I read science fiction and fantasy, but I also like literary fiction, the classics, the occasional mystery/thriller, and non-fiction.
The Martian Chronicles has all the virtues and flaws of everything I've ever read by Ray Bradbury. He writes beautiful prose and he's particularly good at spooky and haunting imagery. He's in a different category entirely from other "golden oldie" SF authors — his stuff is deliberately thoughtful and crafted, and tends to be much more human-focused. Even when he's writing "hard" SF, it feels more like a science fantasy, sometimes edging closer to pure fantasy or horror. And you can read all kinds of metaphors into his work, often metaphors completely different from the ones he intended, if his reaction to interpretations of Fahrenheit 451 is anything to go on.
The Martian Chronicles is, as the title suggests, more a themed collection of short stories than a novel, chronicling humanity's exploration and exploitation of Mars. It starts with the first ill-fated Mars expedition, when the first Earthman on Mars is greeted by a Martian roused to jealousy by his dissatisfied wife's clairvoyant dreams, and continues through the inevitable follow-up expeditions and colonization effort, in which the Martians all but disappear, becoming ghosts haunting their own planet, and humanity brings its troubles and all its baggage to Mars. The final stories, in particular, after a war destroys life back on the home planet, are eerie, with vivid descriptions of robot houses on Earth still cooking breakfast for families that were long ago atomized in a nuclear war, and a few lone survivors trekking through the ghost towns and dry canals of Mars. There were parts of this book that were truly marvelous and timeless.
That said - the flaws. Ray Bradbury, like so many of his generation, writes like a cranky old white man and he always has. He seems unable to conceive of a family, a society, or a civilization that doesn't resemble Middle America circa 1950, when The Martian Chronicles was published. Even the Martians, despite their elegiac voices and physical descriptions — brown skin, copper eyes, psychic powers, and evolution into non-corporeal bodies — are first introduced to us as a bored married couple following behavioral tropes that would not be out of place in a 1950s sitcom. The Martian household is imaginatively described, with its magnetic dust to clean and its fire chariot for transportation and the mask worn by a Martian man going out to hunt, with his rifle firing bee-like cartridges, but it's essentially a Flintstones or Jeffersons-like mapping of suburban America onto an alien landscape.
That said, Earthmen behaving exactly as they did back on Earth, and trying to remake Mars in the image of Smalltown, America, was no doubt part of the point. The Martian Chronicles shows Earthmen ruining everything, like they always do, Mars being no exception.
This is a classic that deserves a good read, and there is a timeless quality about it, but there's also a datedness in Bradbury's characterization, an ability to imagine and illustrate themes beautifully but not characters, all of whom are as stereotypical and whitebread as those you'd have found on TV at the time of the book's writing.
3.5 stars for superior prose and imagination and vision, but dated tropes and characters who are simply mouths to voice themes.
I love a good time travel story, mostly to see what this author's take on the usual time travel paradoxes will be. Anyone who writes about agents changing history has to explain how they deal with things like the Grandfather Paradox, meeting earlier or later versions of yourself, and so on. There are a handful of well-known ways to deal with these issues (alternate timelines, a deterministic universe, special laws of temporal physics, etc.) and Asimov is rather inventive in using several of them at once.
The End of Eternity is brilliant in its construction of a civilization of time travelers and the history and technology that goes into their society and the way they meddle with time, but his protagonists are basically a bunch of whiny geeks who act like highly-educated monkeys fighting for the highest branch in the treehouse. Asimov's vision of a civilization that spans millions of years and thousands of realities doesn't include a single one where women become scientists and engineers and might join the Eternals' boys' club. The entire plot hinges on not one but two high-ranking Eternals who decide they are willing to throw all of reality into danger for the chance to get laid. I know this was written in the 1950s, but Asimov could have done better. It's like the idea of women as anything but sex objects to be coveted or to seduce men off the path of Righteous Scientific Objectivity just never occurred to him. So naturally when a girl shows up (the only female character in the entire book), she must spell T-R-O-U-B-L-E, and in this case, the end of Eternity.
I enjoyed the story, but Isaac Asimov has never been my favorite among the Grand Old Masters of science fiction; there is something just a little too cold and calculating in all of his stories. For the ideas and the plot twists, this is a fun book with a great premise, but don't expect Asimov to wow you with his nuanced grasp of human relationships. His characters are wire dummies to hang a story on.
Earth Abides is one of the most important books I have ever read. This is not an adventure novel or a thriller. There are no zombies and no roaming bands of cannibals. Instead, its focus is on the Earth in the wake of humanity's destruction and on the remaining humans who inhabit this bleak new world. It is a carefully honed experiment in anthropology and sociology. Its depth and complexity is astounding and it deserves to be ranked as one of the best novels of the twentieth century. It can be boring at times but it is truly brilliant, beautiful, sad, terrifying, and entirely worth the trouble. And the narrator is excellent and adds enormous value to the story.
The main character, Isherwood "Ish" Williams, watches as the world of man falls apart. He is an intellectual and an anxious man who fears that his tribe of survivor's easy lifestyle, thriving on the remains of the past, will cause humanity to revert into a primitive state. Ish takes upon himself the burden of maintaining human knowledge, building new traditions, a new state, and even a new civilization. His tribe, on the other hand, is content to live in an idyllic world where food is plentiful, disease is unknown, and there is little to fear.
Much of the novel is Ish's internal dialogue and the narrative tends to veer off on tangents. I occasionally found myself lost and had no idea what the author was talking about. And Stewart's attention to detail often gives the reader the sense that something is about to happen when, in fact, nothing does. Then there are other passages that the reader knows are going nowhere, such as the description of scenery, and reading feels like a chore.
Despite its flaws, Earth Abides is filled with so much wisdom regarding human psychology and the state of man in nature and in civilization, that it should be required reading for any college student studying sociology, anthropology, or even political science. This is a novel that I will remember forever.