On numerous occasions, Mortimer Adler wrote about the criteria that were used to determine which books of all the books written in the West would be placed within The Great Books of the Western World. Contrary to confusion and many misstatements I’ve read over the years, Adler says it was essentially three criteria and they are as follows:
1) Contemporary significance–Even though historically valuable, these works address “issues, problems, or facets of human life that are of major concern to us today as well as at the time in which they were written.” While the work is within the genre of science fiction and fantasy, it really explores humane themes much as traditional fiction. In other words, change the setting from Mars to Montana and it still works as a literary masterpiece.
2) Rereadability–These are books “intended for the general reader that are worth reading carefully many times or studying over and over again…indefinitely rereadable for pleasure and profit.”
As I have confessed before in blogs and lectures, I re-read a number of Bradbury’s works at specific times of the year as they seem fitting to the season. While The Martian Chronicles is not one part of a seasonal rotation, I have enjoyed this work more than once. Like his other “novels,” The Martian Chronicles is rich enough in content and form (think Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath) and has enough meaningful ambiguity to sustain numerous readings and a enriching conversation with another who has read the work. For fans of this work, there is near universal agreement that the ending is that wonderful Bradburian twist that is a hallmark of his writing.
3) Extensive relevance and something of significance to say about a large number of the 102 great ideas of the thinking and writing done by the authors chosen.
Of the 102 Great Ideas Adler explored, The Martian Chronicles touches upon or explores in a meaningful manner the following:
Angel, Animal, Astronomy and Cosmology, Beauty, Being, Cause, Chance, Change, Citizen, Courage, Custom and Convention, Democracy, Desire, Duty, Education, Emotion, Eternity, Evolution, Experience, Family, Fate, God, Good and Evil, Government, Habit, Happiness, History, Honor, Idea, Immortality, Infinity, Judgment, Justice, Knowledge, Labor, Language, Law, Liberty, Life and Death, Love, Man, Matter, Memory and Imagination, Metaphysics, Mind, Nature, Necessity and Contingency, One and Many, Opinion, Opposition, Philosophy, Physics, Pleasure and Pain, Poetry, Progress, Prudence, Punishment, Quality, Reasoning, Relation, Religion, Revolution, Rhetoric, Same and Other, Science, Sense, Sign and Symbol, Sin, Slavery, Soul, Space, Temperance, Theology, Time, Truth, Tyranny and Despotism, Universal and Particular, Virtue and Vice, War and Peace, Will, Wisdom, and World.
Additionally, Adler said that the list of Great Books needed to be regularly reevaluated. With this in mind, I hope that I have made the case for including this novel by Ray Bradbury and including it in the open and extended list Adler proposed. As with other Bradbury writings, there is often an earlier life or version before the published date. While The Martian Chronicles was published in 1950 (63 years ago and still in print), many of the stories were written and published in various sources in the 1940s. Some scholars contend that The Martian Chronicles can, and actually should, be read in thematic relation with Bradbury’s Illinois trilogy Something Wicked This Way Comes, Dandelion Wine, and Farewell Summer. The NBC mini-series adaptation in 1979 was sadly flat despite some solid performances and a few great moments. The graphic novel published in 2011, and wonderfully illustrated by Dennis Calero, is really quite good. Additionally, there are plans underway (we know how this often goes) to remake The Martian Chronicles into a major film.
Whether read as a classic sci-fi tale or a moralistic glimpse into the human condition, this is a novel that should be clustered with the greatest of science fiction and fantasy literature. It is substantially richer in form than most of what passes for sci-fi and fantasy literature. In addition to being a masterfully crafted exploration of numerous humane themes, it is delightful, at times, but ultimately a tale about the glories and pitfalls of being human and the gift of life.
Books mentioned in this essay may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore.