Bradbury’s Martian Chronicles as a Critique of Empire

I wrote this article a few years ago, I forget for what venue…

According a Breitbart story (6 June 2008), Senator John McCain in a campaign speech indicated his interest in revivifying America’s manned space-travel ambitions.  Once robust, the space program is currently stalled in the symbiotic forms of the space shuttle, which routinely ferries astronauts to the space station, and the selfsame space station, which routinely gives the space shuttle somewhere to go.  (It is, as one says, a government project.)  As McCain told the Breitbart reporter, “he would like to see a manned mission to Mars as part of a ‘better set of priorities’ for NASA that would… engage the public.”  According to the report, “McCain said that one of his favorite books, as a child, had been Ray Bradbury’s 1950 novel The Martian Chronicles, about humans colonizing the Red Planet.”

Back in the prehistoric era of June 2007, as reporter Loretta Hidalgo Whitesides wrote, Barack Hussein Obama also weighed in on the “Final Frontier.”  Obama, whose opinion about planetary exploration, like his opinion about his former church, might well have changed, said that, if elected, he would sharply curtail NASA’s budget and activities.  Indeed, as of summer 2010, the Obama administration had canceled NASA’s “Constellation” orbital booster, undermining the plan to return American astronauts to the moon, and effectively ending any specifically American manned presence in space.

Of course, if the federal government had not, in establishing NASA, cornered the market on space and planetary exploration, the free-enterprise rocketry-entrepreneurs would probably long since have gotten us to Mars on Bradbury’s original schedule.  He had the first Mars expedition taking off from its Ohio launching pad in winter 1999.  Bradbury’s attitude towards spaceflight has always been subtle, but he accepts as a given that healthy societies express their vitality in collective projects and that, as collective projects go, space exploration counts as vital.  The Apollo Program was vital.  The moon-expeditions resembled in some respects another celestially oriented endeavor, Cathedral-building in the Thirteenth Century, and they truly managed to beat swords (ballistic missiles) into ploughshares (Saturn V rockets).  A sense that the lunar landings represented something fundamentally objective and basically decent might account for the fact that public figures over the last forty years from Spiro Agnew to George Bush II have, during the campaign season, regularly endorsed the idea of sending an exploratory team to Mars.

What politicians say about space exploration provokes me much less, finally, than the occasion that candidate “Honest John” offered, through his unlikely literary allusion, for revisiting the remarkable political subtext of The Martian Chronicles, one of the minor classics of Twentieth Century American letters.  Those unfamiliar with the book might consider making its acquaintance.  A kind of sui generis right-wing anarchist, Bradbury has shown himself a political thinker in other works, as well, the best-known being Fahrenheit 451, but The Martian Chronicles came first.

Bradbury’s story-cycle concerns the terminal crisis of humanity, betokened by the artificial change of climate in the first story, “Rocket Summer.”  Here, the take-off of the first Mars Expedition turns an Ohio winter into preternatural summer, melting the snows, banishing the clouds, and turning cold weather to hot.  Fire has many valences in The Chronicles, foremost among them the Promethean connotation of technical capacity, which its wielders might use for good or for ill depending on their moral character.  What one does with the tools he has invented always functions as a moral litmus test in Bradbury, whose skepticism about progress runs deep.  A polity might use rockets to send men across space to other worlds or it might plant them in underground silos, armed with nuclear weapons, ready for mutually assured destruction.  The change of climate in “Rocket Summer” is metaphorical.  The metaphor remains necessarily ambiguous because the Martian chapter of human history, as Bradbury narrates it, has yet, at this early juncture, to play itself out.  As it obeys its destiny, it will consist in a heart-rending conflict among a number of irreconcilable forces.

The fragile, artistic Martian culture, for example, proves irreconcilable with terrestrial culture, which, even at its best, tends to act in an impetuous and ham-handed fashion.  Bradbury’s astronauts resemble the youthful, joking bomber-crews from World War Two propaganda movies; they tend to be mostly decent midwestern kids thrown out of their familiar social context by being crammed into the sputtering rocket and shot across space into utterly foreign territory.  Brash, naïve, generally well meaning, they struggle unsuccessfully to understand a novel milieu or a strange landscape.  They lack a sense of history, they lack a talent for reflection, and they suppose that everyone – even a Martian – must be just like them.  The Martians, on the other hand, while an afflicted and distorted society (commentary almost always neglects this important element in Bradbury’s narrative), live by a powerful sense of their own millennial history running back to an equivalent of the Homeric age.  Therefore the keenest Martians understand precisely what a calamity the advent of the earthmen likely portends.  They do away with the first three expeditions in a sequence of necessary but tragic encounters.  Readers cannot but sympathize with the defenders even as they feel pity for the hapless rocket men.  Before long, however, chicken pox infects the planet, brought inadvertently by the explorers; the Martian race dies off swiftly and, it seems, completely.  (Bradbury skillfully leaves the question of a remnant unresolved.)  When Bradbury’s Fourth Expedition arrives, its members confront a cemetery world.

Bradbury tells the story of the Fourth Expedition in the most extended of the short narratives that constitute The Chronicles, “And the Moon be still as Bright,” which takes its title from a poem by Byron.  This story introduces the only two recurring characters in the cycle, Captain Wilder and Sam Parkhill.  Perceptive and civilized, Wilder remains committed to his mission even while he privately deplores the gaucheries of his men; a kind of latter-day Jute or Saxon, Parkhill embodies the traits of insouciant vandalism and proletarian cunning.  At the center of the story, Bradbury positions his most poignant Chronicles character, Jeff Spender; he is a sensitive soul but petulant and misguided.  In a paroxysm of deluded identification, Spender begins to see himself as the anointed justice-seeker of the victimized race.

When the vulgar and gruesome Parkhill finds a deserted Martian “Chess City,” as Bradbury calls it, alongside a straight blue canal and shatters its delicate glassine architecture in the name of exercise for his rifle-skills, Wilder disciplines him severely.  He also disciplines Spender, with whom he sympathizes, for giving Parkhill a black eye.  Wilder discerns, at least as deeply as does Spender, the enormity of what has come to pass on the Red Planet.  Quite as much as Spender does, he feels the irony and pathos of a world whose immensely old, exquisite civilization has succumbed to a disease that on earth no longer even kills children.  Holding judgment on the crew belongs by right, however, to the ranking officer, not to self-appointed subaltern ire.  Captain Wilder stands for the principle of order while Parkhill and Spender, each in his own way, stand for disorder.  Later, the gross behavior of the crew, for which Parkhill’s drunken delinquency sadly sets the tone, so incenses Spender in its desecrating barbarity, that he (as it were) goes native, taking to the hills AWOL, only returning to avenge the now extinct Martians by trying to assassinate the violators of the dead paradise one by one.  Wilder and a posse corner Spender in the hills.  Before Spender forces the captain to kill him, they have the conversation that lies at the heart of Bradbury’s moral vision.

Spender tells Wilder what they both already know.  Morally and esthetically, even in its mute ruins, the dead Martian society shames the bureaucratic-managerial society that has undertaken planetary exploration and launched an imperial enterprise.  Parkhill’s callous vandalism suggests in microcosm the massive crassness that the human advent appears ready to perpetrate, as it reaches the stage of full colonization.  Spender does not know about the decadence of the last Martians, but in the main, as Bradbury permits, he has made an accurate assessment.  He argues that the Martians knew how to balance the spiritual with the material, the cultural with the natural, and the beautiful with the necessary.  Wilder agrees that after a century of Darwinism and Freudianism, and every other mixed-up “ism,” Western civilization has lapsed into a phase of destructive mania, cut off from its roots.  He promises to do what he can to preserve Mars against the aggressive despoliations that he knows to lie in the offing, but he also accuses Spender of having become a fanatic, one who abandons morality in the name of upholding moral integrity.  Given its concern with the relation of polity to place, one might justly describe The Martian Chronicles as an early environmentalist novel, but it is by no means an ideologically environmentalist novel.  Bradbury dislikes ideologues of all stripes, even (or especially) the ones who love his beloved Martians in a distorted way.  It is ideology, as a type of spiritual pollution, rather than environmentalism as such that supplies Bradbury’s salient theme.

It happens more or less as the vatic but demented Spender has predicted.  Mars becomes a planetary version of the San Fernando Valley in the aftermath of World War Two, vulgarized, commercialized, uglified, and endlessly subdivided.  Back on earth, a politically correct dictatorship has triumphed in the West that anticipates the totalitarian state in Fahrenheit 451.  In the story called “Usher II,” one of the governmental agencies of the puritanical regime bears the ominous name of the Office of Moral Climates, a back-reference to the change of climate in the first story.  The Office of Moral Climates polices society, on Mars as well as on earth, to implement the regime’s implacable hostility to anything dissentient from its mandatory utilitarianism-materialism.  An eccentric millionaire has taken his fortune to Mars to build a replica of the grim manse from Poe’s eponymous story.  The Moral Climates people disapprove of the undertaking, disapprove of Poe, and disapprove of anything imaginative or spiritual.  They fear freedom of mind whether as poetry or prophecy.  Bradbury understands that censorious and therapeutic polities invariably, in cutting themselves off from the humane archive, from established tradition, stultify and doom themselves.  History-less people forfeit their capacity for rational anticipation.  Since the investigator from Moral Climates has never read Poe, he falls into the millionaire’s lethal Poe-esque trap.

Despite the chivalry of a few, including Wilder, Mars succumbs to imported lock-step conformism and the cheapening of civilization.  Bradbury depicts a kind of tawdry restlessness overspreading the colonial territory, petty in its concerns and contemptuous of the past that it has displaced.  When war breaks out on earth, the colonists leave their new world en masse to indulge in the perverse ecstasy of participating in racial suicide by full nuclear exchange.  Only a few people remain on Mars and only a few escape from earth at the end.  The final story, “The Million-Year Picnic,” follows the arrival of one refugee-family on the now abandoned world.  By making readers privy to the thoughts of the father, Bradbury permits them to know that, just before the end, a few non-conformist families conspired to flee the maddened earth to make a new life on the deserted ex-colony.  This family with two sons awaits the imminent arrival of another with daughters (three, just to complicate things), so as to resume the continuity of life.  The father, fearing that survivors of the fanatical government might try to establish fierce continuity of their own in the only existing asylum, gathers his wife and children around a bonfire and ritually feeds into the flames every official document forced on him in a lifetime by the bullying regime.  Passports, tax returns, and census-forms – all go into the pyre.  Anything that might identify them must vanish.  Dad also blows up the rocket, making it look like a crash, to throw police-types, should they show up, off his trail.

Once they have succeeded in liberating themselves into Bradbury’s minimal anarchic utopia, they motor down a canal in a convenient launch.  Dad has promised the boys that they will see Martians.  Looking over the gunwales into the water, they confront their own reflections.  In Bradbury’s image, and in the Hegelian Synthesis that brings the events of The Chronicles to their conclusion, it is not a set of human faces, but rather of Martian faces, that stares back.

In my graduate-school days in the 1980s, one of the professors liked to say (he had a practiced set-lecture about it) that pastoral new beginnings, the Adamic reversion, were quintessential to American poetics.  Possibly The Martian Chronicles affirms the professorial assertion.  Bradbury’s economical masterpiece remains as elegiac of republican virtues – Greek, Roman, Hanseatic, or North American – as it was when it began its long life in print nearly sixty years ago.  In The Martian Chronicles Bradbury writes no triumphal ode to national adventures but rather a cautionary tale.  What Senator McCain has perhaps forgotten from his reading of the novel contemporary readers disaffected from the policies of the modern state might find stimulating to their meditations.  Bradbury never stands on a soapbox, because he has no soapy “ism” to purvey, but his quiet prophecies penetrate deeply.  They disturb even as they delight.

3 thoughts on “Bradbury’s Martian Chronicles as a Critique of Empire

  1. The purpose of my essay is to commemorate Ray Bradbury, a man of vision and decency, as fine a literary artist as America produced in the second half of the last century. I have exercised my editorial option to delete the comments thus far, including my responses to Tarl. My cause is that Tarl seems unaware of the canons of behavior governing a public eulogy and is otherwise unappreciative of the solemnity in Bradbury’s passing at age ninety-one. Unless the other editors override my decision, I will continue in firm vigilance over the relevancy of remarks.

  2. Thank you for sharing that. I enjoyed Martian Chronicles when I was a teenager, but it’s time for me to revisit this classic.

  3. The Martian Chronicles is a book with many levels. Teenagers can read it (you did and I did), but it bears re-visitation many times, always revealing new facets and new meanings. Best to you. TFB

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