martian“One minute it was Ohio winter, with doors closed, windows locked, the panes blind with frost, icicles fringing every roof, children skiing on slopes, housewives lumbering like great black bears in their furs along the icy streets.”

Humans seem to always have been fascinated by the idea of life on Mars. I suppose because it’s our nearest planetary neighbour, it’s the one place we’re likely to go any time soon, since we’ve given up on the Moon (turns out it was grey and rocky). Mars has long instilled within us a sense of mystery and no matter how many times science and rationality tries to tell us that there’s probably nothing living there, we can’t help but imagine that somehow some kind of intelligent life has flourished.

Ray Bradbury, the master of science fiction, here weaves a selection of short stories that show humans trying to get to Mars. Unfortunately for us, there is already a race of Martians there, and they aren’t too impressed. The first expedition gets killed as soon as they step out of their rocket. The second are put in an insane asylum because everyone thinks they’re mad for saying they came from another planet. By the third expedition, the Martians are ready, and use their telepathic skills to lull the humans into a false sense of security and get rid of them.

But then when the fourth expedition arrives, the Martians are (mostly) gone, and now humans can arrive in full force, turning up on thousands of rockets over the next few years. We meet the man who wishes to plant trees to remind him of home, the priests who wish to introduce Christianity to the natives, the black slaves who have built rockets in secret away from the white men and now are all heading to the new planet, and we also meet the last few Martians and find out what happened to them.

The book is really a hybrid between a novel and a collection of short stories. The stories are mostly separate from one another, but occasionally there is a recurring character, or a previously mentioned concept will resurface. The stories are set between 1999 and 2026, which implies that Bradbury had a lot of faith that humanity would get to Mars by then (we hadn’t landed on the Moon when this book was written) but he also shows that in some areas perhaps he wasn’t so advanced, such as suggesting that in the early 2000s, black people were still second class citizens and had fewer rights than the whites.

His version of Mars is highly fantastical. The Martians are humanoid in shape with dark brown skin, gold eyes and six fingers, and can all project ideas telepathically and share in hallucinations, a trait that becomes important in some of the stories. A little of their lifestyle is explored, such as showing how they cook, clean and entertain themselves – it’s very domestic. However, this is also a Mars with plants and animals, rivers and strange forms of transportation. Their cities are huge and crystalline, lasting thousands of years, and they seem to have blended knowledge of science, religion and art together to create what seems to be a utopia. Until, as usual, humans turn up to ruin it.

It’s not my favourite Bradbury, but it’s highly imaginative, very visually satisfying and an interesting look at the damage humans do, with good intentions or not.

Advertisements