Although it is set in what was, when Bradbury wrote it, “the future,” The Martian Chronicles is largely concerned with the theme of coming to terms with the past. The human colonization of Mars is the arena in which both individual human beings and the species as a whole must wrestle with what lessons to learn from the past. The crew of “The Third Expedition,” for example, discover the dangerous side of nostalgia when they find themselves in “Green Bluff, Iowa”: their willingness to accept the illusion of the town over the reality of an alien world leads to their deaths. LaFarge and his wife in “The Martian” must cope with their unresolved grief for their son Tom lest it become a “trap” not only for the Martian who visits them but also for themselves, a cage holding them back from facing their future on Mars. Other humans, however, leave the past behind more successfully. The African-Americans who leave Earth in “Way in the Middle of the Air,” for example, also leave behind all the physical trappings of their former life, in which they faced endless segregation and prejudice. Benjamin Driscoll, in “The Green Morning,” successfully envisions a new, wildly verdant future for the red planet, and his efforts at planting trees bear near-miraculous results. And the Thomas family in “The Million-Year Picnic,” of course, represent the ultimately successful quest to leave the worst of the past behind in order to establish a brighter future: “Life on Earth never settled down to anything very good… That’s what we ran away from…. Your mother and I will try to teach you. Perhaps we’ll fail. I hope not” (p. 180). For an author as nostalgic as Bradbury is in other works (e.g., Something Wicked This Way Comes; Dandelion Wine), he seems to strike a surprisingly consistent forward-looking tone with The Martian Chronicles. This theme of preoccupation with or successful abandonment of the past determines whether humans fail or thrive on Mars.
Another theme of the book, closely related to the first, is the theme of the interaction of illusion and reality. In several stories, characters are confronted with a choice between an illusion and reality. Again, “The Third Expedition” is endangered precisely because they accept Green Bluff as a true representation of Mars, and therefore decide this alien world is actually safe and comfortable. Of course, it proves to be anything but. Another story that focuses on illusion and reality is “Usher II.” William Stendahl has surrounded himself with an illusion manufactured from the fantastic works of Earth’s literature—and, even though he acts because he feels (and even, in fact, has been) persecuted, he is far from the hero of the piece. Stendahl’s automatons—his mechanized “illusions”—kill several people (people whom Stendahl has already replaced with robotic duplicates, adding a further level of illusion to his plan for revenge). Once more, “The Martian” shows us how LaFarge and his neighbors are more willing to accept the illusion of familiar people than they are to accept the sole remaining Martian as he really is (of course, the Martian enables their acceptance of the illusion, because he is scared and lonely). When moments of truth break through the illusions in the book, however, progress and insight occur. Consider the encounter between human being and Martian in “Night Meeting”: each sees the other’s world as strange, but the juxtaposition of these two visions leads to insightful and humbling reflections about the place of both Martian and human civilizations on the red planet. And the book as a whole culminates in Dad Thomas’ instructions to his family to look at their reflections in the Martian canal. Seeing this true reflection enables them to understand and accept that they are now “the Martians,” responsible for building a better future. Time and again, The Martian Chronicles urges readers to face reality rather than to retreat into illusion.