The problem with setting your science fiction book in a definite future—in, say, 1999—is that it's kind of a bummer to get to 1999 and realize that we still haven't landed people on Mars. (Or that our cars are still firmly on the ground in 2015.)
Thing is, Ray Bradbury's The Martian Chronicles isn't really about Mars. It's about racial prejudice, colonization, the devastation of war, the struggle between men and women, and, most of all, the triumph of the human spirit. So, 1999, 2030, or 2167: it doesn't really matter. We're talking timeless literature, here.
Along with Fahrenheit 451, The Martian Chronicles is the best-known and most-loved book by Ray Bradbury. It was The Martian Chronicles that put Bradbury on the map. When this book first came out, in 1950, it was published as science fiction, a genre that didn't get much respect at the time (see "Genre" for more about that). And with a bunch of stories about people trying to explore and colonize Mars, The Martian Chronicles didn't seem poised to change that.
But The Martian Chronicles got a positive review from Christopher Isherwood, who was a Very Serious Novelist. So Bradbury went very quickly from a science fiction writer who would be read by science fiction fans and no one else to one of America's greatest short story writers.
Today, he's got multiple space objects named after him—an asteroid, a crater on the moon, a landing site on Mars. He also received big-time awards like the National Medal of Arts (2004) and a special acknowledgment from the Pulitzer Board (2007) for being so good at sci-fi (but not a Pulitzer itself—again, see "Genre" for more about that.) When he died in 2012, the President of the United States released an official statement praising his writing. Talk about an American icon!
But if Bradbury is such a great short story writer, why are we reading this novel? Well, The Martian Chronicles could be seen as either a novel or a collection of short stories.
Some of the stories in The Martian Chronicles were originally published as standalone stories during the 1940s. These stories still work on their own, and they continue to be published as stories, without any connection to the larger book.
But when Bradbury put all these stories together, the whole was greater than the sum of the parts. Instead of a disconnected series of short stories, the collection became a wide-ranging look at the best (and worst) parts of the human drive for exploration, conquest, and discovery.
Many of the "stories" here are short sketches that help transition between the longer ones. Called "interchapters," these short sketches were written specifically for this book. They're not usually about specific characters. Instead, they give us the big picture, and the story that follows focuses on one area of that big picture. The interchapters bring together previously published stories into one coherent book.
There are actually two versions of The Martian Chronicles out right now. When Bradbury and his publisher re-released the book in 1997, they "updated" it:
Because both versions are pretty common, we've covered all the stories, from both the 1950 version and the 1997 version. Just make sure you know which version you're reading.
Have you ever gotten fed up with the world? Have you ever wished you could move to a new country—or, say, a new planet—where you could start from scratch, build a new world, and leave Earth fighting and wars behind?
The Martian Chronicles isn't interested in scientific issues like, "How will travelers survive the trip to Mars?" or, "Once there, how will we breathe?" (If you want that, read Kim Stanley Robinson's The Mars Trilogy.) Instead, Ray Bradbury is interested in human issues—and specifically American ones.
But you don't have to be from the United States to read this book. Because if there's one thing that people all over the world share, it's the desire to make things better, to try again, and to do things differently this time. Every dreamer, idealist, and nonconformist in The Martian Chronicles wants the same thing.
Unfortunately, as human history and The Martian Chronicles show us, a lot of times we just end up repeating the same mistakes. But maybe, Bradbury suggests, it doesn't have to be that way.