Today would have been Ray Bradbury's 99th birthday. In his honor, I've uncovered something I wrote back in 2001 about Bradbury's first two collections. I had had an ambiguous relationship to Bradbury's fiction -- I really liked Fahrenheit 451, which I read in high school, 1974 or so. But we were assigned Dandelion Wine in 8th grade English, and our teacher told us that, as young boys living in northern Illinois, we should just LOVE Dandelion Wine, because it was about a young boy living in northern Illinois. That just rubbed me the wrong way, and I read about the first 20 pages, and stopped. And still got an A on the test by listening closely to class discussions. Anyway, for whatever reason I ended up adopting the attitude of Millhouse from The Simpsons to Bradbury: "I am aware of his work." Which is, of course, unfair, because his best work was really quite wonderful, as I hope this review shows.
Rereading Ray Bradbury
In my conscientious attempt to fairly nominate stories from 1950 for the Retro Hugo, I noticed that quite a few of Ray Bradbury's stories were eligible. In fact, he published some 15 stories in 1950, many of them rather good. He also published The Martian Chronicles in 1950. The following year came The Illustrated Man, which included several of the pieces from 1950. I selected a few stories from the list of 1950 stories that I vaguely remembered as being good and put them on my list. I figured I'd reread them and decide which if any to nominate for a Retro Hugo, given that my specific memories of the stories were quite vague. I believe I read both The Martian Chronicles and The Illustrated Man back in the Golden Age, when I was 12 or 13. (I.e., about 1972-1973.) At any rate, my Bantam edition of The Illustrated Man is a 1972 printing, and I have an odd image of myself reading "The Veldt" in a junior high classroom.
So I started in, picking out the stories I'd highlighted. Then I realized I might as well read all the 1950 stories -- from which point the step to just rereading the entire books was obvious. (It also occurred to me that The Martian Chronicles is quite as eligible for "Best Novel" as, say, The Dying Earth, another collection of linked stories.)
The Martian Chronicles consists of stories published in the pulps (Planet Stories, Thrilling Wonder, etc.) and a couple of slicks (Collier's, Charm and MacLean's) between 1946 and 1950, as well as a few stories original to the book, and lots of linking material, half a page to a couple of pages in between the longer stories. The last story in the book, "The Million Year Picnic", was the first published, in the Summer 1946 Planet Stories. (It's also one of the best stories.) As far as I can tell, "The Million Year Picnic" is Bradbury's first significant story, and in my opinion little he published after the early '50s was significant either. Thus, as I see it, The Martian Chronicles, The Illustrated Man, and Fahrenheit 451 (which expands a 1951 novelette) are close to all the essential Bradbury. (I know there are advocates of Something Wicked This Way Comes, which I haven't read, and I certainly concede there are some fine later stories: i.e. "All Summer in a Day" from 1954.) Five years, maybe ten, of top rate work -- but that's more than lots of folks get.
(For the record, I'm not going to worry about spoilers in the following paragraphs.) The stories in the book are supposedly a unified account of the colonization of Mars by men from Earth, but in reality there are many inconsistencies. I doubt he wrote them (to begin with) intending them all to be one narrative. The first few stories tell of the resistance of the dying race of Martians to the coming of the Earthmen. For example, in "Ylla" the title character, a Martian female, has erotic telepathic dreams of the coming Earthmen, so her husband, jealous, kills them as soon as they land. The second expedition, in "The Earth Men", is regarded as simply insane Martians who have delusions of being from Earth, and eventually the Martian psychiatrist kills them for their own good. It's a bit strained and silly -- a lesser story. "The Third Expedition", one of the most famous stories, and a very good one, has the Martians impersonating lost parents and other loved ones of the Earth crew, luring them to a sense of safety, after which they are killed. There is no consistency, really, between these stories (except for some (possibly added for the book) references in the later stories to the lost earlier expeditions). By the fourth expedition, however, chicken pox carried by the members of the first three expeditions has almost wiped out the Martian population. "- and the Moon be Still as Bright" tells movingly of the bitter response of one sensitive human to the vulgarity of his fellow explorers. The next sequence of stories deals with the human colonists who follow. The best stories here feature encounter with the remnants of the Martians: the very best of these is "The Martian", which strikingly foreshadows the shapechangers of Gene Wolfe's The Fifth Head of Cerberus. A Martian is impelled by the yearning of a colonist couple for their dead son to take on his shape -- but when he meets other humans he shifts to the shapes of people they are looking for. I think this is one of the high points of this collection. Contrariwise, Bradbury is at his worst when he is most didactic, as in "Way In the Middle of the Air", in which all the black people in the U.S. (or at any rate the South) rather implausibly up and head for Mars (the logistics of this move are needless to say not considered). This story doesn't fit the rest of the book well at all -- I think it is better regarded as a companion to a story in The Illustrated Man, "The Other Foot", which features the white people of the Earth coming to Mars years later and begging to be allowed to work for the black Martian colonists because Earth has destroyed itself in a nuclear war.
Another story that doesn't really seem to belong in the book is "Usher II", a well-known story, indeed a pretty good one. This has Bradbury riding another of his hobbyhorses: censorship of imaginative literature. (He revisits this in "The Exiles" from The Illustrated Man, and of course in Fahrenheit 451.) In "Usher II" imaginative literature has been banned on Earth, and the Moral Climate people are coming to Mars. A couple of vengeful men who love Poe and Beirce and Lovecraft and all the rest build a replica of Poe's House of Usher and arrange a special party for a number of censorship-minded people -- with a number of treats courtesy Edgar Allan Poe's imagination. It's a neat story, but it doesn't belong in The Martian Chronicles at all.
The final set of stories deals with the postwar SFnal default assumption that a Nuclear War was inevitable. (It is really striking how absolutely that seemed to be believed, at least based on the futures depicted in stories from about 1946 to 1960.) Nuclear war breaks out on Earth, and almost the entire population of Mars returns to Earth to help with the war. (Which Bradbury seemed to find wholly obvious, and which I find ridiculous.) A couple of stories deal with people who were left behind by mistake -- "The Silent Towns" is a rather offensive story about a lonely man who finally finds the one woman who was left behind, and who is disgusted by her because she is fat and vulgar. "The Long Years" is much better, about an archaeologist and his family who were stranded on Mars for the 20 years the War went on. "There Will Come Soft Rains" is another of Bradbury's best stories: it's set on Earth, as an automated house dwindles to decay after a nuclear blast has killed its inhabitants. Finally, "The Million Year Picnic" is about a family which escapes from war-torn Earth and sets out to Mars to make a new life. It's a brilliant, moving, conclusion to the book.
I ended up pretty impressed by The Martian Chronicles as a whole. As I've said, the stories are really only tenuously linked, and rather clumsily. Regarded as a story arc, the whole thing is highly implausible, and less powerful than if regarded as simply a collection of stories that happen to deal with humans coming to Mars. (Except for "There Will Come Soft Rains", which is really purely a "Nuclear War" story and not linked to the rest of the book at all.) As with any collection, there are high and low points, but the best stories here retain their power -- "Ylla", "- and the Moon Be Still as Bright", "The Third Expedition", "Usher II", "There Will Come Soft Rains", and perhaps especially "The Martian" and "The Million Year Picnic" are really outstanding pieces. Bradbury's prose is solid, full of fine imagery, much as advertised, though while the imagery is fine the "music" of the prose, the voice, is just decent.
The Illustrated Man has an even more tenuous linking device -- the man of the title, who has "living" tattoos all over his body, tattoos which seem to predict the future. The stories collected are again pretty solid, for the most part. "The Veldt" is a famous story about a sort of virtual reality playroom which becomes too real. A couple stories are set on Mars, and could almost have been shoehorned into The Martian Chronicles. I have already mentioned "The Other Foot" as a sort of sequel to "Way in the Middle of the Air". "The Fire Balloons" is about a missionary coming to Mars and trying to minister to the strange balloonlike Martians -- but they end up ministering to him instead. "The Exiles" is another anti-censorship piece, and a fine one -- after Earth has outlawed imaginative literature, the "spirits" of the authors, people like Poe, have miraculously gathered on Mars -- but now an expedition is heading from Earth to Mars. It's a really wacky idea, but effectively handled. Another religiously oriented story is "The Man", about an expedition from Earth which arrives at an alien planet just after a very special man came. "The Fox and the Forest" is a time travel story, with a couple from the future escaping oppression by hiding in Mexico in 1938. "Marionettes, Inc." is a predictable but effective story of a man trying to cheat on his wife by fooling her with an android substitute for himself. "Kaleidoscope" is a famous and effective story about a rocket ship blowing up and the spacemen descending to the Earth's surface as meteors -- focussing on the dying thoughts of one of the men. "The City" is a nice SF horror piece about a city on an alien planet, waiting for just the right visitors. "Zero Hour" is another horror piece, about kids helping out an alien invasion. With "The Veldt" this story shares a rather dark view of children and their interaction with parents. In sum, this is a fine collection, though I'd say that The Martian Chronicles is over all the better book.
Reading over my lists of the best of Bradbury's stories, I am struck by how many of his best pieces are essentially horror stories. "The Third Expedition", "Usher II", "The Exiles", "The Veldt", "The City", "Marionettes, Inc.", "Zero Hour" -- all essentially horror, often quite spooky. A case could be made for "There Will Come Soft Rains", "No Particular Night or Morning", and "The Martian" also being called horror. I guess that isn't really a surprise, given Bradbury's reputation.