As I have read very little science fiction, and own a small number of unread sci-fi classics on my shelves, I have that decided that the science fiction thread of this year’s Edinburgh International Book Festival is an ideal opportunity to get to know the genre a little better.

So, in preparation, my gorgeous Folio Society edition of The Martian Chronicles was pulled off the shelves and read early in July. It promptly became my 5-star book of the month! Not because of Mick Brownfield’s wonderful illustrations either. Simply because of Bradbury’s extraordinarily imaginative and vivid storytelling. Bradbury’s brio in short.

The Martian Chronicles isn’t a novel per se, although the story arc has a beginning, middle and an end. Rather it is a set of 26 interlinked short stories chronicling man’s conquest of the planet Mars – doomed conquest I might add, because, as we know, from the sorry story of man’s governance of the earth and his fellow creatures, as a species we’re not capable of happy endings. You may disagree. But there you have my natural pessimism and the reason why Bradbury’s work struck such a chord with me.

Still, on a story-telling level, The Martian Chronicles is superlative. The first three stories tell of the three failed expeditions, Not that man didn’t make it to the planet. He did, but he faced a hostile indigenous population, clever enough not to register its hostility, and cold-hearted enough to eliminate its enemies without them having a chance to defend themselves.

During these three stories, told from different points of view (the first a Martian, the second and third from the respective captains of the earthly missions), it is established that the Martians’s secret weapon is telepathy. They can see not only the present but also the nostalgia for the past in men’s minds. Man is naive and unintuitive in comparison, and, by the time the traps are lain and the pennies drop, escape is impossible.

And yet, the fourth expedition is met with an almost uninhabited planet. Man has a secret weapon too. Chicken pox!

Which leads me to Magrs insights:

1) Science fiction is not about the future it is about the present and The Martian Chronicles (1950) is specifically about 1950’s Cold War America.

You know it’s America, because disease wiped out most of the indigenous population when the Europeans arrived. Also the Martian and human townships are reminiscent of the small, cozy towns of the 50’s. The ever-present threat of nuclear war places it firmly in the Cold War era ….

… although that threat appears closer today, than ever before. With two – shall we say, – mavericks, bouncing egos off each other, who knows where we’ll end up? Hopefully not as depicted in story 21.

2) Science fiction is a response to real life, often a critique.

And that often makes Bradbury’s bleakness comical in its knowingness. So for example: the hurt feelings of the astronauts in story 2, when the Martians seem entirely underwhelmed with the success of an impossible journey. Or – my favourite – when Bradbury summarises the trajectory of man’s colonisation of Mars.

But after everything was pinned down and net and in its place, when everything was safe and certain, when the towns were well enough fixed and the loneliness was at a minimum, then the sophisticates came in from Earth. They came on parties and vacations, on little shopping trips for trinkets and photographs and the ‘atmosphere’; they came to study day apply sociological laws; they came with stars and badges and rules and regulations, bringing some of the red tape that had crawled across Earth like an alien weed, and letting it grow on Mars wherever it could take root. They began to plan people’s live and libraries; they began to instruct and push about the very people who had come to Mars to get away from being instructed and pushed about.

Recognise the sociological inevitabilities/imperatives there?

3) The heart of the Martian Chronicles is a matter for discussion.

If the book is, as Magrs, described it a pomegranate (non-hierarchical, a cluster of individual sacs, coalescing to form a whole), where is the heart, the pulse, if you like?

Is it a theme? Such as the evils of colonialism, or the incapability of man to learn and thus the inevitability of repeating past mistakes (my reading).

Or is it something entirely more personal? Magrs spoke of his troubled childhood and the disillusion that results when people reveal themselves to be other than their public persona. (His father, in particular.) The moment when the mask slips. It’s true, there are many such moments in The Martian Chronicles.

That aside, for Magrs, the true heart lies in the story of The Martian, a weakened native, survivor of the chicken pox, now trying to find a place to live safely. Thanks to his telepathic powers, he assumes the form of Tom, the dead son of an elderly human couple, in order for them to accept him into their home. Yet he wishes to remain separate for other human incomers. When he is forced to go into town, Tom is lost, as he shapeshifts into the lost daughter of another bereaved couple. In his weakened state, the Martian is no longer in control of his powers and his empathy for others forces him into another self, It ends badly; his identity and being pulled to smithereens by the needs of others. The lesson for Magrs, a gay teenager in North East England of the 1970’s? That you can’t be all things to all people. You have to preserve yourself.

I love these reading workshops in which authors and translators discuss their personal experience of works by others. They are always illuminating, with plenty of food for thought. May they remain in the festival program for many years to come.

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