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The Martian Chronicles | Context

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Evolution of the Novel

Between 1945 and 1950 Ray Bradbury published 15 chapters of The Martian Chronicles as stand-alone pieces in magazines. Then he decided to write 11 new stories to create the loose framework of a future history in sequential order. The Martian Chronicles is a novel comprising episodic vignettes telling the larger tale of humanity's conquest of Mars and its effect on both Martians and humans. Since its original publication in 1950, The Martian Chronicles has gone through multiple editions. Some later editions omit "June 2003: Way in the Middle of the Air" and "April 2005: Usher II" in favor of other Mars-set short stories including "The Fire Balloons" and "The Wilderness." Additionally, a 1997 edition of the novel changes all the dates in the book to 31 years later (thus 1999 becomes 2030).

Genre

In many ways The Martian Chronicles pays homage to the sensation fiction of the Victorian Era (early 1860s). Sensation fiction is characterized by use of abstract ideas without physical form to address social anxieties about current events, which gave Bradbury room to explore his contemporaries' Cold War fears. The Cold War (1947–91) was a period of political tension over the spread of communism and nuclear proliferation between Eastern and Western countries that followed World War II (1939–45).

Sensation fiction is characterized by:

  • emotion
  • scandal
  • moral characters
  • domestic settings

Bradbury also melds the realistic and the fantastic to tell a thrilling tale—a juxtaposition he owes to both sensation fiction and the early 20th-century pulp magazines he devoured as a teenager. Pulp magazines were printed on cheap paper and published genre stories that literary critics often dismissed as lurid. However, this cheaply produced format allowed writers the freedom to experiment with content, which led to the growth of the detective and science fiction genres. Bradbury imitated many of his pulp favorites in his early writing, such as American Edgar Rice Burroughs who created the Mars explorer John Carter. He also published stories for pulp magazines himself, which is where he gained renown in the field of science fiction.

Though Bradbury is chiefly considered to be a science fiction writer, his work does not stick with what is scientifically probable. Bradbury prefers to delve into "flights of fancy," as he calls them in the chapter "April 2005: Usher II." Here he uses more poetic language and literary allusion than what is typical for hard science fiction, which includes these characteristics:

  • distant or imagined settings
  • characters who are not human
  • science and technology
  • journeys or travels
  • allegory

Science and Technology

Bradbury grew up in an age of rapid technological progress in the early 20th century. As a child, he was especially fascinated by American astronomer Percival Lowell's speculations regarding life on Mars. Lowell believed that an alleged planetary system of irrigation canals on Mars was proof of an agricultural system and therefore life. Bradbury used these canals as a setting detail for The Martian Chronicles.

While Bradbury was enthusiastic about technology's ability to launch man into space, he also had his reservations about atomic energy and fears of nuclear destruction. These fears fueled The Martian Chronicles especially. Due to witnessing an automobile accident early in life, Bradbury never drove a car, and he avoided flying as well—suggesting an inherent distrust of technology that guided his life.

Postwar America and Cold War Fears

Despite being a novel about the future on another planet, The Martian Chronicles is very much a product of its time and place in post-World War II America. After the United States dropped two nuclear bombs in Nagasaki and Hiroshima in Japan to end World War II, the world had a new fear: total annihilation of Earth via atomic war. Numerous countries, including the United States chief adversary the Soviet Union, developed stockpiles of nuclear weapons that resulted in a stalemate, each side knowing the launch of their missiles would mean instant retaliation from the other side. This period of heightened world tension, called the Cold War, lasted from 1947 to the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991. The chief question of The Martian Chronicles seems to be, Could the human race survive such destruction, and not only that, but should it?

Colonization

Bradbury and his contemporaries could see the negative effects on the natives of European colonization in Asia, Africa, and the Americas from the 15th to 19th centuries. In some cases colonization led to destruction of native culture or pandemics that killed off large percentages of people. Bradbury directly references the ravages of smallpox and the violence of conquest on the Amerindians in Mexico via Spain and conquistador Hernán Cortés in the text of The Martian Chronicles. Bradbury extrapolates what would happen if Americans colonized Mars and envisions a result of near extinction for races from both planets. However, Bradbury is not wholly pessimistic about humanity's chances. He does offer glimmers of hope, if only individuals can assert their independence from moralistic societal pressure, especially in the areas of censorship and overregulation of the arts. The most enduring symbolic image of this freedom is when the character William Thomas burns his government papers from Earth at the end of The Martian Chronicles.

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