Sunday, April 14, 2013

Review: The Martian Chronicles - Ray Bradbury

Bradbury's Mars is a place of hope, dreams and metaphor - of crystal pillars and fossil seas - where a fine dust settles on the great, empty cities of a silently destroyed civilization. It is here the invaders have come to despoil and commercialize, to grow and to learn - first a trickle, then a torrent, rushing from a world with no future toward a promise of tomorrow. The Earthman conquers Mars...and then is conquered by it, lulled by dangerous lies of comfort and familiarity, and enchanted by the lingering glamour of an ancient, mysterious native race.

This collection of short stories is considered to be one of the best examples of science fiction, yet Ray Bradbury himself says that it is not science fiction but fantasy. Pretty curious, isn't it? After some deliberation I decided that it is sci-fi after all - in this bibliophile's universe fantasy has magic and while Bradbury's Martians have some nifty abilities they do not have magic. Sorry, Mr. Bradbury, but that's how you wrote them.
The book is organized as a collection of separate episodes from several decades in the future when humans applied themselves to colonizing Mars, and an attentive reader will see clear parallels with the history of the North-American continent in these stories. In some cases they couldn't be any more obvious. Chicken pox, need I say more? Some characters make multiple appearances which contributes to the cohesiveness of the book, but mostly it's episodes from lives of people who've never met, which makes the account more well-rounded than it would've been with just one or two protagonists and their limited perspectives.
My impression of the book as a whole is not too enthusiastic, although several stories made a strong impression on me. One, There Will Come Soft Rains, doesn't have any characters at all and it reminded me of the 19th century literature where so much is inferred as opposed to being clearly stated. Others, such as Night Meeting and Ylla, are incredibly full of humanity despite the fact that Martians are the key players. And one, The Off Season, left me incredulous: I simply couldn't understand why the Martians would effectively give half the planet to the guy who would destroy their heritage given the right mood. I'm still wondering if they thought his greed would keep him on the planet when everybody else left.
Another reason I liked this book was because of terribly obvious things stated in a beautiful way, making the reader think about the obvious with a fresh mind. In almost every story there was a "couldn't have said it better" moment, all because of passage like this:
We Earth Men have a talent for ruining big, beautiful things. The only reason we didn't set up hot-dog stands in the midst of the Egyptian temple of Karnak is because it was out of the way and served no large commercial purpose.
This particular passage reflects a common theme for the collection and by the end of the book I had a deep sense of regret when it comes to the destructive nature of humanity because after all it is true, we'll ruin anything with no regard for its history and value beyond the obvious as long as it suits our profit-hungry nature. A sad state of affairs, really, especially if you consider that when all's said and done this book is about humanity, Mars is just an unreal enough place to tell the truth without riling up the masses.
I would have liked The Martian Chronicles a lot more if the stories weren't so obviously deliberately polished, which, strange as it is, is my only real complaint about the book. All the clever turns of phrase and the unexpected similes were great individually but when considered together made it impossible for me to lose myself in most of the stories: I was simply too busy noticing all the cleverness. Bradbury's works are highly esteemed in the field of science fiction and I would recommend this book, especially if the said friend is exploring sci-fi literature.

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