The Phoenix Syndrome: The Martian Chronicles by Ray Bradbury
The paper is a study of Ray Bradbury’s The Martian Chronicles as a modern mythology that negates the old myth of the Phoenix as a figure of survival. It is argued that such a model that assures of continuity even after self-destruction is re-imagined. Bradbury turns the myth around, as a new myth that highlights the death wish of humanity is reversed in creating a human friendly Mars that keeps the fire of the Phoenix burning but with no scope for it jump in and come back. The new Mythology / New Mars imagined by Bradbury is a literary world and the technology that enables is also a literary machine. These ‘Machineries of Joy’ are the agents of survival by dispensing ‘Medicine for Melancholy’.
Key Words: Science Fiction, Modern Mythology, Phoenix myth, Mars, Ray Bradbury
There was a silly damn bird called a phoenix back before Christ, every few hundred years he built a pyre and burnt himself up….But every time he burnt himself up he sprang out of the ashes, he got himself born all over again.
-Ray Bradbury in Fahrenheit 451 (163)
The galloping technological progress of the post-World War I scenario started terrible fires of fear, the world over. Humanity had never witnessed the scale and scope of destruction the war had shown. The weapons had become mega destroyers/demolishers/ taking a toll in millions. Hardly within two decades came World War II, more terrible and more fearsome. The atomic bombing that brought it to an end generated mega fires of megalomaniac fears. This fear of the World War III, a nuclear war, is still afire. The Russia-Ukraine war going strong even now has only added fresh fuel to the fires of fear of global destruction. In other words, the fires/ pyres are lit awaiting the Phoenix to fall in. If it does, will it rise up again? These pyres are not composed of mythical elements but of technological innovations. Hence, neither Phoenix nor humanity may rise out of the future conflagrations. There may be no rebirth. End of Man and of Planet Earth. Ray Bradbury, and his likes, came as a ray of hope at a time of such doomsday blues to explore solutions for preventing humanity’s self-destruction. And this paper is a study of Ray Bradbury’s Modern Mythological extrapolation in his first novel The Martian Chronicles(1950) (Hereafter referred to as MC) through the theme of ‘The Phoenix Syndrome.’
The science fiction writers are the torch bearers who will not remain in the stifling confines of an old Earth. They are in constant search through vibrant imaginations to find or create new worlds that will sustain humanity, giving Man the gift of eternity.
In the hands of skilled verbal technicians like Vonnegut, Ray Bradbury, Arthur C Clarke, and John Boyd, science fiction becomes … “the modern mythology.” (McNelley 194)
These modern myths are of myths of our machines, of our galloping technological progress, and about re-humanising humanity. In fact, influential SF writers like Isaac Asimov have moved to the other side of the spectrum, imagining humanising the machines in order to guard and guide humanity. These modern mythical machines are ‘literary machines’ that are the vehicles of survival, like the rockets of Ray Bradbury. Even the oxygenated Martian surface is a modern mythical projection that enables human refugees to survive on Mars. The Martian Chronicles is Ray Bradbury’s first novel to express these concerns about man and his world.
Bradbury himself addressed the mythological emphasis of The Martian Chronicles in his 1997 introduction to the novel.
If it had been practical technologically efficient science fiction, it would have long since fallen to rust by the road. But since it is a self-separating fable, even the most deeply rooted physicists at Cal-Tech accept breathing the fraudulent atmosphere I have loosed on Mars. Science and machines can kill each other off or be replaced. Myth, seen in mirrors, incapable of being touched, stays on. (MC xi)
Bradbury began creating his own Mars inspired by Verne and modelled on Edgar Rice Burroughs and inspired by the famous Lowell’s Martian canals. He wanted to
shape Mars anew …. So with energy and enthusiasm, and what wit I could summon, I charted my own Mars…. But then I realised that what I was doing was writing … a mythology, doin a Bible really. (Mars and the Mind of Man, pp. 17-18)
This Bradburian Mars is purely a literary world endorsing the world creating powers of SF.
The Martian Chronicles is Bradbury’s first novel containing a series of short stories linked together to form a chronologically narrated history of the colonisation of Mars, reminiscent of the colonisation the American Midwest of the 1920’s. The native Martians, comparable with the American Red Indians, are eventually wiped out, ironically, by a human borne disease – chickenpox. “August 2001: The Settlers” is all about the coming of human hordes that settle down. “December 2001: The Green Morning” finds Benjamin Driscoll planting trees on Mars. “October 2002: The Shore” describes how for the men from Earth “Mars is a distant shore, and the men spread upon it in waves” (MC 87).
The various chronological chapters expose the fact that Earth is being abandoned and humans are fleeing to Mars, which is now a refuge. Like the Pilgrim Fathers who escaped from persecution and formed the American colonies, the Earthmen are escaping from impending war, from prohibition of books, of Art, of censorship. Some have come in search greener pastures, of greed and for exploiting the new land. Actually, Bradbury narrates the conditions prevailing on Earth, more as a distant ‘frame of reference.’ In “March 2000: The Taxpayer” the fleeing man says:
…wanted to get away from Earth; anybody with any sense wanted to get away from Earth …. To get away from wars and censorship and statism and conscription and government control of this and that, of art and science … to go to Mars.(MC 31)
This being the sad state of Earth, the Martian civilisation, in contrast is utopian and desirable. In “June 2001: And The Moon Be Still As Bright,” the Fourth Expedition finds all the Martians dead by chickenpox introduced by the previous Third Expedition. Jeff Spender of this Fourth Expedition explains that the Martians had: “stopped where we should have stopped a hundred years ago…. They knew how to blend art in their living…”(MC 64). He laments on how humans are undermining their civilisation, digging their own graves. Bradbury extolls the Martians for their superior technology which was used to live in peace and had never been subjugated to their science.
Bradbury goes on to highlight the negative potential of the human exodus to mars. He calls these settlers ‘locusts’. Chapter “February 2002: The Locusts” describes the arrival of ‘swarms’ of humans: “The rockets come like locusts, swarming and settling in blooms of rosy smoke” (MC 78). Thus is formed the New Earth on Mars with all the negativity of the old Earth. There is no learning from history. All the errors of the past are repeated again. The genesis of the new society is described in chapter, “2004-05: The Naming of Names”. In chapter “April:2005: Usher II,” Bradbury uses Edgar Allen Poe’s classic novel Fall of the House of the Usher as a model. It tells of William Stendahl, a rich fantasy fan whose library was burnt on Earth. In order to take revenge, on Mars he builds house Usher II with all its ‘desolate’, ‘terrible’, ‘bleak,’ horrors. He is persecuted even here by the ‘Society for the Prevention of Fantasy’. He invites all the ‘clean-minded’ people to the Usher II and has them all killed as imagined by Poe. His name refers to a French author Henri-Beyle with the pen name, Stendhal. His book The Red and the Black (1830) was burnt in 1964 in Brazil as a subversive publication.
Human potential for ignoring past mistakes is further highlighted in “November 2005:The Luggage Store.” The store owner is happy that there will be a war on Earth and his business will pick up when people will go from Mars to earth to the war. In contrast, “November 2005: The Off Season” is about a Hot Dog Stand, first of its kind on Mars, owned by Sam Parkhill and his wife. He is waiting for a fresh batch of immigrants, coming in thousands, because of the impending wars on Earth. The couple watch Earth, the green star in the Martian sky. Suddenly, “Earth changed in the black sky. It caught fire” (MC 143). Sam watches with horror and disbelief, as Earth burns, blows up and subsides to a green fire. Again n “November 2005:The Watchers” reinforces the catastrophic destruction of earth, watched by the Martian settlers. “At nine o’clock Earth seemed to explode, catch fire, and burn. The people on the porches put-up their hands as if to beat the fire out” (MC 144).
The tragedy of Earth is repeated on Mars too. The refugees have gone back to Earth to fight the wars and like Martians decimated by them, they too perish in the wars. Once again Mars is full of ghost cities, falling to ruins, abandoned by the humans. History repeats itself, even on Mars.
The novels final chapter, “October 2026: The Million-Year Picnic” introduces a new refugee family from the decimated earth to the deserted Mars. The father of the family is William Thomas, like the hero of Pilgrim’s Progress. He moves into one of the dead Martian cities and not into the human habitations. Another family is also expected to arrive. William Thomas, a former State Governor, burns all his Earth papers and also a map of earth.
I’m burning a way of life, just like that way of life is being burned clean of Earth- right now …. Science ran too far ahead of us too quickly, and the people got lost in a mechanical wilderness, like children making over pretty things, gadgets … emphasizing the wrong items, emphasizing machines instead of how to run machines. Wars got bigger and bigger and killed Earth….The fire leaped up to emphasize his talking. (MC 179-180)
The leaping fire can also be poignant. “August 2026: There will come soft Rains” vividly draws a picture of a fully automated home that slowly burns down and collapses in the atomic war. A wonderfully attractive and useful creation of various machines for the comfort and well-being of the inmates is reduced to ashes by the insane war-mongers who started the war. It is a chapter that is in intense poetic prose that evokes a strong sense of melancholy.
A cathartic feeling of melancholy is the defining characteristic of Ray Bradbury’s writings. It is a tragic reaction of a thinking and feeling individual who can read the writing on the wall, this way lies death of man and his world. But those in power can’t or wouldn’t read this warning sign. Dystopian governance need constant warnings of impending doom. Only Science Fiction authors have the facts and the imaginative capabilities to draw the attention of people and the authorities, keep humanity awake to the dangers of its own destructive tendencies. Only they can prescribe ‘Medicines for Melancholy.’
Ray Bradbury is the most qualified among his contemporaries to find and dispense the most viable medicines for the ills of humanity. He is a humanist who cannot tolerate injustice, threat or suffering and attempts to find solutions for amelioration, in his own artistic way. For instance, in chapter “June 2003: Way in the Middle of the Air”, Bradbury finds an ironic solution to racial discrimination. All the blacks in America are leaving for Mars, abandoning the country and the world that had enslaved, exploited and discriminated against them. In a poetic passage Bradbury compares the movement to a black river, silent and inevitably moving to board the waiting rockets. This exodus is a deadly blow the American society, pulling out in a single stroke the support base that had been sustained for long by these men and women. “Mr. Teece, Mr. Teece, what you goin’ to do nights from now on?”(MC 99), a veiled reference to the KKK and how they hunted the blacks. Requests from the whites to stay back fell on deaf ears and the last of the blacks left leaving behind a society in shambles and regrets.
The sugar coated bitter pills that Bradbury projects in this novel, as well as in his other works, is made possible by the science fictional scope and tools that allows freedom from the limited confines of the mainstream literature. SF gives him the greater freedom to express his hopes and fears, his dreams and nightmares, in an entertaining and effective manner. SF is also called the New Mythology and Ray Bradbury extrapolates and exploits the wonderful highly combustible fuel of mythology for his intergalactic explorations which are essentially humanistic in motive and hopeful in mood. It also reminds one of the Phoenix rising out of the ashes, a continuum of falling and rising, dyeing and living. Bradbury continues to tell us,
And it looks like we’re doing the same thing, over and over, but we’ve got one damn thing the phoenix never had. We know the damn silly thing we just did. We know all the damn silly things we’ve done for a thousand years and as long as we know that and always have it around where we can see it, someday we’ll stop making the goddamn funeral pyres and jumping in the middle of them. (Fahrenheit 451, 163)
The Phoenix syndrome as one can refer to this capacity to rise unscathed from conflagrations seems to be a blessing. But for a humanist like Ray Bradbury this is a curse that needs to be corrected. The Phoenix shall no more rise out of its ashes; it shall no more be a symbol of resurrection. It is the negative model. Sin as many times as one can. Then, after all, we can always have a ‘come back’. But such old myths need to be re-imagined. In the imagination of Bradbury, the modern myths become “marvellous teaching devices because they turn our old ways of thinking upside down. We suddenly see the important questions of our lives in a new perspective” (Stanford 921). Bradbury reiterates in all his fiction and The Martian Chronicles and Fahrenheit 451, in particular, to prevent such a future. By imbibing the moral lessons learnt from the past man must avoid lighting the ‘goddam’ funeral pyres now at least. ‘Prevent the future’ is a constant cry of Bradbury, prevent such futures that demand such repetitive deadly acts. Learn to re-humanise humanity by denying the Phoenix syndrome. The New Myths of Ray Bradbury are actually ‘Machineries of Joy’ that assure survival as individual and as humanity.
Bradbury, Ray. The Martian Chronicles. New York: Bantam, 1970.
——-. Ed. Mars and the Mind of Man. New York: Harper, 1973.
——. Fahrenheit 451. New York: Del Ray, 1977.
McNelley, Willis E. “SF: The Modern Mythology”, in SF: The Otherside of Realism, ed.
T.D. Clareson. Bowling Green, Ohio: Bowling Green Univ. Press, 1971.
Stanford, Barbara. “Shiva and Future Shock: Contemporary insights from world mythology.”
English Journal. (62), Sep.1973, pp. 919-21.
About the Author:
Dr. K. S. PURUSHOTHAMAN,
Principal (Rtd), Tamil Nadu Govt. Arts Colleges.
Founder-Chairman, Indian Association for Science Fiction Studies
Vellore – 632006.
Dr. K.S.Purushothaman has a B.Sc. and M.A in English(1971-73) from Bangalore University. Started his teaching career in 1973 as a lecturer in a Junior college in Karnataka. He moved to Tamil Nadu Govt. Collegiate service as an Assistant Professor of English in 1975. Retired as Grade I Principal in 2009. Post retirement, he had served as Principal / Visting Faculty in various colleges.
He is one of the earliest researchers in Science Fiction studies in India, starting with an M.Phil on Ray Bradbury in 1979 and a Ph.D. on Asimov in 1990 from Madras University. He Launched Indian Association for Science Fiction Studies (IASFS) in 1998 and managed to bring together SF writers and scholars through 21/ 6 National/International Annual Conferences till date, held all over India.
He was also a two term President and a five time Gen. Secretary of the Indian Association for American Studies.
He has guided scores of scholars for M.Phil. and Ph.D. After more than 4 decades of teaching service he is settled at Vellore, Tamil Nadu.
He continues to help aspiring SF research scholars and enthuse students to take up SF studies and creative writing through lectures, workshops, seminars and academic gatherings.