot of flak over the years for writing something so unscientific under the guise of science fiction.

Which leads me to the second problem. Bradbury knew this wasn't science fiction. He said it was fantasy. Bradbury's personal definition of science fiction was that it had to be  possible. And since The Martian Chronicles is set on a Mars that doesn't really exist, every word of the book was, in his mind, pure fantasy. And yet...

Doubleday launches a new line of science fiction books, much to the annoyance of
the science fiction author who argued that this book was not SF.

...right there, on the cover of the book, was this nifty new logo that Doubleday had devised. They were marketing this book, Bradbury's breakthrough into mainstream hardcover publication, as something it wasn't.

Bradbury fought it, but couldn't win. Doubleday knew that science fiction was going to become a big genre in the 1950s, and they were determined to grab a piece of that particular pie, and hadn't they just signed this Bradbury guy who was being celebrated as one of the most creative of those science fiction pulp writers?

Shortly after the Doubleday edition appeared, there was a British edition, which had a more poetic (but also more obscure) title: The Silver Locusts. This variant title continued to be used for all British editions right up until 1980, when The Martian Chronicles was made into a TV miniseries. The opportunity for a bit of cross-marketing got the better of publisher Granada, and The Silver Locusts  quietly became The Martian Chronicles on British shores. And we've never looked back.

Spot the difference... The UK had always had a repackaged version of the book, titled The Silver Locusts.Until the TV miniseries, when lucrative tie-in opportunities arose. Granada/Panther paperback editions, 1979/1980.

The Silver Locusts also had some variation in the content, and this is where Bradbury's book reveals itself as really being a short story collection, rather than a novel. The British first edition from Hart-Davis removes "Usher II" and replaces it with "The Fire Balloons". This was reportedly at Bradbury's request, and reflected a change he would have made to the Doubleday edition if he had had the opportunity before it went to press.

Over the years, The Martian Chronicles has become something of an unstable text, since there have been many additions and removals, most of them originating with Bradbury himself. "The Wilderness" slips its way in, giving a much needed role to some female characters (which Chronicles is otherwise short of). And slipping its way out: "Way in the Middle of the Air", a remarkable story in which American black people decide, en masse, to abandon Earth once and for all, and to start over on Mars. There are elements of this story which foreshadow the civil rights movement which would come in the 1960s; it was really ahead of its time, but also rapidly came to look outdated, prompting Bradbury to remove it from the book.

And speaking of time, you will find that The Martian Chronicles takes place in different time periods depending on which edition you have. All the chapters have dates attached to them - running from February 1999 to October 2026 in the first edition, but shifted to January 2030 to October 2057 in late twentieth-century editions! As the book is fantasy, Bradbury felt no need to update any of the technology, but he did feel the need to keep the story forever in the future, just out of reach.

The Stories

If The Martian Chronicles truly were a novel, it would be next to impossible to choose "stories" from it. But it isn't. (As Ray said, it's a "half-cousin to a novel".)

My personal picks from The Martian Chronicles are these:

"Rocket Summer" - strictly speaking not a story, but one of the bits of linking material Ray crafted for the book, "Rocket Summer" is one of Bradbury's best pieces of prose poetry. From the opening single-sentence paragraph, you know you're in for a poetic ride in this book. It's "Ohio winter", until the rocket fires up in paragraph 2:

And then a long wave of warmth crossed the small town. A flooding sea of hot air; it seemed as if someone had left a bakery door open. The heat pulsed among the cottages and bushes and children. The icicles dropped, shattering, to melt. The doors flew open. The windows flew up. The children worked off their wool clothes. The housewives shed their bear disguises. The snow dissolved and showed last summer's ancient green lawns.

"- And The Moon Be Still As Bright" - a story which depicts a major turning point in the colonisation of Mars. In the stories leading up to this one, there has been a series of attempts by Earthmen (for they are all men; a sign of the times in which this was written) to conquer the red planet - but each attempt has been thwarted by the Martians. Now the fourth expedition settles in, and is shocked to find all of Mars now dead. It turns out the humans have inadvertently brought disease to Mars, and the martians are wiped out by something as simple as chicken pox.

For most of the rocketship's crew, this is a fine state of affairs, giving them free rein over a whole planet. But for one, Spender, it's a tragedy. Spender alone is able to see the great loss of martian civilisation. His empathy for the martians leads to him presenting himself as one of them. For the rest of the book we will encounter a number of other martians, all of them ethereal or ghostly. Humankind may take over the planet, but they will be forever haunted by the former civilisation they have destroyed.

"The Martian" - unlike "And the Moon..." and "The Third Expedition" (aka "Mars is Heaven!"), "The Martian" is rarely reprinted outside of this book. Take a look on the Internet Speculative Fiction Database, and you will see that "Mars is Heaven" - one of the best known short stories in the science fiction field - is endlessly anthologised, whereas "The Martian" doesn't get a look-in.

So what's so great about it? Well, it captures a true sense of loneliness. Mr and Mrs Lafarge live on Mars, and are in perpetual mourning the loss of their son, Tom. Until, one day:
"A small boy's standing in the yard and won't answer me," said the old man, trembling. "He looks like Tom!"
"Come to bed, you're dreaming,"
"But he's there; see for yourself."
 The old woman looks, but has to wave the figure away. Shortly after, in bed, she says "It's a terrible night. I feel so old."

It turns out that it is their beloved Tom. Or, actually, a martian who is able to take on the form of Tom. The martian, too, is lonely. If only the Lafarges can accept him as their son, they can all be happy.

If you've not read the story before, I won't spoil it by revealing anything further. But I do recommend you read it. You don't have to know anything else about what's going on in The Martian Chronicles; "The Martian" works perfectly well as a standalone short story.

"There Will Come Soft Rains" - another story with a title taken from a poem (the other one being "And the Moon..."). This is perfection. A science fiction story written as a prose poem. There is barely any human presence in the story, which is the whole point: back on Earth, a global nuclear war wipes everything out. In "There Will Come Soft Rains" we see the poignant decline of a fully-automated house after its owners have been killed in an atomic flash. Only Bradbury can make you feel sorry for a house ("The house tried to save itself. Doors sprang tightly shut, but the windows were broken by the heat and the wind blew and sucked upon the fire.") Ever dutiful, the robotic house chooses a poem to read, since "Mrs McClellan" doesn't answer when asked for her selection. The chosen poem is by Sara Teasdale, and provides the title for the story. The final line of the poem sums up the short story: "And Spring herself, when she awoke at dawn / Would scarcely know that we were gone."

"The Million-Year Picnic" - (SPOILER ALERT!) - a perfect ending for an astonishing book, and yet another turning point in humankind's relationship with Mars. Following the destruction of Earth, all that remains of the human race is the smattering of colonists who were unable to get back home prior to the nuclear war. In the aftermath of that destruction, one family goes off on the martian canals for a picnic, with a promise from "Dad" that they will see martians. They travel amid the ruins of the martian cities, a reminder of the destroyed cities on Earth, but there is no life there. The kids really want to see a martian. "Where are they, Dad? You promised." Dad eventually shows them:

"There they are," said Dad, and he shifted Michael on his shoulder and pointed straight down. [...]

The Martians were there - in the canal - reflected in the water. Timothy and Michael and Robert and Mom and Dad.

The Martians stared back up at them for a long, long, silent time from the rippling water...

The Adaptations

The Martian Chronicles and its constituent stories were grabbed for adaptation almost immediately: the NBC radio series Dimension X had four episodes based on parts of the book in 1950, and the appeal of the book/stories continued for decades. The most popular story for adaptation is "Mars is Heaven!" ("The Third Expedition"), probably because it is as much a horror/suspense story as it is an SF tale. Horror writer Stephen King describes how, as a child listening-in to the Dimension X adaptation, he was scared so much that he couldn't sleep (see Danse Macabre, chapter V).

Bradbury himself was very keen to get The Martian Chronicles made into a film. From the late 1950s onwards he would return again and again to drafting different screenplay versions, but they unfortunately never sold. Even as late as 2005, when Bradbury was 85 years old, he was putting together new proposals for film or TV.

But wait, I hear you cry. There was a Martian Chronicles  TV series. I saw it with my own two eyes!

Well, we don't like to talk about that...

It's true, in the late '70s, in the wake of Star Wars and Close Encounters, every studio in Hollywood was falling over itself to try to have the next hot SF property. The Martian Chronicles had a remarkably success run as a stage play around that same time in Los Angeles. And so was born the idea of adapting The Martian Chronicles for TV. Which Ray had been banging on about for years, but would anyone listen?

Flyer for the 1977 Colony Theater stage production in Los Angeles, 1977.
In theory, it should have been great. It had a respectful script from Richard Matheson, one of the most successful genre screenwriters (The Twilight Zone, The Night Stalker, Duel). And it had Michael Anderson directing (1984, Logan's Run). But alas, Anderson phoned it in, and the special effects were made out of plastic bottles and cornflake packets. Bradbury wasn't the only one to notice that the whole miniseries was boring. Unfortunately, he said it during a press conference, and got chastised by the studio's legal department.

About a decade later Bradbury tried to "do it right". He got the rights back to all the stories, and began adapting them for his TV series The Ray Bradbury Theatre. The budget wasn't good, but the production team did the best they could, turning out some respectable episodes in "The Earthmen" and "The Long Years".

Every now and again, we hear that The Martian Chronicles is going into production again, but I think ultimately it will never be done well. The book is too fragmented to make into a coherent movie, and although a TV series would probably work best, I fear that viewers today expect season-long arcs, not episodes with different casts every week (Black Mirror notwithstanding).

So forget TV and film, and consider radio: Colonial Radio Theatre did an excellent job with the whole of the Chronicles nearly ten years ago.

Find Out More...

  • Find out more about The Martian Chronicles on my page about the book, here.
  • Learn more about the Colonial Radio Theatre dramatisation of The Martian Chronicles in my review of the production, here.
  • Learn more about Bradbury's definition of "science fiction" and "fantasy" in my blog post, here.


One of the earliest adaptations from The Martian Chronicles was the one that scared the bejeezus out of Stephen King: this Ernest Kinoy-scripted version of "Mars is Heaven!" (aka "The Third Expedition"): click here.

Next Up...

The next of my Lockdown Choices will be Bradbury's third book: The Illustrated Man.


Piet Nel said...

Thanks for this wonderful post! This is the first time anyone has explained the change (and change back) of the UK title to me.

For what it's worth, I disagree with Bradbury himself on the subject whether the book is science fiction. Science fiction differs from fantasy in that it provides a rational framework for the events, no matter how loosey-goosey the science, if any, is. Here we have rockets and space ships and the actual planet Mars. It's not Gregory Benford, but it's enough. In fantasy, you can simply say "Once upon a time, there was an elf ...", and off you go. Of course, I oversimplify, because this is not the place.

But I understand what Bradbury wanted to do. He wanted a wider audience. He didn't want to be pigeonholed or cattle-branded. (Just like Harlan Ellison, who threatened to nail your cat to the coffee table if you called him a science fiction writer—only Bradbury was nicer.)

m. d. said...

Wonderful detail and probing into the history of how his stories came to be.
This is such a fantastic blog and such a find for any lover of Bradbury's writings.

Phil said...

Thanks, I'm glad you enjoyed it!

Phil said...

Piet, actually I agree with you about the definition of science fiction. I think intelligent use of the tropes of the genre is enough for it to count as SF - and there's a thin line between "possible" and "impossible", especially if you take into account on of Clarke's laws: any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.

There is a similarity to Bradbury and Ellison's rejection of the "science fiction" label, but I think Ray was more accepting of the term. He just didn't like the label being misapplied.