Great American Read, Part 3

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As part of KQED’s collaboration with PBS on The Great American Read, Richard Levitt recalls Ray Bradbury’s "The Martian Chronicles," a science fiction novel about the soul and the human condition. 

When I was about 10, my grandfather, who illustrated science fiction and horror novels, gave me a copy of "The Martian Chronicles," written and signed to me by his pal Ray Bradbury.

One can call it science fiction — rocket ships heading for Mars, strange and fantastical Martians, the devastation of nuclear war. All in the unimaginably distant future of 2005.

But it isn’t really about astronauts and rocket ships. It’s about the soul. About dreams and visions. Good and evil. What motivates us and terrifies us. How we find and lose our own humanity.

We meet a lovelorn Martian wife, who gets her jealous husband’s attention by describing passionate, predictive dreams of human astronauts. And astronauts, who instead of finding sprawling Martian cities discover a charming little Midwestern town inhabited by their long-deceased relatives, who are, in fact, telepathic Martians luring them into a deadly trap; an automated house that continues its duties, though nothing remains of the family but shadows scalded into the walls by nuclear explosion; a fierce racist is suddenly unsure of his dominion, as the town’s entire Black population leaves for Mars.


And finally, the last family to escape Earth. They go on a picnic to see real Martians … and they do … in their own reflections from a placid Martian canal.

"The Martian Chronicles" taught me that great science fiction isn’t about the future. It’s about us. Now. Just packaged in futuristic shrink wrap to avoid seeming preachy or didactic. And that all great stories, no matter the genre, reflect the human condition.

I’ve read and written countless stories since, all filtered through that hazy, melancholy, Martian-red lens gifted to me by Bradbury, who had such penetrating ideas, and my grandfather, who gave me the opportunity to discover them.

With a Perspective, I’m Richard Levitt.

Richard Levitt is an East Bay writer and martial arts and yoga teacher. His commentary is part of KQED’s collaboration with PBS on The Great American Read.