Most of The Martian Chronicles reads like a collection of short stories against a common backdrop. The book begins in the (futuristic) year 1999 with the first Earth mission to travel to Mars. The members of the first three exploratory missions are all killed by Martians for various reasons. When the fourth mission arrives, they discover that all of the Martians have died of disease caught from the humans of the previous missions. Most of the book is stories from the colonization of Mars over the next several years: the humans escaping Earth, the towns they build, their interactions with the few Martians that are left, and how different individuals and families cope with it all. In 2005, World War III starts on Earth and most of the humans leave Mars to return home and join the war effort. In the final chapters, we see the last few humans remaining on Mars, the desolate waste left on Earth, and the first of a couple of families that escaped to Mars before the final destruction of the war on Earth. The book concludes with the new family concluding that they are Martians, with hopes of rebuilding the human race.
The Martian Chronicles explores worlds and technologies which could exist and projects into the future what would happen if humans traveled to Mars. It is set in the future from when it was written, appeals to the intellect, and explores moral and social questions. It can be seen that the book is an extrapolation of the science and the politics of the 1940s, though without the year dating each chapter has it is still relevant today. Most of the book takes place on Mars, and there is a strong sense of ‘otherness’ in every aspect of this planet. The reader feels disconnected from reality and suspends disbelief. Unlike most science fiction, the actual science in the book is more of a background than anything that is actively explored. In many ways, The Martian Chronicles is more about human psychology and sociology than about science and technology. That being said, the characters are less important than the issues and atmosphere, and few characters appear in more than one chapter in the book.
When I first finished this book, I had a distinct feeling of lack of satisfaction. The short-story-like snapshots prevented much character development and so many were sad or upsetting. In living life on a new planet, there’s bound to be many tales of joy and wonder as well, so why didn’t Bradbury include some of those to even it out? However, the more I reflected on it, the more I realized that I appreciated the big picture of the book. Bradbury created a definite world and the book evoked a particular mood that I’m left savoring. The commentary about human nature and tendencies leaves one with a lot to think about. It’s the kind of book that I feel deserves to have an in-depth English literature paper written about it, analyzing the effect Bradbury creates and the commentary he makes. As one side note, the few chapters about the original Martians in the beginning were fascinating, and I would have loved to read more of those.
I would feel comfortable recommending The Martian Chronicles to any science fiction fan. Although it lacks in-depth character development, the unique story telling and commentary on human nature should also appeal to fans of literary fiction. The frequent descriptions of the barren and at times hostile planet Mars may appeal to fans of Westerns, and the world-creation may appeal to fans of fantasy.