So-Called “Greats”: The Martian Chronicles

Ray Bradbury was one of the most prolific writers of speculative fiction. Over his life, he wrote many memorable stories, from Fahrenheit 451 and Something Wicked This Way Comes, to The Illustrated Man and Dandelion Wine. His works helped bring speculative fiction more into the literary mainstream and inspire countless filmmakers in various adaptations.

It’s his legacy which is what makes it so hard to select just one of his works to discuss as a “great”. I leaned on Fahrenheit 451, but then I decided to go with his debut short story collection: The Martian Chronicles. First published in 1950, The Martian Chronicles collects some of Bradbury’s many stories set on Mars and places them into a semi-connected narrative. I went with this over Fahrenheit 451 as it’s one of the most inspiring and influential of Bradbury’s “greats”. It’s a short story collection full of pre-Mariner 4 fantastical ideas of Mars and engaging narratives. Yet, has real-life science and over 70 years of better Martian tales diminished it as a “great”?

Front cover of one of the many paperback editions of The Martian Chronicles (1950)

Come along and find out why I still think it’s worthy of a “great” in this final entry of my So-Called “Greats” blog series.

Beautifully Crafted Writing with Sprawling Stories

The Martian Chronicles is more than just a collection of short stories. It’s an adventure across Mars, from exploration and colonisation, to devastation and aftermath of humanity. All of these are, as mentioned previously, intertwined together to form part of a larger narrative. This is something again seen in The Illustrated Man, published years later.

These narratives are told with such beautifully crafted writing. The writing in this book is undeniably one of the most beautiful of mid-20th century speculative fiction. It’s a style of writing that feels genuine and isn’t afraid to be itself, in contrast to many other science fiction stories of the early 20th century. Unlike those stories too, this writing has aged much like a very fine wine. It’s a narrative still told well today and doesn’t feel too much out of place with modern speculative writing styles. 

Fahrenheit 451, one of Bradbury’s other “greats” of speculative fiction.

Perhaps the strongest aspect of The Martian Chronicles is how diverse the stories really are. There are post-apocalyptic tales (‘There Will Come Soft Rains’, ‘The Million-Year Picnic’), religious pillaging (‘The Fire-Balloons’), horror (‘Usher II) and love (‘The Wilderness’). It’s part of Bradbury’s ability to tell incredible stories, all while sticking to a particular idea. All of these are tied up neatly with the aforementioned beautifully crafted writing.

The beautifully crafted writing and sprawling stories help make The Martian Chronicles an engaging read even into 2022. However, there’s something that has been rearing its ugly head into the fray since publication: real-world scientific discoveries.

Science Rears Its Ugly Head

Real-world scientific discoveries have destroyed a lot of the mystic of The Martian Chronicles. This is because it’s a short story collection from the pre-Mariner 4 era of Martian fiction. The stories are built on the old ideas of Mars, from intelligent life being present to the canals across the planet. Advances in scientific discoveries in outer space have made many of the ideas of Mars expressed in here now age like cheddar cheese.

The first blow had come in 1965, when Mariner 4 delivered the first digital images of Mars back to Earth. The images showed a desolate, cratered desert planet less habitable than originally thought. Since then, further scientific advances have disproven many of the ideas expressed in The Martian Chronicles, leaving this book to being an example of pre-Mariner 4 Martian fiction.

Despite this neglect to history, the short story collection remains one of Bradbury’s most endearing “greats”. Even with real-life scientific discoveries, this is a very-loved “great” of Martian fiction. The book help cement Bradbury in speculative fiction history, which has been further enhanced by Bradbury’s Landing, the spot on Mars where Curiosity landed in 2012. It’s also one of the few books that was selected to be placed on Martian Lander Phoenix’s time capsule, The Phoenix DVD, in 2007-08. Alongside other “greats” like H.G. Wells The War of the Worlds (1898), it now sits on the Martian surface, awaiting its discovery by future explorers. 

If you’re interested in reading more about pre-Mariner 4, check out my thoughts on my recently posted Lost Mars short story collection here.

If you like The Martian Chronicles, I recommend you check out Lost Mars.

Is It a “Great”?    

The Martian Chronicles, in my opinion, still stands as one of the “greats” of mid-20th century speculative fiction. Its beautifully crafted writing and sprawling stories continue to inspire readers, even if scientific discoveries have diminished its legacy. I still highly recommend this book, as well as Bradbury’s other “great”, Fahrenheit 451. These are books that continue to inspire and tell incredible stories, even many years later.


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