The spread of human civilization has been a ruthlessly cold-blooded Darwinian process. People came from Europe to settle the Americas, and the natives were wiped out, if not by our arms or our religions, then by our diseases. The same fate awaits the hapless indigenes of Mars in Ray Bradbury's seminal and elegiac The Martian Chronicles. In some ways, they are so much like us, better and worse in others. Their telepathy allows a few of them to know we're coming, which some await with a sense of romantic wonder, and others dread as a tangible threat. They do what they can to stop us. But in the end, it's our bugs that defeat them, not our weapons. After all, we save those for ourselves. With World War II and Hiroshima still a recent memory, armageddon was not far from any SF writer's mind at the time. Bradbury was no exception.
But it would be completely inaccurate to describe the stories that make up this loosely-defined novel as a statement about expansionism and imperialism. That's there, but it's just one of many ways Bradbury uses the lens of his science-fantasy (emphatically not science fiction in the strict sense of the term) to focus on the human condition. This is a book about impermanence, the brevity of life, and above all, loneliness. From chapter to chapter, we read of cities, both dead and thriving, of mad starship crewmen and eccentric artists, of wives and husbands and children. And everyone seems so terribly alone. A man who cannot bear the deaths of his wife and children from a virus has lived for years with robot replicas of them while he awaits rescue. After he's gone, these artificial family units go on about their roles, because they can do no other. In the early chapter originally published as the legendary "Mars Is Heaven!", the Martians attempt to thwart the encroachment of a team of Earth astronauts by playing upon their homesickness. And even when they've won this brief victory, the Martians themselves feel remorseful enough to give their victims respectful burials.
A lone, remaining Martian who stumbles into a human town discovers that every person there believes him to be a lost loved one, and at first he attempts to use this to his advantage, to find a place for himself, until he is torn apart by everyone's need. And then there is the loneliest character in all of SF: the abandoned house on post-holocaust Earth in "There Will Come Soft Rains," whose AI automations go about their business of serving the needs of the family who will never again shelter there, until the house itself succumbs to its own kind of mortality.
This isn't a sober or sad book, despite its themes. There are moments of sharp satire and even broad comedy, even if not every chapter holds up equally well after more than 60 years. Because almost every chapter was published individually in magazines first, there are obvious moments of narrative inconsistency. A couple of chapters, by today's sensibilities, may understandably offend some readers. In one, an especially despicable racist gets his comeuppance. Another seems to exist for the sole purpose of making fun of a fat woman.
These are blemishes because the tales are products of their time. On the whole, this is such a lyrical, haunting, poetic book, with the immersive quality of a particularly vivid dream. Though Bradbury displayed utter indifference to the hard science that informed the work of his fellows, like Asimov and Clarke, his science fantasies nevertheless embraced the same underlying themes: that human beings have a compelling need to reach out, to push beyond our earth and into the universe, to have a sense that we belong and that we matter. We explore because we don't want to be alone. We invent religions and gods because we don't want to be alone. We dream up science fiction tales, and people them with a universe of aliens both friendly and hostile, because we don't want to be alone. In The Martian Chronicles, Ray Bradbury offers a solution to this crisis of existence, when, in "The Million-Year Picnic," the human father shows his sons the Martians, in their own reflections in water. Once we learn to live with and accept ourselves and each other, our little corner of the universe will no longer seem so empty.