Tuesday, 12 August 2014

Book Review: The Martian Chronicles

The Martian Chronicles
Ray Bradbury
Paperback, 2013 edition

Ray Bradbury is one of the old guard of Science Fiction that I had never got around to reading. Deciding to remedy this situation I thought I'd give The Martian Chronicles a go, as it is consistently mentioned as a must-read of the science fiction genre. I was expecting an old fashioned science fiction story, considering it's from 1950. It turns out I massively underestimated how incredibly old fashioned it would be.

The book is not actually a novel; instead it's made up of a series of short stories and vignettes, based on Mars throughout the time humans become involved with it. Mars has an atmosphere, plants and cities just like Earth, and the aliens who live there are remarkably similar to 1950s stereotype WASP Americans. Through the years man visits Mars many times, and eventually settles on the planet, while Earth ravages itself in war. Some of these early stories are quite funny; one story has the visitors to Mars from Earth being institutionalised in an insane asylum by the Martians, as they're convinced these are actually fellow Martians suffering from a telepathic delusion. Whether the comedy is intended is a matter of debate but it was hard not to be amused by the mundaneness of the interactions between man and alien.

The tone shifts as each story progresses. For a writer who was so against cynicism, it's surprising how doom-laden The Martian Chronicles becomes as it progresses. Let's just say things do not turn out well for Martian or Man.

You may have noticed the term "Man" used a lot; that's because this book is very much about men and not at all about women. I think I found maybe one or two female characters in it that weren't annoying and all of them are either wives, mothers, girlfriends, daughters or sisters to male characters of more importance than them. Woman are written very much from a male perspective and in one section the characterisation of the female character is almost offensively derogatory, assessing her worth entirely on her appearance. None of this is particularly surprising when considering the book was written in 1950, but I felt that Bradbury was far more sexist in this book than say Isaac Asimov was in Foundation, published in 1951. Bradbury has more women in his story it's true, but they are all caricatures or there for the sake of a male character. It made it hard for me to enjoy this book at all, no matter how much I told myself it's a reflection of the time.

I also thought that the science fiction bit of this science fiction story was severely lacking. I always thought of science fiction as pushing boundaries, and imagining the wildest realities. So it's disappointing to have aliens who are so very human, whose only difference is telepathy. There's no attempt on Bradbury's part to imagine what that ability would have done to shift or change their culture; they're just human clones. Likewise with the sexual politics of the piece, it's clear that Bradbury had not even considered or entertained the notion that maybe in the future, just maybe, women would be doing more than keeping men happy and having babies.

I can't say I enjoyed The Martian Chronicles and it's not because of how old or out of date it is. I've read other works from the same decade and loved them (Foundation being a good example) but here the science fiction is flimsy, unexciting and ultimately left me cold. The characters are sometimes interesting, but too often turn into stereotypes. There is something childish about the stories, with the best ones being the most simplistic or narrow in scope. This will either endear or alienate, and I think I mostly fall under the latter. It will be a test of time to see if I bother to pick up another Bradbury book, but based on this one I doubt it.

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