‘The Martian Chronicles’ Made Climate Change Visible
Climate change can often seem invisible, because at base, it’s a physics problem.
The day I turned seven, I fell sick with the flu. Sneezing, coughing, and feverish, I lay sprawled on the couch under a heavy blanket, while my mother phoned the parents of my party guests to tell them it was called off. The illness had come on quickly. The aching in my arms and legs grew steadily over the course of the morning. Shivering, I felt a wave of disappointment over the cancellation. More than that, though, I was mystified by how I’d gotten sick at all.
“A bug got inside you,” my mother told me.
“While I was sleeping?” I asked, incredulous. Why hadn’t I felt its tiny, wriggling legs on my skin?
“Not that kind of bug,” she replied, placing a hand on my forehead and a thermometer in my mouth. “The kind you can’t see.”
Perhaps because of the fever, the thought of invisible enemies seared itself into my brain. Up to that point, I’d been scared of boogeymen in the closet and ghouls under the bed. I squeezed my eyes shut, struggling to imagine what such an invader might look like, but no image came to mind. This wasn’t a hulking monster covered in fur with glinting fangs and glowing red eyes, but a bug so small it could squirm into my body undetected. Why worry about childhood brutes when the real world contained invisible threats that could make your body ache and burn from the inside out?
As I write this essay in 2020, I’m sick again—not with anything serious, thankfully, just a cold that won’t let up. I’m one of the lucky ones.
As the coronavirus pandemic continues to encircle the planet, the structure of our lives has dramatically changed in the effort to slow the spread. Even among other diseases, Covid-19 presents as an especially invisible threat, because carriers can have it for weeks before realizing they’re sick, if they even show symptoms at all. In the interim, they risk transmitting it to others, who likewise have no idea they’ve contracted the virus until symptoms set in. The effects, as we know too well, continue to be devastating. Months before the virus arrived in the United States, I was already afraid of it. I had tracked its global trajectory on social media, because information overload is how I manage my fears.
Even now, decades after my seventh birthday, I am still afraid of the many things I can’t see: sick-making bugs like the coronavirus, sure, but also the enormously consequential decisions that powerful people make behind closed doors, without any regard for the vulnerable. Some of those clandestine decisions are what allowed the virus to spread mostly uncontained in the States. They’re also what enabled the rise of a different global catastrophe; one that’s also mostly invisible, largely uncontrolled, and has kept me awake at night with fear: climate change.
Climate change can often seem invisible, because at base, it’s a physics problem. Not until a computer creates a model or a scientist draws a graph to illustrate a data set does climate science take perceptible form. It doesn’t help that fossil fuel companies have also spent decades trying to make the problem harder to see, engaging in cover-ups and mass disinformation campaigns about the dangers of global warming and their contributions to it. Today, when news reports cover climate change at all, they tend to focus less on its underlying cause and more on its effects, such as a flooding shoreline or millions of acres burning, the mass extinction of a certain species, or the migration of climate change refugees (though, to be fair, more outlets are starting to expose the fossil fuel industry’s cover-ups). But by failing to explain the underlying reason for such horrors, those same reporters present the fires and floods as unrelated catastrophes, mere entries in a growing but disconnected body of evidence that the world is going to hell for reasons that are mostly unknown.
Not until a computer creates a model or a scientist draws a graph to illustrate a data set does climate science take perceptible form.
But where news reports fall short, fictional narratives have succeeded. Since at least the 1960s, with the publication of J.G. Ballard’s The Drowned World and its successor, The Burning World, novelists have given narrative shape to climate change, capturing its cause as well as its heartbreaking consequences. Much of this literature—“climate fiction”—is rooted in science fiction, a genre that presents imaginative futures built on the best and worst of humanity’s impulses and innovations. And ever since I was a ten-year-old girl, I have turned to sci-fi for help with making sense of the world.
On my thirteenth birthday, my mother threw a party that went off without a hitch. No one got sick, all my friends came, and I got to blow out candles on a cake shaped like Star Trek’s Enterprise. My mother asked that no one bring presents, but almost everyone did—trinkets like bracelets and barrettes. Then mom asked me to open her present. I peeled back the wrapping paper to reveal a copy of Ray Bradbury’s The Martian Chronicles. She knew I loved Fahrenheit 451, and the local bookseller had told her I’d love this one, too.
That night, I turned the first page of what would become one of my favorite novels of all time. I call it a novel, but it’s really a series of interlocking short stories set from 1999 to 2026 (or in a later edition, 2030 to 2057), which together depict humanity’s colonization of Mars. First published in 1950, The Martian Chronicles echoed my fears of the invisible by dramatizing the threat of the Cold War. In the book, thousands of humans leave earth to escape the pending nuclear war. But once war breaks out, becoming a threat that people can actually see and hear, the humans return to fight alongside friends and family members they’d left behind.
The Martian Chronicles came into my life at a time when my school history books were only just beginning to delve into the details of the Cold War. By then, I was in eighth grade, and history lessons came in a series of units too short and jumbled to cohere into anything meaningful. We skipped over most of early American history, including the country’s brutal colonization and murder of Native Americans, and jumped right to the twentieth century. We barely covered the World Wars, skipped over the 1918 Spanish Flu pandemic, and never once touched on how fossil fuel companies have covered up, since at least the late 1970s, their connection to global warming.
History at that age seemed at best a fractured, disconnected story. The pages touched on dates, place names, and aggregated figures—never on what actual people felt or thought. Nothing I read for class hit me as viscerally as The Martian Chronicles, which, as I learned in the hours I spent reading the book each night before bed, drew many parallels to America’s violent, colonialist, and environmentally destructive history.
The novel opens with the planet-wide demise of Martians due to the spread of human chickenpox—a storyline with renewed, painful relevance during the Covid-19 pandemic, which, like climate change, is hitting communities of color disproportionately hard. Halfway through the book, Martian cities thousands of years old and made of glistening, eco-friendly marble crumble under the weight of human overpopulation. Meanwhile, the Red Planet’s many rivers and bright green spaces dry up and wilt away as humanity discovers, then misuses, Mars’ natural resources. When humans return to Earth to fight the war, they leave nothing in their wake but dusty, dried-up sea beds and air so thin it’s barely breathable.
This was nothing like my history textbooks.
Bradbury’s novel had a narrative structure, vivid imagery, memorable characters, and a message—one that shot into my brain like an interstellar rocket: Modern civilization was built on social systems and colonialist government policies as unjust as they are unsustainable. Thanks to the futuristic Martian Chronicles, I could finally see history. And it was one of the scariest stories I’d ever read.
Revisiting the book today, The Martian Chronicles reads in places like a product of its time: Women are rarely empowered and often ridiculed, and while a section in an earlier version of the book called “Way in the Middle of the Air” reads like a pointed condemnation of Jim Crow America, only white men are allowed to lead the expeditions that bring humanity to Mars. But in an age of climate change, the book also reads as deeply prescient in its depiction of planet-wide ecological destruction. In a chapter called, fittingly, “The Locusts,” humans arrive in hoards, turning “rock to lava” and “wood to charcoal” with their fiery rockets. They run from the rockets with “hammers in their hands to beat the strange world into a shape that was familiar to the eye . . . [bludgeoning] away all the strangeness.” Their buildings grow so tall and their air pollution so thick that they “blot out the eerie stars.”
Thanks to the futuristic Martian Chronicles,I could finally seehistory. And it was one of the scariest stories I’d ever read.
Another chapter, “Night Meeting,” follows a man driving his gas-guzzling rover through a “little dead Martian town,” now in ruins but once “perfect” in its ecologically balanced integration into the landscape. He’s on his way to visit the dried-up Martian sea. The man is surprised when over the hills comes a Martian on a rover of his own—he thought that all the Martians were dead. The Martian comes to a stop beside him and they regard each other. When they speak, they realize that they have entered a temporal rip, wherein the Martian’s past exists simultaneously as the human’s present. To the Martian, the dead town the man had just driven through is still vibrantly alive, and the dead sea is still an ocean at low tide. Before humans ever land on the red planet, the Martian rivers run clear, the wind and air smell clean. But once we arrive, demanding celebration (if not worship) from Martians and razing ancient cities to build petrol stations and plastic hot-dog stands, everything falls apart.
Ray Bradbury, despite his environmental sympathies, almost certainly wasn’t thinking of global warming when he wrote the book—in 1950 the phenomenon just hadn’t pierced public consciousness yet. But taken together, the vignettes suggest that climate change is both real and driven by human activity.
Even more presciently, the book draws clear, pointed connections between environmental devastation and humanity’s reckless allegiance to colonialism and unchecked capitalism. In a chapter called “The Naming of Names,” humans arrive on Mars and “put their names upon the lands.” The old Martian names, Bradbury writes, were for “the water and air and hills,” but when the rockets arrived, they “struck at the names like hammers, breaking away the marble into shale, shattering the crockery milestones that named the old towns, in the rubble of which great pylons were plunged with new names: Iron Town, Steel Town, Aluminum City, Electric Village.” Humanity’s capitalist allegiances, described by Bradbury as an “alien weed,” are just as responsible for pollution as for the destruction of the planet’s native ecosystems.
In the year 2020, millions of people in the United States are especially vulnerable to environmental-related illnesses and Covid-19––and not necessarily because they have preexisting health conditions that might intensify the seriousness of the disease. They’re more vulnerable because they are without health insurance and sick leave, a persistent inequality that also falls more heavily on minoritized groups, and that exists largely because of the same unchecked capitalism that Bradbury was critiquing in the ’50s. If these people fall ill, they won’t be able to afford a doctor. If they take time off work to heal, they may not have a job to return to.
As for me, I’m doing my best to keep my anxiety in check. Having reliable health insurance helps (again, I’m one of the lucky ones). But every time I get sick, a part of me feels the same indignation I felt at age seven. If only I could see the little devils.
I feel the same way about climate change. If those of us in countries most responsible for global warming could better visualize the phenomenon, then we might be more motivated to stop it. Or so says Bryan Walsh, author of End Times: A Brief Guide to the End of the World. Our inability to imagine climate change as a present-day danger, he writes, is “why we’ve been so reluctant to take serious action” on it. Scientists have known since at least 1950—the year Bradbury published The Martian Chronicles—that greenhouse gasses are warming the planet with disastrous results. But since most of us couldn’t see the problem––a product of both its scale and the decades of coverups—we let it go on.
Fiction isn’t going to save the world. But it helps make visible what the fossil fuel companies hid and what so many news outlets and poorly written history books have long obscured: the causes of climate change and how they have been driven by capitalism and colonialism. Seventy years ago, Bradbury saw what so many of us didn’t, and used The Martian Chronicles to make these interlocking problems visible. Now, it’s up to us whether we choose to see.
Amy Brady is the Deputy Publisher of Guernica magazine and the Senior Editor of the Chicago Review of Books, where she writes a monthly column about climate fiction. Her writing has appeared in the Los Angeles Times, the Dallas Morning News, Sierra, Pacific Standard, the New Republic, the Village Voice, the Cambridge Companion to Working-Class Literature, and elsewhere. She holds a PhD in literature from the University of Massachusetts Amherst and was a recipient of a CLIR/Mellon Library of Congress Fellowship.