Fahrenheit 451 turned up in my own ninth grade English class, which as an honors course in a (still public) high school was much sturdier and steadier in its educational benefits than the class the year before. This was the class where we learned to write proper academic essays. I am sure that Fahrenheit 451 taught us a lot about genre, theme, and method, and that it was taught well. I am sure that the subjects of information and technology, of discourse and censorship, of active leisure and passive entertainment, did not escape us. (These themes do recur through Bradbury’s fictional landscapes, as well as his own commentary.)
But while I will not detract from this novel’s quality, I do remember it as quite a dim book, sort of black and gray and atmosphere and tone. It’s far from a bleak story—it’s frightening but uplifting, in that sense characteristic of Bradbury in general. There’s just a whole wide world of color to be had in his other works, and it’s a shame that so many seem to have missed out on it so far.
A series of linked short stories, The Martian Chronicles follows the arc of Earth colonists’ overthrow and replacement of the established humanoid race on our nearest neighboring planet. The Chronicles cover a wide and varied range of characters, Earthmen and Martians alike, in an equally wide range of conflicts and dramas, individual tinted by a spectrum of themes and tones. To keep vague and avoid spoilers: A Martian woman tries futilely to warn her friends and family of the encroachers’ arrival; early rocketeers think they’ve found acceptance among the Martian community, only to discover with horror the true state of things (“But you’re not thirsty,” one boy in my eighth grade class quoted, with creepy flair, to another—“Mars is Heaven”); two of the last people on the planet are kept in isolation by their own self-absorption, hers broadly comic, his tragic and subtle; refugees from a nuked Earth come with hope to repopulate a beautiful, abandoned city on Mars.
This is a fantastical setting, no question. Bradbury’s Mars, here and in other stories, is a vivid and fascinating imaginary world, prime ground to play out speculative scenarios in which we still clearly see ourselves. As a whole work, it’s perhaps more correctly defined as fantasy than science fiction, but the questions of the peril and limits of technology is never far from the reader’s mind. It is the ultimately the disregard of potential limits that shatters both of the planets we have come throughout the stories to love and understand.
But like so much else of what Bradbury wrote, which takes us to a host of other similarly vibrant worlds, planets, and societies, some explicitly our own, The Martian Chronicles overall emits a strong sense of something beyond its own narrative scope.
It’s something that can survive any given horror. (In the novel Something Wicked This Way Comes, a father and son bond together to save a friend from a thoroughly stunning nightmare of evil). It’s something that’s stronger and bigger than we are. (No one good survives a Bradbury story without some degree of self-awareness, of humility.) It’s something that nothing we, as humans, could create would be able to destroy. (Comments a book-hiding hero of Fahrenheit 451, about a tiny community of people like himself, “No bomb will ever touch that town.”) There’s a sense that there’s something better available, as for the humble families who return to Mars, if we know where to look for it. And it’s precisely fiction like Bradbury’s that gives us a map.
In short, his fiction commits to the challenge that is in some degree common to all readers. It takes our attention, and it makes us be attentive.
And if a book like The Martian Chronicles captures the imaginations of the most difficult readers, the eighth grade English students who are very much done with being in eighth grade, then it’s something worth checking out.
Have a good evening. Share, if you’d like, your own thoughts and recommendations.
And please get to the library.