The Martian Chronicles: A Tale of Two Apocalypses

Ray Bradbury’s The Martian Chronicles calls out from the past to our time of pandemic and NASA’s Mars Space Rover: however far our reach may be there is no escape for humankind from humankind.

The Martian Chronicles
Ray Bradbury
Simon & Schuster


“The Silent Towns” and “The Long Years”, two post-apocalyptic Earth Men stories set on the abandoned Mars, feel very familiar. These are stories about last survivors, akin to Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe (1719) and those who navigate a desolated wasteland like Shelley’s The Last Man. The setting and circumstances are well-known, mimicked in so many 21st century apocalyptic fictions: McCarthy’s The Road, Colson Whitehead’s Zone One (2011), and Emily St. John Mandel’s Station Eleven (2014). Also, countless films: Danny Boyle‘s 28 Days Later (2002), Patricia Rozema’s Into the Forest (2015, see also PopMatters’ interview with Rozema), Sang-ho Yeon’s Train to Busan (2016), Engler and Etter’s Cargo (2017), John Krasinksi’s A Quiet Place (2018), and George Miller’s Mad Max trilogy, to name just a few. The survivors wander an empty world, scrabble for resources, contend with isolation, and face the existential crisis that comes with living in scraps. 

However, it is the post-apocalyptic nightmare on Earth—not Mars—that evokes the strongest, most haunting imagery in The Martian Chronicles. The harrowing “There Will Come Soft Rains” is set on the planet Earth following the nuclear holocaust. Save one pet dog that returns home only to die of starvation (symbolically representing the colonizers who return to Earth), the story has no living characters. Instead, the main character is a house “alive” with a radioactive glow.

Decked out in technological and mechanical wonders, Bradbury crafts a house akin to an advanced Alexa Voice Assistant that not only gives you the weather report but can also make you perfect toast and eggs sunny-side up. The house’s automated systems continue to operate long after the family that once lived there has died in the blast. The story “details the great benefits that technology has to offer mankind (automated robots, quality of life), as well as its dangers (nuclear warfare)” (Belli).

Like the Earth Men’s technological achievements, the house was invented for comfort but did nothing to deter the apocalypse. Eventually, a fire (a stand-in for atomic war) starts in the house that—no matter what the automated mechanisms do—can not be contained, and the house burns to the ground. The house becomes a symbol, its story an allegory writ on a small scale of the planet Earth’s apocalypse.

Like the possible existence of a distant, 10,000-year Martian future in “Night Meeting”, Bradbury also ends the Earth Men’s apocalypse with ambiguous hope. In the novel’s final story, “The Million-Year Picnic”, a boy named Timothy and his family have fled the nuclear holocaust under the guise of a “fishing trip” to Mars. It’s strongly implied that they are one of only two possible families to escape Earth before the cataclysm and extinction of all life on the planet. The father reveals that they never had any plans to return from the fishing trip—that he will destroy their spaceship and they will find a city on Mars where they will make a permanent home.  

Like another famous apocalyptic story, the myth of Noah and the flood in the Book of Genesis, the family’s three brothers—Timothy, Michael, and Robert—are stand-ins for three other brothers—Japheth, Shem, and Ham. Like their Tanakh counterparts, Timothy and his brothers are symbols of genesis, of the beginning, of life risen from worldwide devastation. The existence of the human race rests on them and—pending the expected but uncertain arrival of a second family with daughters—their progeny.

This theme of family and ensuring a future for generations to come is common in all apocalyptic fiction. When analyzing McCarthy’s themes in “Is The Road Still the Most Depressing Story Ever Told?” Ryan Hollinger says, “The father knows what the world was before the collapse, whereas the son has no impression of the former world. His only knowledge is what the world is now and what it might turn out to be.” This same theme could be applied to “The Million-Year Picnic”, the myth of Noah, and so many other parables about saving humanity through children and grandchildren and great-grandchildren to come.

Earth is gone, burnt and blasted into an uninhabitable nuclear wasteland. The surviving family in “The Million-Year Picnic” has no Earth to return to. Even if the second family’s daughters show up and they succeed in continuing their race, Earth Men are nevertheless extinct. When Michael asks to see a Martian, his father tells him and Timothy to stare into the water of the canal. “The Martians were there—in the canal—reflected in the water. Timothy and Michael and Robert and Mom and Dad. The Martians stared back up at them for a long, long silent time from the rippling water…” (241).

Unlike the Martian apocalypse, the Earth Men’s apocalypse is complete and total, because the survivors can no longer call themselves “Earth Men”. There is no planet Earth anymore. Only Mars. They can only be Martians.

Xylophone Bones and Human Shadows 

The Martian Chronicles’ two apocalypses are best captured in a pair of harrowing, horrifically beautiful images. The first: the Earth children in the short story “The Musicians” who play amongst ruined cities and make musical instruments of Martian corpses. “The first boy there would be the Musician, playing the white xylophone bones beneath the outer covering of black flakes. A great skull would roll to view like a snowball; they shouted! Ribs, like spider legs…” (117-118). 

The second image: the human imprints in the story “There Will Come Soft Rains” left like pale shadows on a wall after the nuclear blast, much like the phenomenon photographed in the aftermath of Hiroshima and Nagasaki:

The entire west face of the house was black, save for five places. Here the silhouette in paint of a man mowing a lawn. Here, as in a photograph, a woman bent to pick flowers. Still farther over, their images burned on wood in one titanic instant, a small boy, hands flung into the air; higher up, the image of a thrown ball, and opposite him a girl, hands raised to catch a ball which never came down (222).

Despite the tragedy these images invoke, Bradbury paints these pictures with eloquent words and beautiful imagery. Hoborek says the most successful apocalyptic narratives do this, juxtaposing dark fantasies and science fictions about the-end-of-the-world with artful imagery, as well as “quotidian description and grand narrative, social commentary and readerly pleasure, despair about contemporary reality and the hopefulness of art. As dark as they can be, all of these books turn to art to imagine some realm of human potential.” Or, as the astronaut and oracle Spender puts it, apocalyptic fiction, like the Martian civilization, “blend religion and art and science because, at base, science is no more than an investigation of a miracle we can never explain, and art is an interpretation of that miracle” (Bradbury, 88).

Works Cited

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Hicks, Heather J. “Introduction: Modernity beyond Salvage”. The Post Apocalyptic Novel in the Twenty-First Century: Modernity Beyond Salvage. Palgrave Macmillan: London. 2016. 

Hoberek, Andrew. “The Post-Apocalyptic Present”. Public Books. 15 June 2015. Accessed 18 February 2021.

Hollinger, Ryan. “Is The Road Still the Most Depressing Story Ever Told?” YouTube. 29 September 2019. Accessed 18 February 2021.

Jarus, Owen. “20 of the worst epidemics and pandemics in history.” Live Science. 20 March 2020. Accessed 20 February 2021.

Keller, Catherine. Apocalypse Now and Then. Augsburg Fortress Publishers, Minneapolis. 2004. 

Lerner, Robert E., Aakanksha Gaur, Emily Rodriguez. “Apocalyptic literature: literary genre”. Britannica. 28 May 2008. Accessed 18 February 2021.

Shelley, Mary. The Last Man. Project Gutenburg, Salt Lake City. 1826. Accessed 20 February 2021.