Monday, March 29, 2010

The Martian Chronicles

I have to admit, I never read Ray Bradbury's famous Martian Chronicles. I have heard that his writing style is quite good, which when coupled with sweeping philosophical themes about the future of worlds makes for some classic science fiction. I always do a little extra research for the blog and have just found out that this work was not originally written as a novel but as a series of short stories, penned over time, and set in the context of a larger framework. It was later compiled into book form and I've heard that it's the best selling sci-fi novel of all time. Science fiction novels inspire some of the coolest cover artwork, and both the longevity and popularity of this one has generated quite a few, so I uploaded some examples.

What I do remember is watching the TV mini-series with my Dad at a young age (1979) and retaining lots of haunting images of what was at the time a "major television event". They were only images, for I found it very hard to follow the stories, which is understandable given the disconnected nature of the chapters. I do remember the rather comical setup, which was a shot of the first Mars satellite landing, the Viking Lander, taking pictures of a barren Mars landscape, and the camera panning over a hill to show some Martian homes just out of the satellite's visual range. The narrator likens it to someone sending a satellite to Earth which lands in the middle of the Sahara desert and concluding the Earth is completely barren and uninhabited. This cute little intro was obviously not in the original book as Viking landed in 1976 and the book was compiled in the 1950's. It was added to make the story more convincing to the later, more informed, audience.

I'd always sensed that the TV series was a very abridged version of the original work and of far lesser quality, but it was a treat to be able to rent it again in recent years and see how much I remembered. It still had that haunting quality to it. The opening sequences that show various initial attempts by man to visit Mars and how the Martians try to deal with it are quite powerful. And the Martian appearance (no hair, silver pupils), contrasted with their calm and docile demeanor, is still quite creepy and effective.

The story lines are too numerous to recount here, so I will limit myself to general commentary. I think the one thing that really struck me about the series was how different it was from most other sci-fi stories. Again, without being able to reference the novel itself, it seems that Bradbury chooses not to deal primarily in concepts relating to science and technology, philosophy, logic, and other themes that most science fiction adopts as its primary literary topic or tool. His primary focus is human nature. He creates two very different worlds and plays with the effects they have on each other, which can sometimes be beneficial and sometimes devastating. If there are moral implications in the stories, they are not about the use of science and technology, they are about how we should treat each other, including others that we may encounter "out there", but he does not take sides either. The Martians are not portrayed as innocent victims but simply as another culture with its own flaws, virtues, and means of survival. Many of the tales simply follow an episode in the life of one person or family, while others recount significant turning points in the Earth-Martian saga. I suppose it is these things that gives the Chronicles its timeless quality even though we know that Martians do not exist. You could transplant the tales to a more distant planet and lose not a thing.

Now, I think that this kind of writing is more common in the world of sci-fi literature than in film because it just doesn't easily lend itself to screen adaptation. I am admittedly not a sci-fi literature buff and perhaps the more "hard-core" types would laugh at my sense of novelty here. So be it. At least in this case, a real science fiction novel was adapted to the screen without turning it into an action flick like was done with Asimov's I, Robot a few years back. All I can say is I hope it will happen more often in the future.

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