Every Monday this summer, Take Two has brought you great books of the Golden State as part of our summer reading series, The California Canon.
For this installment, we're bringing you something a little farther out in "The Martian Chronicles."
It doesn't even take place on this planet, yet this Sci-fi classic by longtime resident Ray Bradbury has a lot to say about L.A. in the early 1950s.
David Kipen is a book editor and founder of the Libros Schmibros lending library. You can take Bradbury out of L.A. but you can't take L.A. out of Bradbury, he says.
Finding hints of Los Angeles in the craters of Mars
Bradbury moved around. Ultimately he lived the last few decades of his life in Cheviot Hills which a local architect recently bulldozed. But he also lived quite a while in Venice. And I hear echoes of a bygone Venice in ‘The Martian Chronicles’ unmistakably and mysteriously, and I think, very enjoyably if you know what to listen for.
Bradbury binds individual stories into one, 30-year narrative
"The Martian Chronicles" has a fascinating structure. These are stories over a period of three decades in which the human presence on Mars grows, and evolves, and eventually bids fair to destroy itself. It grew out of a short story that Ray Bradbury wrote called "And the Moon Still Be as Bright." And it's about this first expedition of American astronauts to Mars. This becomes the kernel of "The Martian Chronicles." And the book develops around it in the early 1950s in a fairly interesting way. He starts writing more and more stories about Mars until it's suggested to him that wouldn't it be cool if you could make a book out of your Mars stories. And Ray creates these inter-chapters so "The Martian Chronicles" alternates between short-story-sized chapters and just one- or two-page chapters. It's in those inter-chapters which he adds in between the short stories he's already written that you get a feel for the passage of time.
Parallels between native peoples of Earth and Mars
The stories add up to something greater than the sum of their parts. They add up to this parable of what Ray experienced as an immigrant to Southern California where the only remnant left that he could readily see of the Tongva, of the Chumash, were some cave paintings up in Santa Ynez, and a lot of place names like Tujunga – like Topanga. The Native Americans were here but there weren't where Ray Bradbury grew up on Alexandria or Kenmore in Hollywood. Ray was not going to see much evidence of that. So it's this sense of a bygone civilization of which only remnants remain. Ray, as a guy coming to LA in the 1930s with his family, was only going to get these kind of ghostly hints of the people who once lived on this same land for thousands of years before. And he transmutes that into the way he presents the Martians as these people very much in sync and in sympathy with the land, and rather otherworldly, and at the same time, endangered.
An LA writer on any planet
"The Martian Chronicles," in addition to being written in Los Angeles, is in my mind, in large part about Los Angeles and what Los Angeles represents as an invented place. It's a mistake if we think of these Los Angeles novels as these really cool time capsules. That's all a lot of fun but there's also a Los Angeles sensibility. And Ray has that down to his toes. And you have only to look at the "The Martian Chronicles" which is a parable of suburbanization... and that's exactly what the astronauts are doing on Mars. They're creating this kind of mass produced, fabricated civilization on top of the bones of of a preexisting civilization.
Echoes of Cold War anxieties
Midway through "The Martian Chronicles," to get the idea that something very bad has happened back on Earth that makes going home suddenly, a much less appealing option. This is a novel written among the first years when mankind had to contemplate the possibility of its own extinction.
Bradbury uses rockets as a means to an end
When he's writing about space, he's even more writing about the play of the human mind. And so, he writes "The Martian Chronicles" completely innocent of what the Apollo Program and NASA would be up to a good ten years later.... There's mentions of rockets in every chapter and yet, it's as if rockets are just another mode of transportation. It's a tool for him. And so, space was a blank canvas for him onto which he could project all of his hopes and fears....
Quotes edited for clarity and brevity.