Famous First Words: The Martian Chronicles
Back in the mid-twentieth century, the ever-evolving category of science fiction wasn’t nearly as expansive and culturally omnipresent as it is these days. To be sure, there had been a relatively steady succession of landmark examples of the genre over the previous two hundred years or so that had been welcomed into the canon as high literature, but mass-market science fiction was still largely a pulp concern in the early years of the Cold War, with much of it reaching the public in easily digestible magazine installments. Around this time, Ray Bradbury was aggressively staking out his early career as one of the country’s most reliable dealers of serialized fiction. But he had yet to pen his first novel.
Bradbury had spent the previous decade developing his craft and national reputation. He published his first short story in a fanzine just after graduating from high school in 1938. Unable to scrape together enough money for a transition to college, he then set about establishing a rigorous regimen of self-instruction, spending several days each week at his local library and putting out four issues of his own fanzine, for which he wrote nearly all of the content under an assortment of pseudonyms. He officially started getting paid for his efforts with the printing of his first professional story in 1941 and took to writing full-time in 1943 after problems with his vision made him officially ineligible for military service. By 1947, Bradbury had a collection of his short stories released, attracting the attention of a couple of editors from Doubleday, who invited him to dinner in 1949 to discuss the diversification of his portfolio.
The meeting was nearly a bust; several ideas for a proper full-length debut were tossed around during the meal, but none seemed to hold much promise until one of the editors finally suggested the possibility of merging a selection of Bradbury’s work into something vaguely novelish for the house’s fledgling science fiction imprint. Having nothing else to pitch to his hosts, Bradbury readily obliged, sequencing some of his previously published stories from the late 1940s with a handful of new ones and bonding them all together with a mortar of brief vignette interludes. The Martian Chronicles, an improvised coalition of futurist idealism and philosophical reflection, was released the following year.
In spite of its conspicuously haphazard construction, the book was an immediate critical success, smuggled into the mainstream on the strength of Bradbury’s ambitious take on the exploration and subsequent colonization of Earth’s favored neighbor. His stories contained many of the pieces familiar to science fiction loyalists: whimsically pervasive technology, curious (if oddly minor) geological variations, even a resident alien race to act as an adversary. Those elements of the narrative were strictly utilitarian, however, existing only to provide the setting and conflict for a plotline that could have been adapted to fit any stage in the long, remorseless history of human conquest.
The book was a thematic exercise above all, focusing on the implications and consequences of space travel while dispensing with any traditional sense of responsibility for the minutiae of theoretical plausibility. Whatever questions that readers may have regarding the logistics of the story’s interplanetary commute or the physiological effect of life on Mars are calmly and defiantly brushed aside, not so much because Bradbury was uninterested in taking the time to explain himself but because those sorts of details are entirely beside the point. The clumsily converging storylines of The Martian Chronicles make no attempt to provide a feasible account of a human settlement on another planet; Bradbury instead elects for an analysis of the inevitable devastation that comes with discovery, a subject that serves as the real connection between his frequently disparate chapters.
Fitting for a novel so patently unafraid of contradiction, The Martian Chronicles has always given the impression of earning its science fiction classification by default—a suspicion corroborated by the author himself. “Science fiction is a depiction of the real,” he once said. “Fantasy is a depiction of the unreal. So Martian Chronicles is not science fiction, it’s fantasy. It couldn’t happen, you see?”