April 2026 (“The Long Years”)
Summary: A rocket commanded by Captain Wilder of the Fourth Expedition lands on Mars. Wilder and his current crew are greeted by one of Wilder’s former crew, Hathaway. Hathaway invites Wilder and the crew to dinner with Hathaway’s family. At the meal, Wilder notes that Hathaway’s children appear not to have aged since he last saw them, some two decades earlier. Hathaway, who is in rapidly failing health, confirms Wilder’s suspicion that Hathaway’s “family members” are, in fact, robots, of Hathaway’s own construction. Once his real wife and children died of an unknown virus, Hathaway constructed robotic replacements to combat his loneliness. Hathaway dies. His robotic family tell Wilder that Hathaway never taught them how to feel sad or to cry. Wilder and his men return to their rocket, leaving Hathaway’s “family” behind, to continue “living” as they were.
Analysis: The briefly summarized plot of “The Long Years” belies the amount of thematic significance it has to The Martian Chronicles overall. As did “The Off Season,” this story reintroduces readers to a member of the Fourth Expedition—Hathaway—and also brings back that expedition’s commander, Wilder. Bradbury’s use of characters from earlier in the book unites its latter portions, dramatizing the consequences of Earth’s poor choices when it first came to Mars: Parkhill’s greedy and selfish attempt to exploit Mars with a hot dog stand (“sounds just like him,” comments Wilder, p. 160); and, now, Hathaway’s choice to create and live in an illusion rather than to engage the real Mars. Like Walter Gripp imagining his “sweet Genevieve” in “The Silent Town” (Gripp, we now learn, refused to come with Wilder and his men, p. 159), Hathaway is coping with his isolation by taking refuge in fantasy: not only his robotic family members, but also his manipulation of the abandoned human colony nearby: “He wired the entire dead American town below with sound speakers. When he pressed a button the town lit up and made noises as if ten thousand people lived in it” (p. 164). Hathaway’s death thus represents the death of humanity’s first attempts to settle the red planet. Rather than looking toward the future and accepting Mars as it really is, Hathaway has clung to the past (compare the reaction of the Third Expedition to their “resurrected” loved ones), retreating into make-believe (compare the themes of “Usher II”). Since Bradbury drops several clues early on in the story that Hathaway’s family are not real—the wine running down their chins (because, as mechanisms, they do not drink, p. 158); Hathaway’s plea for forgiveness at his family’s four, cross-marked graves, p. 156)—the real revelation of the story is not so much the family members’ robotic nature as the failure of humanity that they represent. The comment, “They haven’t changed, not a wrinkle” (p. 161), refers in its immediate context to Hathaway’s family; but it could also refer to those humans whom Wilder left behind on Mars some twenty years earlier, who have, unfortunately, proven Spender’s warnings to be well-grounded: as Hathaway tells Wilder, recalling Spender, “It looks like he got his way at last. He didn’t want us to come here, and I suppose he’s happy now that we’ve all gone away” (p. 159). Of course, humanity’s failure to establish a permanent presence on Mars is not Spender’s “way,” but the natural consequence of people’s stubborn insistence on clinging to the old ways of Earth in the past, rather than accepting and living into the new reality of their Martian future. Nonetheless, the story does contain some hints of promise for the future. The brief biblical allusion to John 11, for instance—the story of Lazarus being raised from the dead by Jesus—is an ironic reference, in context, to Hathaway’s retrieval of a chicken for the meal; however, it could signify the possibility of a true resurrection shortly to take place. And the fact that the ancient Martian towns still stand at all (even if in ruins) suggests that old, venerable Mars will yet reassert itself: “And all these things from Earth will be gone long before the old Martian towns” (p. 156). A new beginning for Mars—and for human beings—may yet be possible.
August 2026: “There Will Come Soft Rains”
Summary: A “day in the life” of an empty but automated house on Mars. Mid-morning, a falling tree branch crashes through the kitchen window, causing flammable cleaning supplies to ignite in a blaze that leaves the house a charred ruin, even as its computerized voice continues to announce the date.
Analysis: This is the only short story in The Martian Chronicles that features no human (or, for that matter, Martian) characters. Instead, the protagonist is the now abandoned home of the McClellan family. Presumably, the McClellans returned to Earth when the war erupted in 2005; now, just over two decades later, their automated, computerized house still stands, a sad testament to the failed human attempts to colonize the red planet. More than that, however, the house becomes a pyre for those attempts. Fire plays a symbolic role in this story, not only consuming the mistakes of humanity (and, by extension, perhaps, of humanity’s failures of the past on Earth) but also purifying the planet from which humanity has so recently departed. The fire enacts the sentiment of the Sara Teasdale poem that the house reads aloud to an absent Mrs. McClellan: “Not one would mind, neither bird nor tree, / If mankind perished utterly”(p. 169). (Teasdale, an American poet whose book Love Songs (1917) won the first Pulitzer Prize for poetry, committed suicide in 1933—perhaps the inclusion of her verse in this story is an additional illusion to the self-destructive ways of humanity.) Mankind has, in fact, now “perished utterly” from the face of Mars—and not only its failings. Note that the fire also feeds “upon Picassos and Matisses in the upper halls” (p. 170). The fire is a consuming fire of judgment, purging all traces of humanity, the good and the bad, from Mars—all in microcosm, of course, all in the burning of the McClellan home. The fire burns, exposing the pretensions to godhood that the human inhabitants had cherished: note how the house’s automatic rituals are portrayed in religious terms—“The house was an altar with ten thousand attendants… But the gods had gone away, and the ritual of the religion continued senselessly, uselessly” (p. 166). At length, a new sunrise illuminates “the heaped rubble and steam” (p. 171). At long last, a new day has dawned on Mars.
October 2026: “The Million-Year Picnic”
Summary: The Thomas family—a mother and father and their three sons—come to Mars in a secret rocket, leaving behind a planet wracked by the atomic war and plagued by social problems. Promising his sons that they will see Martians, Dad leads the family on a “picnic expedition” to an ancient, abandoned Martian town, where he announces that the family will begin a new, permanent, and, ultimately, better life. Keeping his promise to show his sons “the Martians,” he tells them to look in one of the red planet’s canals. There, the Thomas family sees its own reflection staring back. They are the Martians. They are the future, not only of humanity, but of Mars, its new home.
Analysis: This story provides a fitting and touching conclusion to Bradbury’s book. After the failures of the initial four expeditions in “Act I” of the text; after the succession of unworthy settlers we have seen in “Act II”; the third and final “act” of the book carries us to the end of the silent, lonely “in between” times, to witness a new and worthier migration of humanity to Mars. Unlike those who came before them, the Thomas family is marked by “logic, common sense, good government, peace, and responsibility” (p. 173)—qualities in short supply upon war-ravaged Earth of the future. And unlike most of the earlier settlers (excepting such notables as Benjamin Driscoll), the Thomases possess a true vision of a Martian future. When they see themselves reflected in the canal at the book’s end, they see, truly, that they must become “the Martians.” As Pop put it so long before, in “Night Meeting,” the Thomases know that they must forget about Earth and accept Mars as it is, finding their future on this new world rather than attempting, in vain, to bring it with them from the old. As Dad tells his family, “that way of life proved itself wrong and strangled itself with its own hands” (p. 180). They have now come to Mars “to live and form our own standard of living” (p. 180). And Bradbury embeds hints in the text that the family will do just that. The most notable clue, perhaps, is the fact that Mom Thomas is pregnant! “‘Be careful of your sister,’ said Dad, and nobody knew what he meant until later” (p. 178). The yet-to-arrive Thomas daughter will be—so far as we know from textual evidence—the first human child born on Mars. Her birth will truly inaugurate a new era in the planet’s history. She will be, in effect, the first native Martian since the last of the indigenous Martians died out (perhaps “Tom” in “The Martian,” himself, was that poor creature). The Thomas boys are seen “trying to understand what it meant to own a world” (p. 179). Mom Thomas’ pregnancy and the impending arrival of Bert Edwards and his daughters hint that part of what it means to own a world is to populate it! The Thomas boys and the Edwards girls—not Walter Gripp and his “sweet Genevieve” (“The Silent Towns”)—will truly play the role of Adam and Eve on Mars, being fruitful and multiplying, bringing life again to a dead world. Soon, the only dead world that will remain is Earth, not Mars: this reality is symbolized by Dad’s burning of a world map in the fire: “It was a map of the World, and it wrinkled and distorted itself hotly and went—flimpf—and was gone like a warm, black butterfly” (p. 180). (Note how Bradbury uses the butterfly, a traditional image of new life, to ironic effect in that sentence.) The Thomases are “the Martians,” to be sure; and their exodus from the dead world of Earth and their commitment to the new and soon to be living world of Mars (“This is where we live from now on!”, p. 177) ensure that, in the future Bradbury is imagining, Martian chronicles will continue for generations to come.