“We Earth Men have a talent for ruining big, beautiful things” (73).
So says Jeff Spender, a crew member of the Fourth Expedition to Mars and one of the few humans who worries about what their race might do to the land and the people they intend to conquer. I’m Veronica, and this is The English Chronicles, the book club for English language learners.
Today we’re going to talk about the stories “June 2032: —And the Moon Be Still As Bright” through “November 2033: The Fire Balloons” in The Martian Chronicles by Ray Bradbury.
Last week, we talked about the humans and their first three expeditions to Mars. The Martians are less than thrilled to have their planetary neighbors there, and they do whatever they can to keep their missions from succeeding. The brown-skinned, golden-eyed Mr. K shoots the two crew members of the First Expedition; the members of the Second Expedition are euthanized under the belief that they are Martians suffering from telepathic hallucinations; the Third Expedition falls victim to the hallucinations projected by the Martians who appear as their dead loved ones. Nevertheless, the Earth men keep coming, hoping to establish a new civilization on Mars where they can escape the rule of oppressive governments and the threat of nuclear war. We’ll see whether they’re successful as we continue reading.
Two stories in this quarter of the novel give us insight into the minds of the Martians. In “August 2033: Night Meeting,” we see Tomás Gomez driving to a dead Martian town where he sees something strange come out of the hills. It’s a machine shaped like an insect—a praying mantis—with six legs running across the highway. A Martian with golden eyes looks down upon him. They both stop and try to talk to each other, but they don’t understand their languages until the Martian, using telepathy, suddenly makes it so they can. Tomás tries to offer the Martian something to drink, but the cup falls straight through the Martian’s hands. The Martian tries to pick it up, but he can’t grasp it. As a test, the Martian tosses Tomás a knife, but it, too, falls through Tomás’s hands. They realize they can see through each other, although both confirm that they’re alive and not ghosts.
The Martian asks Tomás where he’s from. Tomás says Earth. They landed over a year ago; doesn’t the Martian remember? Tomás continues informing the Martian that they’ve been invaded and almost all of the Martians are dead. The Martian responds that what he says isn’t true; he asks Tomás if he sees the city in the distance. Tomás only sees ruins and says the city has been dead for thousands of years. Tomás then asks if the Martian sees the rockets and the new town, but the Martian says no; all he sees is an ocean. The Martian muses that this must have something to do with time, and they argue over who is from the past and who is from the future. Tomás says the ruins that he sees prove he’s the one in the future, but the Martian asks how he can be sure that those aren’t the ruins of his own civilization, thousands of years from the present moment. They part, never coming to an agreement, an example of the invaders’ need to write history in relation to themselves and never in relation to those whose civilizations they have destroyed.
“November 2033: The Fire Balloons” focuses on a group of Christian missionaries on their way to Mars. They travel on the aptly named rocket “Crucifix,” implying that they are giving up their lives to save their fellow humans from their sins. Father Peregrine, whose name comes from the Latin term for “pilgrim” or “traveler,” wonders why they should go. Shouldn’t they solve the sins on Earth first? When he talks with his companion Father Stone, he explains that something might appear virtuous on Mars, but might later be discovered to be sin. Perhaps unbeknownst to him, Father Peregrine is perfectly describing the long history of conquests that have been conducted in the name of a Christian God that have also resulted in the massacre and enslavement of thousands of people.
When the missionaries reach Mars, they’re greeted by the mayor of “First Town,” who says that they don’t have to worry too much about the Martians. The race is mostly extinct, and the only ones who remain take the form of globes of light and live in the hills. He’s not sure if they’re men or animals, but he hears they act intelligently. This catches Father Peregrine’s interest, and the mayor tells him a story about someone who broke his leg in the hills and would have died stranded up there, but the blue globes of light came to him. He found himself down on a highway with no memory of how he got there. Father Peregrine decides he has to go to the hills to see the Martians, for they must have souls and can be saved from sin.
As has typically been the case throughout history, that which is unfamiliar is assumed to be evil. When they go up into the hills and see the Martians, Father Stone is immediately afraid, calling them monsters and saying that they’re the work of the devil. Father Peregrine attempts to speak to them, with no success, but when there’s an avalanche of rocks, he and Father Stone somehow find themselves lifted up, the blue globes floating around them. Father Peregrine says that the fact that the Martians saved their lives proves they have souls and free will, but Father Stone is unconvinced. When Father Peregrine thinks about the likely possibility that the Martians killed the humans in the previous expeditions, he concludes that they have Original Sin and they must be saved.
Father Peregrine tests his theory about the Martians’ free will by attempting to step off a cliff. Before he crashes into the rocks below, the blue globes rush up around him and place him gently on the ground. He tries to shoot his own hand, but the bullet stands still in the air, surrounded by blue light. He then decides to create a glass globe filled with fire that will serve as the Martian form of Christ. Eventually, the Martians come to the missionaries and say they should have spoken to them sooner, but they hoped the missionaries would have left on their own. They explain that they’re the Old Ones, the Martians who left the cities and went into the hills. They once had bodies similar to the humans. The legend is that one of them found a way to free a man’s soul and intellect, and they assumed the form of lightning and fire. They live in God’s grace, wholly separate from the sins of the body. They appreciate the fact that the missionaries have built a temple, but they have no need for it. They are happy and at peace. They leave, and as the missionaries come down from the hills, they realize they’ve seen God in those globes of light. They are not the hostile creatures they were assumed to be. In fact, their purity far exceeds that of man.
Captain Wilder and his crew reach Mars on the Fourth Expedition. They dream about how they’ll be honored and become famous for colonizing the planet. The city they’re looking at appears to have been dead for a thousand years, but another city, found by the crew’s doctor/geologist Hathaway, appears to have had people as recently as a week ago. He says that he went into one of the houses and found bodies there, just ten days old. What killed them was chickenpox, a disease that humans get and easily recover from as children, but that seems to be deadly for the Martians. He concludes that whatever happened to the three other expeditions, the result is that the Martians were inadvertently killed in the process.
Archeologist Jeff Spender is the only one who shows any concern about their taking over of Mars. He’s shocked that something as ordinary as chickenpox is responsible for the Martians’ extinction. He sees fellow crew member Biggs dropping empty alcohol bottles in a canal, saying that he christens it “Biggs Canal,” assuming the right to name a land that does not belong to him. This angers Spender, and he punches Biggs, causing him to fall into the canal. He explains that he’s ashamed of how disrespectfully they’re treating the planet and the Martians. The mountains had names before they arrived. No matter how much they try to make Mars theirs, they won’t own its history. They’ll simply get mad and destroy it, changing it to fit themselves. Wilder tries to convince Spender that Mars is too big and too good for them to ruin, to which Spender replies, “You think not? We Earth men have a talent for ruining big, beautiful things.” Wilder says that judging from their cities, the Martians were “a graceful, beautiful, and philosophical people” who accepted their fate and “acceded to racial death.” He has convinced himself that the indigenous population agreed to their extinction upon recognizing a supposedly superior species, an argument that has been used to justify genocide for centuries.
As they stand in the center of the city on top of tiles depicting animals and people, Biggs, having drunk too much alcohol, vomits on the ancient artwork. Spender sees this and walks off by himself; he’s gone for a week. Later, a man approaches Biggs as he’s sitting on the edge of the canal he named after himself. The man says he’s the last Martian and he’s going to kill him. To Biggs’s surprise, it’s Spender, who pulls the trigger on the gun he’s holding and sends Biggs falling into the water, dead. Spender then walks back to the rocket where the rest of the crew are eating breakfast. He asks them how they would feel if they were Martians and people came to their land and started tearing things up. A crew member named Cheroke, a clear reference to the Native Americans to whom this very thing did happen, says that he knows exactly how they’d feel, and he’d support the Martian. The rest are silent, implying their belief in the idea that they have to claim as much land as they desire. Spender then tells them he found a Martian. The Martian demanded he hand over his boots, uniform, and gun, and told him to follow. The Martian then walked into the camp and is now standing before them. Spender apologizes before shooting each of the men, leaving only Cheroke alive. Cheroke objects to Spender’s actions, and Spender is disappointed that Cheroke disagrees and shoots him, too. He then walks off alone.
Wilder and the other crew members come across the bodies and notice that Spender is the only one who’s missing. They track him down and shoot at him through the hills. Finally, Wilder surrenders, and they sit down to talk. Wilder asks Spender why he killed the crew, and Spender responds that he had seen what the Martians had was as good as anything they could ever hope to have. He tells a story about a family trip to Mexico City as a kid. His father acted in an embarrassing way, too loud and big, and his mother said she didn’t like the people because they had dark skin. His sister wouldn’t even talk to them. Spender was the only one who enjoyed the experience. He could imagine his family coming to Mars and acting the same way. “Anything that’s strange is no good to the average American,” he says. He then mentions that there were discussions of establishing atomic research and bomb warehouses on Mars. He fears that Mars is just as likely to disappear as a result of nuclear war as Earth is. Humans ruined one planet, and they’re just going to ruin another.
Wilder says that if Spender doesn’t come with him, his only choice will be to kill him. Spender declines, and Wilder returns to the remaining crew to explain what has to happen. As they set out in search of Spender, we hear Wilder’s thoughts. He hates the feeling that he’s doing the right thing when he’s not really sure that’s true: Who are they to make decisions? Is the majority always right? When they find Spender, Wilder gives him one more opportunity to surrender, but when he doesn’t, Wilder shoots.
They find an empty sarcophagus and put Spender’s body in it. As they seal him up, Wilder says the men should think of Spender once in a while. The next day, Wilder sees one of his crew shooting windows and blowing up towers in a dead city. He punches them in the teeth.
The story leaves us with some questions. Is there a right way and a wrong way to invade? Can there be a noble invader, as Wilder suggests? Was Spender hypnotized by the Martian spirits that reached through time, or was he simply feeling guilty about their invasion of the planet? The story doesn’t tell us, and it doesn’t really matter, for Spender is voicing the beliefs of many who have seen their lands, culture, and people be destroyed by invaders: What these men are doing is wrong.
Without Spender alive to stop it, the true invasion begins. By August 2032, the humans have started coming to Mars for a number of reasons. Mars is just a way for them to escape their troubles and pursue their dreams. The incoming humans are like a plague, the rockets compared to locusts. The men arrive with hammers to beat the new world into a shape they recognize, erasing all that is unfamiliar. Ninety thousand people come to Mars, and more are back on Earth, packing for the trip. Although subsequent expeditions should have come from other countries, it’s the Americans, with their American rockets, who are leading this exodus. They are leaving their home behind as the rest of the world prepares for war.
IN THE AUTHOR’S WORDS
In 1978, Ray Bradbury appeared on The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson to talk about The Martian Chronicles.1 When Carson asked about the possibility of life on Mars, Bradbury responded, “If strange creatures in the last nine years have landed on the moon, and they have, then the other is possible, creatures coming the other way. If we’re moving out into the universe and we’re going to be colonizing the moon in the next few years, we’re going to be colonizing Mars. A wonderful thing happened at the first Mars landing. I was on the Today Show that morning. Roy Neal [an aerospace specialist and news correspondent] turned to me after the first photographs came in and he said, ‘Well, how do you feel now that the first photographs are in and there’s no life on Mars?’ And I said, ‘Fool! There is life on Mars, and it is us.’ We’re going to be the Martians from here on in. That, to me, is tremendously exciting.”
Carson pressed further, asking whether Bradbury felt that we were being observed by extraterrestrial beings and, if so, why they wouldn’t attempt to make contact with us. “We’d be no threat to them,” Carson said. Bradbury responded, “Unless they’re thinking of the bacterial threat, or unless they look down upon us as we look down upon other creatures on our world, which is ridiculous, because we should honor all life-forms. We’re all sharing the same experience, aren’t we? No, I don’t really think they’re that close to us at this point, but I think that we’ll make the contact going out during the next 100 years.” We can easily see how these ideas helped form Bradbury’s first novel.
There are several themes in these stories that purposefully echo history.
The fact that chickenpox is largely responsible for the killing of the Martians reflects the very real reason why some civilizations were so easily conquered. It was not because their conquerors were superior; it was because they lacked immunity to the diseases the conquerors brought with them. In Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies, Jared Diamond explains that diseases like smallpox, measles, influenza, and others that were regularly found in Europe, to which many Europeans had immunity, killed many of the people on other continents who lacked immunity. He writes, “Throughout the Americas, diseases introduced with Europeans spread from tribe to tribe far in advance of Europeans themselves, killing an estimated 95 percent of the pre-Columbian Native American population” (77).2 Diamond is writing about the Spanish invasion of the Americas in the 1500s, and Spender makes reference to this time period when he says, “A whole civilization destroyed by greedy, righteous bigots. History will never forgive Cortez.” Hernán Cortés was one of the Spanish conquistadores who led the invasion of the Aztec Empire. Motivated by the prospect of making his fortune in the Americas, Cortés is credited for the fall of the Aztec capital Tenochtitlán, which is near current-day Mexico City. Many Azetc people were killed or endured cruelties under his command.3
When the mayor of First Town greets the incoming missionaries, he says that Mars is a frontier, just like in the West and Alaska. He’s referring to the idea of Manifest Destiny, which was a belief in the 1800s that the United States was destined by God to be colonized by the Europeans, all the way to the Pacific Ocean.4 This drove the expansion of the country, as well as the removal and mistreatment of Native Americans and other non-Europeans from the land they already occupied.
That’s all for today’s discussion of the second quarter of The Martian Chronicles. Join me next week when we’ll discuss the stories “February 2034: Interim” through “November 2036: The Luggage Store.” Now that the Fourth Expedition has been successful, more and more people are preparing to leave Earth and start new lives on the planet they believe is theirs. Thank you for listening. If you enjoyed today’s episode, subscribe and leave a rating and review in your favorite podcast app. I would really appreciate it, and it helps other book-loving English learners find the podcast. What are your thoughts on these expeditions? Are Spender’s concerns right? Will the humans just destroy Mars? Leave me your comments at theenglishchronicles.com, where you can also find a transcript of each episode, send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org, or find me on Instagram @theenglishchronicles. Until then, keep reading.
- Venetta Nealy, “The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson 03 01 1978 Ray Bradbury,” YouTube Video, February 21, 2017, 16:09, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=k1UaSpNumX8.
- Jared Diamond, Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies, (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1997).
- “Hernán Cortés,” History, accessed August 4, 2021, https://www.history.com/topics/exploration/hernan-cortes.
- “Manifest Destiny,” History, accessed August 4, 2021 https://www.history.com/topics/westward-expansion/manifest-destiny.