Free Study Guide: The Martian Chronicles by Ray Bradbury

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From "Rocket Summer":

The rocket lay on the launching field, blowing out pink clouds of fire and oven heat. The rocket stood in the cold winter morning, making summer with every breath of its mighty exhausts. The rocket made climates, and summer lay for a brief moment upon the land... (2)

The opening story of the collection lays out the fearsome power of the rocket - as a symbol of change and the power of technology, it is able to perform miraculous feats and change the way people understand their world. Notice also how the rocket is personified, made to seem like a beast that breathes fire - that is, a dragon. It is something to be feared, as well as respected.

From "The Third Expedition":

"I dare say there's lots on every planet that'll show you God's infinite ways." (41)

This line of homespun wisdom is an apt description of Bradbury’s philosophy: that we can find surprises and mysteries in the most unexpected and mundane of places, all of which points to a higher level of order that we only begin to suspect exists in our lives.

From "- and the Moon Be Still as Bright"

Chicken pox, God, chickenpox, think of it! A race builds itself for a million years, refines itself, erects cities like those out there, does everything it can to give itself respect and beauty, and then it dies. Part of it dies slowly, in its own time, before our age, with dignity. But the rest! Does the rest of Mars die of a disease with a fine name or a terrifying name or a majestic name? No, in the name of all that's holy, it has to be chicken pox, a child's disease, a disease that doesn't even kill children on Earth! It's not right and it's not fair. It's like saying the Greeks died of mumps, or the proud Romans died on their beautiful hills of athlete's foot! If only we'd given the Martians time to arrange their death robes, lie down, look fit, and think up some other excuse for dying. It can't be a dirty, silly thing like chicken pox. It doesn't fit the architecture; it doesn't fit this entire world! (51)

This internal monologue of Jeff Spender takes a historical perspective on the death of the Martian race, seeing the absurdity in the way they died - much the same way smallpox helped destroy the Native Americans when Europeans first arrived to colonize the New World.

"You think not? 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." (54)

This statement by Spender not only points out the way Earthians have placed commerce over nobler values - calling it a "talent" to emphasize his sarcasm - it also foreshadows the hot dog stand Sam Parkhill will set up years later in "The Off Season".

"Did you notice the peculiar quiet of the men, Spender, until Biggs forced them to get happy? They looked pretty humble and frightened. Looking at all this, we know we're not so hot; we're kids in rompers, shouting with our play rockets and atoms, loud and alive. But one day Earth will be as Mars is today. This will sober us. It's an object lesson in civilizations. We'll learn from Mars." (55)

Here, Wilder finds the significance of the initial quiet of his men: their voyage to Mars has given them a sense of perspective on their place in the universe, infinitesimal as it may be. The comparison to children foreshadows the way actual Earth children will desecrate the bones of Martians in "The Musicians", just as greedy colonizers will do whatever they can for profit. The irony is that Earthians learn too little too late the lesson from Mars and the Martians, destroying their own planet in a conflagration of atomic war - and in doing so, returning Earth (and the Earthians on Mars) back to square one in the march of civilization.

From "The Locusts"

The rockets set the bony meadows afire, turned rock to lava, turned wood to charcoal, transmitted water to steam, made sand and silica into green glass which lay like shattered mirrors reflecting the invasion, all about. The rockets came like drums, beating in the night. The rockets came like locusts, swarming and settling in blooms of rosy smoke. And from the rockets ran men with hammers in their hands to beat the strange world into a shape that was familiar to the eye, to bludgeon away all the strangeness, their mouths fringed with nails so they resembled steel-toothed carnivores, spitting them into their swift hands as they hammered up frame cottages and scuttled over roofs with shingles to blot out the eerie stars, and fit green shades to pull against the night. And when the carpenters had hurried on, the women came in with flowerpots and chintz and pans and set up a kitchen clamor to cover the silence that Mars made waiting outside the door and the shaded window. (78)

This paragraph from one of the bridge pieces continues the thread started from the very beginning of the book: the rockets are described in terms of their fearsome ability to change their surroundings - but now it isn’t a small town on Earth, rather the rugged landscape of an untamed Mars. The ability to mold one’s environment is itself a fearsome power, and one wielded not only by rockets: carpenters and builders are just as able, and they do so to ward away the strangeness of their new surroundings, to make themselves more comfortable in a place that offers no comfort. The imagery of carpenters with nails as teeth adds a sense of menace, a threat to Mars and Martian culture, that is part of Bradbury’s criticism of the colonizing process. This is, in effect, the basic story of the frontier: the threat of the colonizers on pristine territories, the demand to make familiar something which is unknown but waiting to be claimed.

From "Night Meeting":

"Who wants to see the Future, who ever does? A man can face the Past, but to think - the pillars crumbled, you say? And the sea empty, and the canals dry, and the maidens dead, and the flowers withered?" The Martian was silent, but then he looked ahead. "But there they are. I see them. Isn't that enough for me? They wait for me now, no matter what you say." (86)

Muhe Ca reasons out the problem of his disagreement with Tomas Gomez: given a wide enough perspective, the future can be a reminder of one’s mortality, and the mortality of civilization. The hope of progress gives way eventually to the demise of all that one knows. Muhe Ca then counters this with what his senses are telling him immediately: that he is alive, and that life has much to offer him. That is ultimately all he needs to continue his life without feeling crippled at the cosmic ephemerality of one life, one people. It is, perhaps, the most important aspect of self-awareness: we may know there is much more beyond what we experience, beyond what we can imagine, but we shouldn’t let it limit the enjoyment gained from being alive here-and-now. To do so would be to surrender and to render one’s life moot.

From "The Musicians"

Behind him would race six others, and the first boy there would be the Musician, playing the white xylophone bones beneath the outer covering of black flakes. A great skull would roll to view, like a snowball; they shouted! Ribs, like spider legs, plangent as a dull harp, and then the black flakes of mortality blowing all about them in their scuffling dance; the boys pushed and heaved and fell in the leaves, in the death that had turned the dead to flakes and dryness, into a fame played by boys whose stomachs gurgled with orange pop. (89)

There is something at once poetic and horrific in this description of the boys who play with the corpses of the dead Martians. Poetic in that it shows how beauty and joy can be found in the most unexpected places, given the right perspective and imagination. Horrific in that we are paying witness to the desecration of bodies of people who should be respected, that lives should not be dismissed so lightly. As mentioned before, this creates a tension in Bradbury’s work between the nostalgia of childhood and the criticism of the colonizing process: the boys may not be aware of the significance of their actions, but does that necessarily excuse it? Doesn’t such callousness carry beyond childhood, desensitizing and encouraging further acts of aggression such as the reckless colonizing of territories and the destruction of whole races?

From "Usher II"

"Every men, they said, must face reality. Must face the Here and Now! Everything that was not so must go. All the beautiful literary lies and flights of fancy must be shot in mid-air. So they lined them up against a library wall one Sunday morning thirty years ago in 1975; they lined them up, St. Nicholas and the Headless Horseman and Snow White and Rumpelstiltskin and Mother Goose - oh, what a wailing! - and shot them down, and burned the paper castles and the fairy frogs and old kings and the people who lived happily ever after (for of course it was a fact that nobody lived happily ever after!), and Once Upon A Time became No More!" (106)

Stendahl recalls the slow march of censorship that led to the Great Fire of 1975, how rational thinking was considered the only acceptable form of thinking and imagination became something fearful by governments. The vivid image of figures from childhood literature being lined up against a wall to be shot is interesting, evoking a sense of warfare and oppression. Notice also the colorful language and the use of capitalization to create a kind of agitated mood in Stendahl’s monologue, a theatrical flourish that is in keeping with his elaborate plans for Usher II itself.

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The Martian Chronicles by Ray Bradbury: Free Summary

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