Conceptual Fiction is a regular feature, contributed by Ted Gioia, focusing on major works of fantasy, science fiction, magical realism and alternate history. These books are celebrated in recognition that literary experimentation with ways of conceptualizing reality has been as important as experimentation with language in creating fiction of lasting value. Dismissing these books as genre or escapist works has created a blind-spot in literary studies that this feature aims, in some small part, to rectify.
Countless 16-year-old boys have certainly been disappointed by this book over the years. The Martian Chronicles is not The War of the Worlds and certainly not Star Wars. There are no battles in outer space here. No alien abductions. No slimy creatures with six tentacles and three eyes. Almost all of the “action” takes place at the emotional and psychological level—the drama inside the drama so to speak.
In fact, Mars is almost inconsequential in the tales that comprise Ray Bradbury’s Chronicles. With a few minor modifications, many of them could be set on Earth with little loss in their overall impact. The author has credited Sherwood Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio (1919) as a source of inspiration for this book, and one couldn’t blame readers today for concluding that Ray Bradbury’s Mars is very much like the American Midwest of the first half of the 20th Century.
In “The Wilderness,” a 1952 story that Bradbury added to the book in 1974—he has tinkered with The Martian Chronicles quite a bit over the years—the plot unfolds in Independence, Missouri, and focuses on a woman’s nostalgic journey around her home town as she prepares to leave on a space flight to meet her future husband on Mars. Much the same story could be constructed about a couple during the time of the Pilgrims or the California Gold Rush, or even the Trojan War for that matter; and the details that “date” the tale are Midwestern, not sci-fi, in nature. Bradbury grafts an interplanetary angle on to his account, but it adds little to this sweet, wistful miniature. “Usher II,” a tale about a book lover devoted to Edgar Allan Poe who wants to get some revenge against literary censors, is very much in the spirit of Bradbury’s Farenheit 451, but the elements of the plot that tie it to Mars are (once again) superficial at best.