The First Apocalypse: The Martian Chickenpox Pandemic
“Chicken pox. It did things to the Martians it never did to Earth Men. Their metabolism reacted differently, I suppose. Burnt them black and dried them out to brittle flakes” (Bradbury, 66).
The Martian Chronicles presents the Martian race as technologically, spiritually, cognitively, and evolutionarily superior to Earth Men. They construct beautiful cities that have survived hundreds of thousands of years. They have evolved into a race of spiritual empaths who can shape-shift and telepathically commune with one another. In “—And the Moon Be Still as Bright,” the character John Spender, an astronaut of the 4th Expedition, says, “The Martians discovered the secret of life… Once the civilization calmed, quieted, and wars ceased… life was now good and needed no arguments” (88). He describes the now-ruined Martian civilization as an idealized utopia.
Is pre-apocalyptic Mars really a utopia? Aren’t all such “perfect” places actually dystopias wearing utopian masks? Bradbury provides glimpses of pre-apocalyptic Martian civilization in “Ylla”m “The Summer Night”, “The Earth Men”, and “The Third Expedition”. All portray a less-than-perfect society. The Martian woman Ylla describes her civilization as “dead, ancient bone-chess cities” and “old canals filled with emptiness” (8). In “The Earth Men”, the Second Expedition astronauts are committed to an insane asylum; why would a utopia need an insane asylum? The Martians mistakenly diagnose the men with a “constantly recurring psychotic condition” commonplace among Martians due to their telepathy (33). Clearly, Martian civilization is not without its dystopic shades.
Spender’s idolized picture of a perfect Martian society is tempting. It would be easy to ascribe to his utopian vision because it places the onerous and guilt of the Martian pandemic on the Earth Men’s unintentional yet inherent destructiveness. However, there are no utopias. No place can claim perfection. Martian civilization is ambiguous: Spender’s idealized portrait in “—And the Moon Be Still as Bright” conflicts with the flawed society hinted at in Bradbury’s other stories. This means that The Martian Chronicles expertly sidesteps a common problem in apocalyptic fiction, a tendency to “drown in its own pieties” (Heise).
Spender’s eloquent soliloquies expound upon the Martian ability to “never let science crush the aesthetic and the beautiful” (Bradbury, 88). Yet, perhaps a little less beauty and a little more science—an understanding of the “unexplainable miracle” behind infectious disease—would’ve come in handy when the chicken pox arrived.
Apocalyptic fiction utilizes “visions of the future [that] serve mostly to reconfirm well-established views of the present” (Heise). Bradbury does this: he connects Martian chickenpox to humanity’s long history of disease infiltrating previously sheltered societies. Twenty-five million died during the Middle Ages’ Black Plague due to bubonic-infected rats brought from Asia on European merchant ships; a cluster of plagues, including smallpox, devastated 90% of indigenous populations when European explorers colonized the Americas; and the Spanish Flu, which from 1918-1920 (the year Bradbury was born—one must assume his family had been affected by it) infected 500 million people around the world, 1/5th of whom died (Jarus). In The Martian Chronicles, Bradbury reconfirms a well-established criticism, drawing upon epidemic events from westward expansion to showcase the real-world consequences of colonization.
In “Ylla”, “The Earth Men”, and “The Third Expedition”, Earth’s astronauts have no idea they’ve brought in themselves and their spaceships a pathogen that can kill off an entire race in mere weeks. Throughout the novel, it’s a thread Bradbury stitches this critique of the human race: the stupidity and inherent destructiveness of Earth Men who bring death with them and destroy a planet without even trying to do so. They destroy simply by existing. As Spender gazes upon the skeletal Martian ruins, he decries, “Isn’t it enough that [Earth Men] have ruined one planet, without ruining another?” (85).
The Martians do what they can and fight to prevent the annihilation of their race: the first three expeditions are killed off, their rockets are destroyed. One must assume the Martians—telepathic and prescient—knew these extraterrestrial strangers somehow brought devastation with them. In “A Summer Night”, “A coldness had come, like white snow falling on the air… ‘something terrible will happen’” (19-20). The Martians gaze at the sky, at whatever falls from the air like snow—invisible bacteria, deadly and inescapable—and predict their own demise.
The Martians (unlike the Earth Men in the second apocalypse) are not directly at fault for their annihilation. The chickenpox is brought upon them by outsiders, an unavoidable galactic disaster. The pandemic hits them like an asteroid because, like the asteroid that killed the dinosaurs, Earth Men hurtle down from the black reaches of space and smash into Mars with extraterrestrial biological corruption. The pandemic is human-made. It’s preventable but not purposeful; destructive, but not deliberate. The destruction of the Martian race is, for all intents and purposes, an accident.
The term post-apocalypse “captures the elements of loss and transformation” (Hicks, 8). From the Martian perspective, the rest of The Martian Chronicles is a transformed post-apocalyptic world. After a devastating plague, their planet is overrun by Earth Men, hostile extraterrestrial invaders who permanently alter their environment (“The Green Morning”), covet and kill their last survivors (“The Martian”), and desecrate their land (“The Locusts”). Like the unnamed father and son in Cormac McCarthy‘s The Road (2006) or Jaguar Paw and his family in the Mel Gibson film Apocalypto (2006), the surviving Martians have fled into what’s left of their wilderness to scavenge on the edges of their own planet. Their numbers are so few they’re spoken of as folklore. In “The Martian,” set a short four years after the chickenpox pandemic, an Earth Man, Mr. LaFarge, has “heard tales of the Martians; nothing definite. Stories about how rare Martians are and when they come among us they come as Earth Men” (162).
The post-apocalyptic fictional canon poses “questions about the sort of world that should emerge from the wreckage. There is an internal dimension to the confrontation with modernity; an essential process for the protagonists in each of these narratives is recognizing what they can or should become, what forms of subjectivity might be salvaged, jerry-rigged, or grown in the new conditions in which they find themselves” (Hicks, 3).
The “new conditions” of the Martian post-apocalypse is a new planet shaped by the mores of colonizers, the Earth Men. Therefore, the Martian’s post-apocalypse is the Earth Men’s pre-apocalypse. Days of reckoning become cyclical. Civilizations rise and fall, only to rise again. Bradbury drives this significant theme home in the pivotal story, “Night Meeting”. In the wilderness on a lonely, dark night, an Earth Man, Tomás Gomez, encounters a Martian, Muhe Ca. Tomás and Muhe have happened upon an astrophysical folding, a tesseract that allows the two to converse despite living thousands of years apart. Staring out at the landscape beyond an overlook, Muhe sees a vibrant Martian city where Tomás sees a ruin; Muhe sees an ocean where Tomás sees an Earth colony.
Who belongs to the past, and who belongs to the future? Tomás is convinced Muhe is a ghost, an ancient relic; Muhe is convinced Tomás is the same. “‘You are a figment of the past!’ [said the Martian]. ‘No, you are from the Past,’ said the Earth Man” (112). They find themselves in an existential paradox.
Muhe solves this paradox by saying, “What does it matter who is Past or Future, if we are both alive, for what follows will follow, tomorrow or in ten thousand years. How do you know that those temples are not the temples of your own civilization one hundred centuries from now, tumbled and broken?” (113). Is it past or present? Foreshadowing the Earth Men’s collapse? The hope of rebuilding a Martian future?
In “Night Meeting”, Bradbury expertly crafts the ambiguity of hope in a post-apocalyptic world. An optimist might believe Muhe is right, that he is not of the past, that thousands of years in the future the Martians have rebuilt and risen again. After all, the surviving Martians still exist when the second apocalypse, Earth’s nuclear holocaust, strikes in three years. However, the nihilist would believe Muhe is a relic, and the Martian civilization is gone for good. In typical Bradbury fashion, “Night Meeting” provides no certainty, and the survival of the Martian race after the pandemic is left ambiguous. It’s up to the reader to interpret whether or not there is hope and salvation to be found in the Martian post-apocalypse.