Truth (happily) stranger than fiction

I recently finished rereading, for the first time in many years, one of my childhood favorites, Ray Bradbury’s The Martian Chronicles. I was immediately struck that the dates Bradbury imagined for his tale of human colonization of Mars are 1999-2026, setting the main action of the book in what is now today. Writing around 1950, Bradbury imagined a world fifty years hence where interplanetary travel was easy and the threat of nuclear war made Martian colonization a looming necessity. Almost musical in its rhythms, the writing is nearly timeless. But to today’s reader, there are more than a few anachronisms that sadly serve to break the spell Bradbury casts. Not least of these is his emphasis on the threat of total nuclear annihilation, which (though it still most definitely remains today) now seems almost quaint.

Yet an even more striking example is found in the chapter entitled “Way in the Middle of the Air.” In it Bradbury imagines a still segregated American South faced with a voluntary, sudden mass exodus of African Americans to the new colonies on Mars. Bradbury uses the device to examine and uncover the simultaneously hidden and vitally present role of black people and black culture in the social fabric of mid-20th Century South. It’s still a very effective critique, but what stood out most to me is not so much anything Bradbury had to say about race relations, but the fact that a brilliant, educated, committed futurist of the 1940s and 50s could more easily imagine his grandchildren living on Mars than in a desegregated South. This fact hit home even harder in light of the recent election of Barack Obama.

There are many, many joys to be had in The Martian Chronicles. That Bradbury was wrong about the relative possibilities of space travel and race relations is one of the greatest. If Bradbury were alive today [See correction, courtesy of reader Kenz, in comments] I’m sure he’d agree.

3 Replies to “Truth (happily) stranger than fiction”

  1. Small note – Ray Bradbury is alive. He’s 88 years old.

    Interesting thoughts on his book though – I am not the biggest fan of his but I think I like him a little bit more for referencing the old spiritual “Ezekiel Saw the Wheel” in the title of the chapter you’re discussing. I never knew that.

    Great site btw! As a public historian, I try to keep up as much as I can. Thanks!

  2. Have you thought of giving yourself permission to try your own hand at writing a science fiction novel? It just might help you become a better historian of this genre. Who are your favorite SF authors, by the way? Mine was Asimov when I was a kid.

  3. @Kenz Thanks for reminding me that R.B. is still kicking! I remember now that he’s even still publishing, most recently a sequel to Dandelion Wine, I think (though I haven’t read it). And a big apology to the man himself! I wish him all the best.

    @Sterling I haven’t tried my hand at fiction. To tell the truth, I don’t have a ton of patience for writing, which is why the relatively short form blogging is such a nice fit for me. But maybe this will inspire me.

    I like the 20th C. classics (Asimov, Clarke, etc.), of which Bradbury was my favorite as a kid. But I think newer stuff by Kim Stanley Robinson and Neal Stephenson resonates with me even more than those books of my childhood ever did. Maybe I’m regressing. In the end, however, except for the period I covered in my dissertation on popular science and uses of sceince’s past in the 1920’s and 30’s, I’d consider myself more of a fan and casual observer of SF more than a historian.

    Many thanks, all, for reading.

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