14 November, 2009

The Martian Chronicles,
Ray Bradbury

I've been a fan of Bradbury's work on and off for a long time. A short story he wrote about a girl on Venus struck me in 7th grade as one of the first literary pieces of science fiction I had read. Fahrenheit 451 is, of course, a classic which will never die, and arguably his greatest work (this novel is particularly interesting as Bradbury more recent activities include being a cranky old man who protests when libraries close).

Last year, my interest in literary sci-fi started again, when I picked-up out copy of The Illustrated Man, a collection of stories told in a fascinating, if dark, prose which tumbled out of Bradbury's prolific imagination. The Martian Chronicles is created along the same vein, in the author's own words, "a book of stories pretending to be a novel."

The series of 26 vignettes are a history of mankind's exploration and settlement of the Red Planet, from 1999 to 2026. A few of these episodes were published on their own as short stories in the late 1940s, and appear primarily as thought explorations for the the future of Mars from the mid-20th century perspective. When these stories were ultimately pulled together as a single narrative in 1950, Bradbury's presentation of the future is done in the classic futurism stylization of the era.

In many parts, a thinly veiled description of early friction between human explorers and the native Martians is the classic science fiction model of criticism of the present/past (i.e., Manifest Destiny) by stories of the future. Indeed, the chapter "Way in the Middle of the Air" is a direct social critique of contemporary racial attitudes in the era (to the old Confederacy's credit,South which Bradbury paints in 2003 is much worse than it actually turned out to be).

There exists a certain joy(?) is reading of the past's predicts about today. In the often-bemoaned complain of 21st century life, "where is my jetpack?" decades past has set us up for disappointment (however, let's not forget about our robot cleaner houseservants). From the lens of the futurists of the post-War period, lunar bases and cities would be mainstream by the time of my birth and Martian colonization (if not terraforming) would begin around the turn of the century. As someone with a degree in astronomy, I found myself suppressing the "aw, that's cute" ideas of 1940s planetology which had blue Martian skies, temperate weather, and flowing canals of water (not to mention that this was the Venus was said to have extensive jungles and contant rainfall); however, we always forgive, because Mr. Bradbury was, in fact, using some of the better science of his time, and focus instead on the content of the story.

Early explorations and interactions with native Martian (or Tyrr, as they call their home) peoples are... odd. One would expect our First Contact, of course, to be beyond anything within our experience. These early encounters are somewhat fanciful and bizarre, however, these give way to an eventual human dominance era, in which the drama takes on a more familiar tone (ask a Wampanoag about smallpox if you want to see an older version of the story). Once the Mars is in the hands of humankind, and exploration gives way to settlement and colonization, a darker, if cynical storyteller appears which seems more reminiscent of Fahrenheit 451, and some of the darker stories of the Bradbury canon.

What is the future always about? Today. All considering, this book did actually make me a bit hopeful, for all of the destruction and calamity predicted at the dawn at the Atomic Era-- 64 years since our greatest sin against the atom, and there have only been two cities we've annihilated in this manner. For all of the shiny, Jetsons-eqsue hopes the 1950s had for the present day, there was a bleak, hollowed-out interior of fear as the early Cold War waged more in the minds of the world than on battlefields. For all of the fears and hopes of tomorrow, we've let down many, but in our wisdom, avoided so much more.