I’ve always considered myself a fan of classic Sci-Fi. I love Orson Scott Card, Isaac Asimov, Philip K. Dick, Kim Stanley Robinson, Carl Sagan. Though I admit to having never read any Octavia Butler (sorry, her books look weird!), I feel that I’ve read a good chunk of the well-known authors. But I’ve never been a fan of Ray Bradbury’s.
Fahrenheit 451 is just … not for me. But I thought that this year I would give The Martian Chronicles a try to see what I thought. While I liked it better than Fahrenheit, I discovered that a FANTASTIC story was not enough to help me overcome my distaste for the way Bradbury writes. It’s not bad, it’s just not what I enjoy. But as I was reading, I really noticed a lot of the things that make classic sci-fi so entertaining, and I thought I would share my thoughts with you all.
Seeing their predictions of the future is fun.
This is always one of my favorite things about reading classic sci-fi. It’s really entertaining to see what they got right and what they got wrong. One of the main things that is nearly always wrong is the timeline. In The Martian Chronicles Bradbury has people settling Mars by 1999. Haha, Hank and John Green would be tickled. Instead, we’re sitting here on 2020 hoping beyond hope that our next robot makes it safely to Mars.
The technology is always so hit and miss too. Like in this book, they have the capability of getting to Mars, within a few short months no less!, but they haven’t developed any means of communicating with Earth once they get there. I don’t know, that’s just really fun for me, to see how their predictions held up.
They were great at imagining “what if?”
The genre was originally called “Speculative Fiction”, and still is by the people seriously reading/studying it. This is because good science fiction or fantasy speculates, what if? Bradbury knew there probably weren’t people on Mars, but he wrote a book that asks, what if there were? The answer to that question as it plays out in the book is a fascinating blend of guesswork, science, and predictions. Together they all make what I think of as the speculative element of Sci-Fi. What will happen to people when they get there? How will they cope? What about the people left behind on Earth? Bradbury doesn’t have a definite answer, but he explores what could happen based on what he knows about people. (Spoiler alert: People are still jerks on Mars.)
Why were they so sure aliens would look like people?
It seems like when you read older science fiction the aliens are almost always humanoid. In The Martian Chronicles they look more or less like people, but they’re taller, bronze skinned, have gold eyes, and have six fingers on each hand. The strangest thing about this is that in the novel Bradbury acknowledges that life can exist in environments we thought of as uninhabitable, and that life isn’t constrained by Earth’s evolutionary track. But then his aliens still look like people.
If you don’t get the gist of what I mean, picture Star Trek. Everyone is a human with a twist. Maybe they have pointy ears, or green skin, or weird face wrinkles, or are covered in fur. But they’re all clearly human-adjacent. Why is that?
The classics seamlessly integrate social commentary.
One of the hallmarks of the Speculative Fiction genre is that it used the future as a platform for discussing what was happening now. Or, at least, now in 1948… Good science fiction still does this. But what really stood out to me when reading The Martian Chronicles was how this is really worked in to every element of the novel. It’s both subtle and crystal clear. You can’t not notice what Bradbury has to say about our treatment of black people, but you might miss what he has to say about industrialism. Every chapter, and some of them were VERY short, had something to say about humanity. And it was all relevant, even 70 years later.
A lot of the science has been de-bunked.
I think what makes good sci-fi GREAT is when the book is still relevant even after we know they got things wrong. We know there aren’t people are Mars. We know there’s no standing water, we know we wouldn’t be able to breathe the air, we know everyone wouldn’t be able to fly their in home-made rockets. But the book still resonates. The debunked science can be a curiosity when you stop to consider it, but it doesn’t detract in any way from the story. Because the story is really about people, and we haven’t really changed much.
It’s so man-centric.
This is something that especially bothers me about Bradbury. All of his women are the picture of domestic depression. No woman ever exists in any of his stories (that I’ve read) for any reason other than to show how unsatisfying the white-picket-fence life is. No female scientists. No female astronauts. No female enemy Martians. Just wives and mothers. This is especially upsetting to me because I am happy with my domestic life. I guess I don’t have to stay home cleaning all day like the women in Bradbury’s time, so it’s not exactly the same, but still. His treatment of women has not aged well.
Most upsetting was the last man and woman on Mars. They find each other, desperate for the companionship. And the man bails because the woman is fat. And this is intended to be funny. “Get out now, before you’re stuck with her forever!” Bradbury winks at his readers. So maddening.
Are you a classic sci-fi fan? What do you love (or hate) about the genre? Let me know in the comments!