The Second Apocalypse: Earth’s Nuclear Holocaust
“Earth changed in the black sky. It caught fire. Part of it seemed to come apart in a million pieces, as if a gigantic jigsaw had exploded. It burned with an unholy dripping glare…” (Bradbury, 190).
Unlike the Martians, who don’t produce the plague that decimates their race, the Earth Men know full well and are responsible for what is happening on Earth. For years, they discuss atomic war and an impending nuclear holocaust. Theirs is an intentional apocalypse, one that is human-made, foretold, easily avoidable… yet unavoided.
Everyone on Earth, including the reader, knows what awaits the planet should humankind continue on its current path. As Andrew Hoborek puts it in his article “The Post-Apocalyptic Present”, apocalypse fiction predicts the future through “social commentary and… despair about contemporary reality.” In the story “The Taxpayer”, four years before the apocalypse, a desperate citizen on Earth pleads to join the Third Expedition. “Don’t leave me here on this terrible world. I’ve got to get away; there’s going to be an atom war! Don’t leave me on Earth!” (Bradbury, 41). As the rocket blasts off without him, descriptive details of its launch foreshadow the dropping of an atom bomb: red fire, big sounds, and a huge tremor.
The Earth Men’s pre-apocalypse takes place between 1999 and 2005, but it might as well have been set in the mid-20th century. Again, Bradbury is commenting on real-world fears at the time of writing, his post-war present. The Martian Chronicles was published in 1950, “shortly after the Soviet Union had completed its first successful nuclear test on August 29, 1949… Many people who grew up during the Cold War era had nuclear apocalypse on their minds” (Belli).
In addition to Cold War hallmarks like the atomic panic, life on Earth in The Martian Chronicles mimics the belief systems from mid-century US society, the effects of which still plague the present day. For example, “In The Middle of the Air” serves as a parable in which the Black American population leaves Earth for Mars to escape the racism of the Jim Crow-era South. Bradbury crafts an Earth world that is beset by the sins of the United States, a “bourgeois drive for comfort and convenience that has created three centuries of racism, sexism, bloody colonial history, and environmental destruction” (Hicks, 10). Or, as defined in Apocalypse Now and Then by Catherine Keller, “an emphasis on progress, its avid colonial drive, and its newly striving scientific inquiry” (10), all of which are heavy themes throughout The Martian Chronicles. Modern society’s commitment to these belief systems inevitably lead to the apocalypse to come, brought on by the very society that will be destroyed by it.
Unlike the Martians, who do what they can to prevent the doom of their planet, Earth’s deterrent to nuclear war turns out to be… none. The Earth Men are too concerned with commercial exploits, distracted in their pursuit of comfort, or caught up in the snare of their warfare. Inept and selfish, they fail to stave off the apocalypse.
“The Off Season”—one of only two stories in The Martian Chronicles set during an actual apocalypse—follows Sam Parkhill, a character from the Fourth Expedition. He’s introduced in “—and the Moon be Still as Bright” as Spender’s uncouth, selfish, belligerent crewmate. For Parkhill, Mars is a planet to be exploited; the Martians are to be feared and therefore shot and pointlessly killed. His purpose on the planet is commercial. Parkhill wants to be rich and will do so by setting up that most Americana of mid-century icons: a hot-dog stand.
Spender, Parkhill’s foil and one of the most significant characters in the book, acts as an Oracle of Delphi. He predicts the Earth Men’s destructive effect on not only the planet they colonize, but the beautiful blue marble that is Earth: “We Earth Men have a talent for ruining big, beautiful things. The only reason we didn’t set up hot-dog stands in the midst of the Egyptian temple in Karnak is because it was out of the way and served no large commercial purpose” (71). His mention of hot-dog stands circles back, like a prescient bookend at the beginning and end of the Earth Men’s time on Mars. Spender foreshadows his crewmate’s hot-dog stand. Parkhill’s futile money-making project is cut short when, as he sets up the stand, he witnesses Earth’s fiery, cataclysmic nuclear holocaust in the night sky.
One might expect the colonization of Mars to be a solution to Earth’s impending nuclear holocaust. It could’ve been the United States’ attempt to preserve the human race on another planet. But that point becomes moot in “The Watchers”, when the colonizers see the burning of Earth from 70 million miles away. They think of the loved ones they left behind and read the Morse code flashes, “COME HOME. COME HOME. COME HOME” (193). Immediately, in mass, the colonizers pack their luggage, race to their rockets, and—like passengers throwing away their life rafts to board a sinking ship—blast back home to a nuclear Earth. They leave behind an abandoned red planet, one that might’ve otherwise been their salvation. This is a common trope in apocalyptic fiction: “For all of these novels, abandonment provides a keynote” (Hoborek).
As demonstrated by the Earth Men’s abandonment of Mars, their colonization efforts were never about saving humanity. With the mass exodus, Mars is revealed to be nothing more than a vanity project, a recreational distraction, a cash grab, and consequently, an exercise in futility.