Underlying Bradbury’s futuristic writing is an enormous nostalgia for the simplicity of wholesome, early-20th-century, small-town life. This nostalgia infuses both The Martian Chronicles and many of the author’s other works. His immigrants to Mars are usually looking for a place to call their own-a cozy home and a bit of land. When they reach Mars they immediately set about turning it into another, better version of their place of origin. In “The Off Season,” Sam Parkhill thinks that he has achieved his lifelong dream by opening up a roadside hot dog stand. Other new immigrants set up luggage stores, or plant maple and elm trees.
Bradbury suggests that nostalgia can, at times, be dangerous. In “The Third Expedition,” a party of astronauts lands on Mars and discovers an innocent-looking town apparently inhabited by deceased family members-mothers, brothers, grandparents, all of them long since dead back on Earth. These people turn out to be Martians, who have used nostalgia as a lure to entrap and eventually kill the unsuspecting astronauts.
The nostalgia theme in Bradbury’s stories differentiates his work from that of many other science fiction writers of his generation. There is almost nothing of the fascination with technology that characterizes much work in the genre. Even the exotic settings of Bradbury’s tales are largely superfluous, serving primarily to introduce a narrative tension between the familiar and the unfamiliar. The invaders from Earth rename ancient places on Mars in honor of their own civilization; conversely, Bradbury places unfamiliar names on his settings, and proceeds to tell tales of haunting familiarity, in which age-old passions such as jealousy, nostalgia, and passion spell the fates of Martians and humans alike.
Several of Bradbury’s stories also deal with the dividing line between reality and illusion. In the touching “Night Meeting,” a human and a Martian meet on a deserted road only to discover that each is an impalpable ghost to the other and that each sees a totally different Mars. In “Usher II,” Mars is invaded by government bureaucrats from Earth who want to limit the settlers’ freedom, both political and imaginative. In response, a man builds a bizarre duplicate of the House of Usher-from the Edgar Allan Poe story “Fall of the House of Usher” (1839)-peopling it with deadly traps taken from various Poe stories. The bureaucrats, condemned by their ignorance and lack of imagination, are dealt with promptly.
Another theme of some importance in The Martian Chronicles is humanity’s inability to escape the past or to overcome preconceptions. Many of Bradbury’s characters have sorrows they cannot put behind them, scars that will not heal-all of which causes them to hurt others, often unintentionally. In “The Martian,” an older couple takes in what appears to be an abandoned child, one who looks remarkably like their dead son. He is actually a Martian, able to simulate their son’s face. The Martian has no ulterior motive; he is simply trying to find a home. Eventually, however, other people see him, recognize in him the dead loved ones they still mourn, and-without meaning to-kill him through the terrible power of their need.
It soon becomes obvious that Mars is not the new start that so many settlers hoped for, but rather a continuation of old difficulties. In such stories as “Way In the Middle of the Air” and “The Green Morning,” both of which show Mars as a new Eden, Bradbury makes it clear that few, if any, of the immigrants have solved their problems by fleeing Earth. This is, perhaps, simply a downbeat restatement of the nostalgia theme. The immigrants are unable to successfully put behind them the unhappiness they brought from Earth.
Near the end of The Martian Chronicles, the Earth destroys itself in a nuclear war and most of the settlers, though they know they are probably going to their deaths, choose to return home. Bradbury presents this decision to return to Earth, this suicidal need to reconfirm origins, as proof of the settlers’ inability to achieve a new sense of home on Mars. Only those few humans who have truly become Martians, who have truly separated themselves from the Earth, can achieve a new childhood, a new innocence, and remain on Mars. For them alone will it be a new Eden.