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The Martian Chronicles is a collection of Ray Bradbury’s stories about the human colonization of Mars which were previously published in the pulp magazines of the late 1940s. The stories are arranged in chronological order with the dates of the events at the beginning of each story. In the first edition of The Martian Chronicles, published in 1950, the events took place in a future 1999-2027, but a reprinted 1997 edition pushes all events forward to 2030-2057. Because it’s a story collection, The Martian Chronicles has an episodic feel which has been made more fluid by connecting the stories with short vignettes, similar to the structure of Bradbury’s collection The Illustrated Man.
In the first story, “Rocket Summer,” we visit a small town in Ohio while the first human exploratory spaceship takes off for Mars. Bradbury explains in the introduction to The Martian Chronicles that this small-town mid-America feel was influenced by Sherwood Anderson’s novel Winesburg, Ohio: A Group of Tales of Ohio Small-Town Life which Bradbury admired and hoped to emulate.
The next two stories, “Ylla” and “The Summer Night,” show us what the Martians are like. They’re humanoid in form with brown skin and round yellow eyes. Like humans, they live in houses and towns, eat and drink, sleep, age, read books, study science, desire love, become jealous and irritable, and commit murder. (I find it amusing that the Martians have the same kinds of depressing marriages we see in Bradbury’s stories set on Earth.) But the Martians are telepathic and the humans’ approach is causing them to quote our poetry, sing our songs, and adopt other aspects of human culture without understanding why.
The first spaceship was unsuccessful, so a second expedition was launched a few months later (it seems reasonable for Bradbury to expect that by 1999 we’d be able to get to Mars a lot faster than we actually can). In “The Earth Men” we learn the fate of this crew and we learn that Martians, just like Americans in 1950, have to live with bad psychiatry and insane asylums. Stephen Hoye, the narrator of Blackstone Audio’s 2009 version of The Martian Chronicles, was particularly brilliant with this story.
Next comes “The Taxpayer” in which an Ohio man is trying to get on the third expedition to Mars (the second one failed). This very short vignette tells us that things are going badly on Earth and that an atomic war is expected in about two years. “The Third Expedition” (originally published in Planet Stories as “Mars is Heaven!”) describes what happens when the third doomed mission lands on Mars. This story doesn’t quite work with the chronology of The Martial Chronicles because it portrays astronauts from 2030 growing up in the small Midwestern towns of early 20th century America. It also ironically highlights the biggest problem with The Martian Chronicles when one of the astronauts asks “Do you think that the civilizations of two planets can progress at the same rate and evolve in the same way?” Clearly the astronaut doesn’t think that’s possible, but in these early stories, Bradbury’s Martian culture is just too much like ours. Even so, “The Third Expedition” is a clever little horror story and one of my favorites in the collection.
“And the Moon Be Still as Bright” is the story of the fourth, finally successful, expedition to Mars. The Martians have mostly died of chickenpox — humans, in our blundering way, have inadvertently killed them off. Most of the men of the expedition don’t care, eager to begin exploration and colonization, but Captain Wilder and an archaeologist named Spender regret that humans have destroyed such a beautiful civilization, like they destroy everything else they touch. There’s a lot of social commentary about 1940s American culture in this story.
The next several stories are about the rapid spread of humanity on Mars. “The Settlers” and “The Shore” describe the type of people who came to Mars from Earth, “The Green Morning” follows a Johnny Appleseed type of character who plants trees to increase oxygen levels, and “The Locusts” and “Interim” describes how men and women made Mars look just like another Earth. In “Night Meeting,” we learn that “even time is crazy up here” when a colonist from Earth meets a Martian who seems to be in a different time-stream. This story also reminds us that civilizations both rise and fall and that perhaps it’s best that we don’t know the future of our own civilization.
I especially liked the next story, “The Fire Balloons,” in which a group of missionaries prepare to bring the Gospel to the Martians. They don’t know what the Martians will look like and must consider how a different culture, and even a different anatomy, might dictate the types of sin a society is prone to. (It seems unlikely that the missionaries don’t know what the Martians look like by now, but we must keep in mind that The Martian Chronicles is a story collection, not a novel with a continuous story.) When the missionaries meet the Martians, they have even more theological questions to deal with. “The Fire Balloons,” has a beautiful ending.
Male explorers and settlers have been the main characters so far but “The Musicians,” a story original to The Martian Chronicles, shows us what boys do for fun on Mars, “The Wilderness” features two women who are getting ready to emigrate from Earth, and “The Old Ones” focuses briefly on the elderly. Those first courageous men won’t be forgotten, though; in “The Naming of Names” we learn that they’ve been immortalized — many places on Mars have been named after them. These human names, and other industrial-sounding names, have replaced the nature-focused names used by the Martians.
In “Usher II” Bradbury returns to one of his favorite pet peeves — book burning. A man who has left Earth to get away from the “moral climate” police is angry that they’ve now shown up on Mars. To get back at them for outlawing Edgar Allen Poe’s work, he uses his fortune to build his own House of Usher and he invites them all to a party. This story is entertaining, but I’m not sure that Bradbury makes his case. After what happens, I think the moral climate police will feel they have even more grounds for banning Poe.
“The Martian” is a terrific horror story which shows us what becomes of one telepathic Martian when humans, full of painful memories and wanting to start over, arrive on his planet. This is one of the best stories in The Martian Chronicles.
The next few stories, “The Luggage Store,” “The Off Season,” and “The Watchers,” tell of the nuclear war on Earth that was predicted in earlier stories. It can be heard on the radio and seen from Mars and soon the colonists get an urgent message: “Come home.” And so they go back to Earth.
“The Silent Towns” tells the story of Walter and Genevieve, living hundreds of miles apart, who assume they’re the last humans left on Mars. This story is entertaining, but highlights the rampant sexism so often found in the science fiction written for pulp magazines. Where does Walter decide is the most likely place to find a woman? The beauty shop. (Genevieve, what the heck are you doing in a beauty shop on a deserted planet?) Then, after driving for hundreds of miles to find her, Walter rejects and runs away from the last woman on Mars because she’s overweight. Really.
Bradbury is back to doing what he does best with the next two stories. “The Long Years” tells of Hathaway, one of the crew of the Fourth Expedition, who stayed on Mars with his family when the rest of the colonists left. When Captain Wilder, his former commander, returns to Mars after exploring other planets in the solar system, he finds Hathaway and wonders how his wife and kids stayed young while Hathaway kept aging normally.
“There Will Come Soft Rains” returns us to Earth where the atomic war has wiped out most of the people. An automated house (common in Bradbury’s stories) still stands in California, going about its daily routines as if the family who lived there is still alive. This story was inspired by Sara Teasdale’s post-apocalyptic poem “There Will Come Soft Rains” in which we see nature taking back the Earth after humanity is destroyed. This imagery in this excellent story is chilling and unforgettable. Unforgettable.
After all of the destruction that humans brought upon themselves (we nearly obliterated the population of two planets), the last story, “The Million-Year Picnic,” offers a bit of hope as two families escape the devastated Earth and plan to start over. To ensure that humans don’t make the same mistakes we made before, they burn books, maps, files and anything else that contains the sorts of ideas that may have led to our destruction. (A little ironic, I think. Apparently, Bradbury thought it was noble to burn some of our literature.)
Whenever I read Bradbury, I’m struck by his lofty visions, in the early 20th century, for future technological developments and space exploration. He envisioned a degree of achievement by the 21st century that we’re not even close to yet. However, at the same time, it seems that he didn’t foresee how much American social culture would change even during his lifetime. Thus, in most of his stories set in the future we find the juxtaposition of robots and rockets with the same sexism and racism experienced in 1950. Fortunately, the nuclear world war that he and many SF writers imagined has also not happened. Perhaps we can give Bradbury some of the credit for warning us so vividly.
The Martian Chronicles is some of Ray Bradbury’s most-loved work and foundational reading for science fiction fans. If you’ve never read it, or haven’t read it recently, I encourage you to try Blackstone Audio’s version.
Leaving behind a world on the brink of destruction, man came to the red planet and found the Martians waiting, dreamlike. Seeking the promise of a new beginning, man brought with him his oldest fears and his deepest desires. Man conquered Mars and in that instant, Mars conquered him. The strange new world with its ancient, dying race and vast, red-gold deserts cast a spell on him, settled into his dreams, and changed him forever. In connected, chronological stories, a true grandmaster enthralls, delights, and challenges us with his vision, starkly and stunningly exposing our strength, our weakness, our folly, and our poignant humanity on a strange and breathtaking world where humanity does not belong.
Originally posted at FanLit.
Another endearing children’s fantasy by a woman who obviously knows what children like. You can’t go wrong with Edith Nesbit and most of her books are in the public domain so you can get the free ebook at Amazon and add the whispersync narration. Great deal.
Originally posted at Fantasy Literature.
Nobody remembers Tigana — a land bright with beauty, culture, and wealth — nobody but those who lived there before the land was cursed by the conqueror Brandin of Ygrath after the prince of Tigana killed Brandin’s son in battle. When the now-oppressed Tiganese try to tell outsiders about Tigana, the name just slips out of the listener’s mind. Only those born in the land are able to keep its beautiful name in memory.
But the prince of Tigana’s son still lives and he and his companions plan to restore their land’s name. But, not only must they kill Brandin of Ygrath, but also Alberico of Barbadior, who rules the other half of their peninsula. Otherwise, they will merely be consumed by a different tyrant.
I was entranced by Tigana right from the first page. What I noticed immediately was the passion — this is a story lovingly wrought by an author who loves language, loves his characters, and loves the world he’s created. Guy Gavriel Kay’s prose is heavy (sometimes too heavy) with imagery and emotion yet it reads, for the most part, easily (except for the occasional unexpected shift in point-of-view).
Kay’s characters are distinct, well-developed, and likable. The prince’s companions are a diverse group, each with his/her own personality, strengths, and weaknesses. The actions and motives of the villains are completely understandable — in fact, I felt sympathetic toward them.
The story of the struggle to free Tigana was fascinating. There were some slightly unbelievable or contrived plot devices, but the rest of the story was excellent enough that I was perfectly happy to overlook them. The end was surprising and bittersweet.
I listened to most of Tigana on audio (and read some it in print). Simon Vance is the reader, and he is one of the very best. If you’re an audiobook listener, I’d definitely suggest that format for Tigana. But, either way, Tigana is a must-read.
Originally published at Fantasy Literature.
Warning: Use only as directed. And with caution.
Written in 1969, Ubik is one of Philip K. Dick’s most popular science fiction novels. It’s set in a future 1992 where some humans have develop psi and anti-psi powers which they are willing to hire out to individuals or companies who want to spy (or block spying) on others. Also in this alternate 1992, if you’ve got the money, you can put your beloved recently-deceased relatives into “coldpac” where they can be stored in half-life and you can visit with them for years after their death.
As Ubik begins, Glen Runciter, the head of one of New York City’s top anti-psi organizations, discovers that all the operatives of the top psi organization (whose telepathic fields they like to keep track of) have disappeared. This means less work for Runciter’s employees and he’s concerned about how they’re going to get paid. When Runicter’s company is offered a big job on the moon, he figures they’ve found the missing telepaths and he’s eager to hire out as many of his inactive inertials as he can, including the new one who has a strange and disturbing power: she can nullify events before they happen. But when Runciter’s inertials get to the moon, disaster strikes, and when they return to Earth, they find that life is not how they left it. In fact, time seems to be going backward and something is killing them off one by one. The only thing that might help is Ubik — a mysterious product in an aerosol spray can… If only they can find it!
Ubik is a fast-paced SF thriller full of classic PKD themes such as an unreliable reality, time running backward, precognition, telepathy, paranoia, drug abuse, hallucinations, and spirituality. The story is quite funny in places and includes a bit of horror, too.
There are several plot twists in Ubik, including a big one at the end, which means that the reader is as unsure about what’s going on as the characters are until the big reveal and, still, there are some questions left unanswered. Mainly we’re left contemplating what PKD is suggesting about death, salvation, and God. Ubik is one of those books where, at the end, you have to review the plot in light of your new knowledge just so you can try to put it all together.
I listened to Blackstone Audio’s version read by Anthony Heald. Heald successfully handles a rather large cast of alive and dead humans, not to mention the talking appliances and doors. Thanks to Heald’s skills, Ubik on audio was thoroughly entertaining.
Ubik has been named by Time Magazine as one of the Top 100 English-Language Novels From 1923 (list compiled by Lev Grossman). I can’t say that I agree with this accolade, but I can say that I enjoyed Ubik and can recommend it to anyone who likes science fiction. For Philip K. Dick fans, Ubik is an essential read.
Unputdownable. This is very dark for YA. The audio version narrated by Carolyn McMcormick is excellent.
Simon R. Green has created a cast of zany characters in a dark imaginative world that's fun to explore. The audio is very good. However, this series starts to go down-hill after the first few books. It gets extremely repetitive and I ended up not liking the series in the end.
This story is a pretty straight-up very long boy-with-a-destiny-and-friends-must-defend-the-keep-from-the-evil-enemy-horde kind of epic fantasy that doesn’t stand out. There are a lot of the usual tropes which made it impossible for me to forget I was reading an epic fantasy novel (rather than becoming absorbed in the story). At first it’s hard to really like any of the characters but by the end I liked them better and I thought the plot was heading in a more interesting direction (away from the evil enemy horde). The romances are very thin but the occasional dry humor is appealing. I’m willing to read the next book, but mostly because I already have it on my shelf.
Zombies aren’t my favorite thing, but I did enjoy the story and the non-zombie characters in Boneshaker. Interesting setting — a mist-filled walled-off portion of Seattle.
Originally posted at Fantasy Literature.
Kurt Vonnegut was a POW in Dresden during World War II. He only survived the allies’ bombing of Dresden because the Germans housed the American prisoners in a meat-locker in a building they called Slaughterhouse-Five. For years afterward, Vonnegut attempted to write a book about his experiences, and in 1969 he eventually produced Slaughterhouse-Five, a fictional biography of one of his fellow soldiers who he calls Billy Pilgrim. In the first chapter of Slaughterhouse-Five, Kurt Vonnegut explains that his novel will be short and “jumbled” and that it’s “a failure” because “people aren’t supposed to look back” and “there is nothing intelligent to say about a massacre.” Well, the book is short and jumbled, but it’s not a failure — it’s interesting, irreverent, and very funny (if you like bleak black humor).
Billy Pilgrim has become “unstuck in time” — he seems to move up and down his own timeline, experiencing his life — his uneventful childhood, his inglorious experiences as a POW, his mundane marriage, his time in an insane asylum, his dull but lucrative career, and his death — out of order and repeatedly. Billy also believes that he was once abducted by aliens and taken to the planet Tralfamadore where they put him in a zoo so they could observe human behavior. The Tralfamadorans, who experience four dimensions and are outside of time, have a fatalistic philosophy of life, war, and death, which Billy embraces.
Vonnegut’s non-linear narrative and his repetitive imagery and language evoke a feeling of bizarreness, disorientation and impotence, which mirrors Billy Pilgrim’s feelings about his life — especially his feelings about the war where he was a weak, ineffective soldier who did nothing but get caught by the Germans and witness the deaths of thousands of innocent people. Vonnegut keeps repeating the phrase “And so it goes” after any mention of death. The phrase is used over 100 times and, rather than becoming irritating, it lends a fatalistic air. It also gets funnier each time, in a gallows humor kind of way. (The phrase is even used after we’re told that the champagne is flat.)
Along with the jumping around in time, Billy’s delusions about Tralfamadore make us assume that he’s insane. Was he insane before he went to war, or does he have Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, a disorder that, at that time, the military either didn’t recognize or didn’t acknowledge?
On the surface, Slaughterhouse-Five, though entertaining and funny all the way through, seems absurd and pointless. But that is the point: War is absurd and pointless. It’s illogical, irrational, and unstoppable. Vonnegut never overtly condemns war — the novel feels fatalistic instead; there is war, people die, and so it goes. If Slaughterhouse-Five is a condemnation of war, it’s a subtle condemnation, and maybe that’s why it works so well. Nobody likes to be hit over the head with a Message. Instead, Slaughterhouse-Five makes us consider the absurdity of war for human beings who, unlike the timeless Tralfamadorans, live in only three dimensions.
I listened to Harper Audio’s production of Slaughterhouse-Five. The narrator, Ethan Hawke, was amazing. This was one of the best audio productions I’ve listened to recently. Hawke, who sounds laid back and like he just smoked a couple of joints, speaks almost in a whisper. He sounds intimate and philosophical. Hawke’s narration greatly enhanced my enjoyment of Slaughterhouse-Five. There’s also an interview with Kurt Vonnegut at the end of this Harper Audio production.
Scott Lynch has created a unique and fascinating world full of wonderful creations such as a crime boss who rules his empire from a houseboat, his little daughter who sits on his lap drinking ale and kicking subordinates with her steel-toed boots, a blind priest who begs for alms and eats gourmet meals off fine plates in his luxurious cellar, noblemen who live in glowing glass towers, a blood-sucking rose garden, alcoholic oranges, and women who fight jumping man-eating sharks for sport. This is truly entertaining stuff!
Originally posted at Fantasy Literature.
The Mote in God’s Eye, co-written by frequent collaborators Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle, is a classic First Contact science fiction story which Robert A. Heinlein called “possibly the finest science fiction novel I have ever read.” The story takes place in 3017 AD in the future of Jerry Pournelle’s CODOMINION universe (though it’s not necessary to have read any of those books to enjoy The Mote in God’s Eye). Humans have developed the Alderson Drive which allows them to immediately jump to certain points in space. Thus they’ve been able to colonize many planets which are ruled by a single government similar to the British monarchy.
Up to this point humans have assumed they’re the only intelligent species in the universe, but an alien spaceship has just been detected near the Mote system. The spaceship MacArthur, captained by Lord Roderick Blaine, is dispatched to intercept the alien. Besides its regular crew, MacArthur has a couple of civilian passengers temporarily on board: Horace Bury, a trader and political prisoner, and Sally Fowler, a cultural anthropologist (how fortuitous) and senator’s niece.
It turns out that the alien in the probe ship is dead, but the humans figure out where the home planet must be, so Roderick Blaine, Sally Fowler, Horace Bury, a priest, the crew of MacArthur and a team of scientists are sent on a diplomatic mission to the planet they call Mote Prime. The ship Lenin is sent for back up. It’s captained by Admiral Kutuzov, a ruthless but effective man whose job is to not let the Moties learn anything that could help them build an Alderson Drive and escape the bounds of their own solar system.
Upon arrival at Mote Prime the diplomats find that the Moties are friendly and want to be allies. An alliance and trade agreement with the Moties would be beneficial to the human empire because, except for the lack of an Alderson Drive, the Moties are far more technologically advanced. But that means they’re also a threat. The diplomatic mission must discover all they can about the Motie society so it can make a recommendation to the empire about how to deal with this species they’re sharing the universe with. This, of course, is not as easy as it seems. Do the Moties really have pure intentions toward the humans, or are they deceiving them for some reason?
The Mote in God’s Eye, published in 1974, is a nice change of pace from most of the human vs. alien science fiction that had been previously published. Niven and Pournelle create a truly alien society and explore its evolution, history, sociology, and motivations. The story is compelling because Niven and Pournelle capitalize on the mystery, leaving the reader as much in the dark about the Moties’ true intentions as the human characters are. The truth is surprising (though, I thought, not completely believable).
Niven and Pournelle write unique stories but they’re not superior stylists; I read their books for the plot and ideas — not to admire their use of structure or language. This particular story is interesting, has a few great characters (Blaine, Kutuzov, the priest, and the Brownie aliens), and has an occasional nice touch of humor, but it sometimes suffers from shallow characterization, excessive dialogue, and an old-fashioned feel. The action is exciting, but limited. There is a lot of the normal “hard SF” explanation of drives, fields, stars, ships, etc, but there are also a lot of meetings in which the humans (or aliens) are trying to figure out what the aliens (or humans) know, assume, intend, and plan. Some of this was amusing (for example when the aliens are trying to figure out some aspects of human behavior) but many of the discussions just go on too long. Also, for a story set in 3017, ideas about birth control, sex, and women’s roles in society feel rather quaint.
The Mote in God’s Eye was published in 1974 and nominated for the Hugo, Nebula, and Locus Awards. Nearly 20 years later Niven and Pournelle published a sequel called The Gripping Hand. It was not well received so, in 2010, Jerry Pournelle’s daughter J.R. Pournelle wrote and published another sequel called Outies.
I listened to Audible Frontier’s audio version of The Mote in God’s Eye. L.J. Ganser does a great job with the narration. This title has recently been released in CD format by Brilliance Audio.
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