Cold War Anxieties: Ray Bradbury and The Martian Chronicles

By Maria Ramos

Ray Bradbury was a well-beloved American science fiction writer. Over his seventy-year career, he wrote more than thirty books, six hundred short stories, and numerous plays and poems. However, some of his most notable works were Fahrenheit 451 and Something Wicked This Way Comes, the film versions of which have become cult classics and mainstays on niche networks like Syfy. Bradbury has influenced so many readers and writers in his field that he was recognized with the National Book Foundation’s 2000 Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Literature and the National Medal of Arts in 2004. When discussing Bradbury’s best work, many forget the anthology, The Martian Chronicles. Starting with The Martian Chronicles, we will discuss the themes Bradbury presented in the anthology and how they reflected the Cold War anxieties the United States was experiencing at the time.

Published in 1950 during the height of the Cold War anti-Communist hysteria, The Martian Chronicles was the anthology that brought Bradbury to the literature spotlight. Though several of the stories could be standalone, all of them came together as one novel to chronicle humanity’s exploration and colonization of Mars. Starting with the first expedition, Bradbury weaves an intricate tale of how humans eventually colonize a foreign planet and go back to Earth to face nuclear war, only to ultimately escape the destruction by coming back to what is left. Despite the fact it was a science-fiction anthology, Bradbury didn’t deal with the themes his previous science fiction works dealt with. Instead, he dealt with the themes of humanity.

Colonization, family, changing times, war, identity, and home were all recurring themes dealt with by the various main characters in the novel. It was what set this work apart from earlier pieces, yet transitioned into later ones. Mr. and Mrs. K from “Rocket Summer” deal with a failing marriage. The Martians deal with sickness and change in their dying society. LaFarge and Anna deal with the memory of their deceased son. Hathaway deals with the death of his family and ultimately being the last man on a planet after everyone leaves for Earth. Each of the characters encounters themes we wrestle with in reality. Bradbury wrote about humanity and life during a time when everything seemed to be in utter chaos.

Colonization is shown very obviously in The Martian Chronicles. Humans have fled to Mars from Earth, but are in conflict with the aboriginal Martians. This is a commentary on westward expansion in American history, as settlers in the past had taken over American land and tried to recreate what they once had overseas. In The Martian Chronicles, although the humans have traveled to a different home, they do not try to replicate what they had on Earth. Bradbury lets his readers know that this type of colonization (in which you appreciate what you have instead of trying to change it) is acceptable and justifiable, and the colonization that European settlers created was not.

In the short story, “There Will Come Soft Rains,” an automated house carries on with its duties for a now-deceased family after the nuclear war that devastated the Earth. The deceased family’s shadows are still visible on the side of the house – an echo of the shadows in Hiroshima burned onto walls by the intense radiation from the atomic bomb that detonated there. This story is a reflection of life post-Hiroshima in two ways. In one way, it is a snide comment about the opulence that the American upper-to-middle class was enjoying as a result of the economic prosperity in the United States after World War II. On the other hand, it is a comment about our innovations often being inextricably linked to our capacity for wanton destruction.

During the time when The Martian Chronicles was published, the United States was locked in a Cold War with the Soviet Union. Between the years of 1945 and 1963, America and the USSR went through a period where each nation sought to invent and create as many technological advancements as possible to show who was more dominant in firepower and science. Many of the anxieties that came from this period run similarly to anxieties found in the book. For example, when nuclear war breaks out in the book, the settlers are worried for the families they left on Earth. Similarly, Americans were worried about the implications of a full-on nuclear war with the Soviets so soon after coming out of WWII. It was a shaky period during the nation’s history, filled with high emotion and an unknown future. The Martian Chronicles reflected that time period effectively. Those who carefully read this anthology’s stories will be taken back in time and appreciate the eerie echoes of Bradbury’s words, reminding us of our fears during the Cold War.

Of all of Bradbury’s work, it may actually be The Martian Chronicles that remains the most timeless for readers going forward. In a book of stories set within a time and reality characterized by uncertainty and change, its characters explore the similar themes of adapting to new places and situations, sickness, war, and colonization, while trying to find their identity and the meaning of home. Perhaps it is for this reason that this work stands apart from the rest and why Bradbury remains in the hearts of literary fans across the globe. He didn’t just write science fiction; he wrote about humanity and the triumph of the human spirit despite changing times.