“It is good to renew one’s wonder.”
This is how Ray Bradbury opens The Martian Chronicles. And that’s exactly what makes his writing great—he renews that sense of wonder, a feeling that’s so easy to lose.
Bradbury is best known for his novels, such as Something Wicked This Way Comes and Fahrenheit 451 (which was made into a well-received 1966 film). And these were the Bradbury novels that I actually read first.
Then, somewhere in the summer of 2016, I picked up a third novel on a whim—The Martian Chronicles.
Or, at least, I thought I was picking up a novel… I started reading and quickly realised that it was a collection of short stories. I’d never really read a collection of short stories before. Especially not of full-on sci-fi stories.
But you know what? I loved it. I was fairly shocked at first, but then yielded to the distinctive, unforgettable stories, worlds, and situations that Bradbury builds. I didn’t know I was a short story person, but Ray Bradbury was the one to change that. I quickly understood that short stories could actually be better than novels for certain narratives—they can fit in more punch in less time. They’re untied from constraints, owe less to pacing and exposition, character development, or any of that stuff. You can start with a hook, and end in the middle.
When you begin reading a Ray Bradbury short story collection, you never know what’s going to coming. One story won’t necessarily be anything like the next. He demonstrates a masterfully versatile—maybe even acrobatic—approach to writing and worldbuilding. He was a prolific fiction writer and clearly one of the most imaginative to ever have lived.
To read Bradbury is to dive into that imagination, into new worlds, new ways of looking at the world, and into the depths of the human condition and its follies, beauties, tragedies.
Today, I’d actually say I prefer Bradbury’s stories to his novels!
Oops, I overdid the preamble again, didn’t I? Maybe. Well don’t worry, because now I’m going to tell you (what I think are) the best ones he wrote, and why you should read them!
The best Ray Bradbury short stories (1 to 10)
1. “There Will Come Soft Rains” from The Martian Chronicles
This one is one of the first stories in The Martian Chronicles. Bradbury wrote The Martian Chronicles while the US and Russia were developing and testing their first hydrogen and atomic bombs. The collection was then published shortly before the US detonated a nuclear bomb in a populated area for the first (and last) time ever: Hiroshima, Japan.
So, understandably, end-of-the-world anxiety seeped into his stories. The story has a number of anti-war, anti-conflict messages. In fact, the title “There Will Come Soft Rains” is taken from Sara Teasdale’s anti-war poem of the same name.
As they say: good artists borrow, great artists steal.
The story is all about a fully-automated house that continues to carry out its duties even after the world’s destruction. Meal preparation, cleaning, housework—the lot. Except there’s no human’s there to reap the rewards. No one to see it, no one to notice, no one to appreciate. But the mechanical house continues, unperturbed, because it has no concept of its own purpose nor any real connection to the people it was built to serve. It just continues to do what it was designed to do, while the rest of the world decays—empty, barren, and obliterated.
The house begins speaking to its old occupiers, still unaware they are dead, even reciting poems for them and setting up nightly entertainment. You see the poignancy here? What good is the home, with no people left to receive it? The house stands as a metaphor for the world that wouldn’t notice if we were gone, but also a jab at our increasingly technologised mode of living. Bradbury seemed to have a bit of a chip on his shoulder about technology, but that’s a conversation for another day.
You can also see the origins of other stories forming here, such The Veldt from The Illustrated Man.
There are some serious implications woven into a brilliant story here. It’s not his best-written one necessarily, but the atmosphere he creates is haunting. “This is where endless technologisation, war, and escalation without thought leads,” Bradbury seems to be saying. It’ll stick with you. Highly recommended.
“The house was an altar with ten thousand attendants. But the gods had gone away, and the ritual of religion continued senselessly, uselessly.”
2. “The Long Rain” from The Illustrated Man
A group of astronauts are stranded on Venus, where it rains continually and heavily. The travelers make their way across the Venusian landscape to find a “sun dome”, a man-made shelter with a huge, sun-like artificial light source shining in the centre. They can think of nothing but reaching a sun dome, a haven from this incessant rain that never stops and never falters. It seeps down into their very pores and their souls, driving more than one of them to insanity.
The first sun dome they find has been destroyed by the native Venusians. But they continue, searching for a functioning sun dome. The characters, one by one, split off from the group, tormented by the unrelenting rhythm of the rain.
Do any of them make it? I won’t spoil it. You’ll have to read it to find out.
This story heavily inspired my own short story, “A Great Rain Dances on the End of the World“. The content isn’t really the same, but Bradbury’s incredible description of rain falling—like a thousand teardrops glittering in the lightning flashing—stuck with me enough to make its way into a story.
The story makes you reconsider how you see rain, shows this insidious side to it, and its capacity for drawn-out destruction. Through such extreme contrast, heat, sun, and dryness are reframed as the most desirable things in the world! It really makes you appreciate the warmth of your own shelter as you read. And it’ll leave you with a distinct, unforgettable image of torrential rain falling upon another planet. Again: highly recommended!
“Armies of raindrops, suspended as in a vast motionless amber, for an instant, hesitating as if shocked by the explosion, fifteen billion droplets…”
3. “Kaleidoscope” from The Illustrated Man
The crew of a spaceship are caught in an accident and are thrown out to drown in the dark sea of space.
They’re lost in the blackness. They’re still able to communicate, but unable to do much more than drift helplessly. The story describes their final thoughts and last conversations. Some are nobler, some more bitter.
The narrator feels he’s done nothing worthwhile in his life, but also realises it’s too late to change that. He can barely bring himself to make peace with those around him. He realises the futility of social convention, of all the things he’s valued up until this moment.
His final thought is a wish that his life would at least be worth something to someone else. As he falls through Earth’s atmosphere and is incinerated, he’s watched by a child down on in Illinois, hurtling through the atmosphere as a shooting star.
“…only wishing he could do a good thing now that everything was gone, a good thing for just himself to know about”
4. “The Fire Balloons” from The Martian Chronicles
The premise: two priests, Father Peregrine and Father Stone, head out to Mars with the intention of converting the native Martians to their own religion.
They discover that most of the Martians are extinct. So, unfortunately, no new converts for their crusade.
…That is, until, they discover that there is a second type of Martian still surviving. These Martians are, essentially, non-physical spheres of pure-blue fire. Classic. And I think what is so captivating here, is that Bradbury completely subverts his reader’s understanding, the typical conventions of what an alien is supposed to look like (which is, of course, simply a product of human imagination, and the limit upon that imagination). Surely, aliens gotta be blue men with pointed ears or something, right? Nah, says Bradbury, I reckon they’d be metaphysical orbs of light.
It reminds me a bit of Stanislaw Lem’s novel Solaris, which delves into the idea that if there is extraterrestrial life out there, then why the fuck would it resemble anything similar to a humanoid—or, further than that, why would they exist in any form that we could hope to even comprehend? For Lem, he imaged an entire planet endowed with a strange, unintelligible consciousness.
There’s actually a load of cool theory and essays surrounding this stuff, and I wrote an essay in it once. I’ll have to dig it out for another post someday, in the style of my Cognitive Estrangement article (which, to my great excitement, has actually been getting some solid organic traffic online!).
Anyway, back to the Fire Balloons—the orbs have no interest in the priests whatsoever, but the orbs do save the priests’ lives on more than one occasion. The priests begin to understand that, in many ways, the orbs bear many similarities to their own concept of God: non-physical, detached from human affairs, but also benevolent, willing to save and love them. The orbs even speak to them with the divine, transcendent voice expected of their own “God”. This causes a crisis of faith for the priests.
This one is worth reading just for the pure imagination of it. There’s this cool, sublime atmosphere to it all.
“And love has to do with humour, doesn’t it? For you cannot love someone unless you put up with them can you? And you cannot put up with someone constantly unless you can laugh at them. Isn’t that true?”(This quote doesn’t really match the parts of the story i’ve described, but I just found this brief conversation between the priests to be very touching!)
5. “Introduction to Dandelion Wine” by Ray Bradbury
Dandelion Wine is technically a collection of short stories. However, it’s different from The Martian Chronicles and The Illustrated Man. In those two, each story bears little-to-no connection to the other stories contained within the books’ spines: there’s no consistent storyline.
Whereas in Dandelion Wine, each short story takes place in the exact same town (Green Town, Illinois), and with characters that are at least aware of each other’s existence. It’s a loosely structured narrative created around a series of vibrant short stories that could exist Independently, but prefer to interact somewhat. It’s a composite novels, or a novelised story-cycle, or something like that. The theme is Midwest surrealism married with child-like wonder, which makes it a very unique text!
Anyway, exposition aside, I thought it’d be amiss not to include at least one part of Dandelion Wine. Because it’s truly unique.
The novel opens in a magical way, which sets the reader up to expect elements of fantasy and magic throughout the text. The protagonist, Douglas, opens the novel overlooking his hometown with a panoramic view. Just as dawn is about to break and wake the town, Douglas ushers in the first day of summer by performing an elaborate magician’s performance to lighten the sky: he exhales in the last few stars, he points at the street lights and flicks them on. You gotta read this one to appreciate what he’s doing here.
“Douglas, conducting an orchestra, pointed to the eastern sky. The sun began to rise… Doors slammed open; people stepped out. Summer 1928 began”
6. “The Window” from Dandelion Wine
Hah, tricked you! I’m actually included not one, but TWO stories from Dandelion Wine.
Anyway, “The Window” is all about Colonel Freeleigh, an old man who is nearing his last days. His sole comfort is using his old rotary phone to call his old friend, Jorge, who lives in Mexico City. Colonel Freeleigh travelled the world when he was younger, but now realises he’ll never be able to again. His friend in Mexico City places the receiver outside of his street-facing open-window when Colonel Freeleigh rings, allowing him to hear the vivid, life-filled sounds of the vibrant city in miniature.
The Colonel’s Nurse bans these calls because he becomes so excited by them, so enamored, that it puts his heart at risk. A desperate Freeleigh, feeling his chest pains worsen, dials Jorge’s number once more. Despite Freeleigh’s worsening chest pains, all he can think about is the world outside, still alive and breathing. The ending is… let’s just say, moving.
This story is really arresting. It’s just so relatable, that feeling of wanting nothing more than to return to places you’ve travelled, to feel those things again. And that feeling is made all the more devastating by Freeleigh approaching the twilight of his life.
This one is a great reflection on aging, nostalgia, and longing for parts of the world you know you may never see again.
“When you are away from a city it becomes a fantasy. It becomes improbable with distance, a spectre.”
“He was twenty-five years old again, walking, walking, looking, smiling, happy to be alive, very much alert drinking in colours and smells…”
7. “Green Wine for Dreaming” from Dandelion Wine
Oh, alright then, one more from Dandelion Wine. Just a quick one. I mainly like this story for the imagery, the feeling, the way it captures our relationship with time and with memory: deep, longing thankfulness, and nostalgia, mixed with tinges of poignancy. A chest of bitter treasures.
The protagonist, Douglas, is reflecting upon an entire summer, which is contained within the pages of Dandelion Wine. “Green Wine for Dreaming” is the name of the final chapter of the novel.
Each year in Green Town, Illinois, Douglas’ family collects all of the dandelions up and ferments them into wine (which is, of course, where the book gets its name). That means that each year, once summer has concluded, they have a large collection of dandelion wine, labeled with the year of which the dandelions were picked and made into the delicious drink.
Douglas reflects on summer and realises that within each bottle is a memory, distilled within the green bottles and kept in the cellar—ready to drink throughout the winter. Each time you drink some dandelion wine in the winter, you’re reminded of the memories and feelings of the summer. They’re contained with the bottle. These bottles keep summers in their hearts, and if ever they forget, then they shall have a sip of the dandelion wine from that year, and the memories will come flooding back, alive once more. Isn’t that a beautiful idea?
It’s just a lovely way of talking about the cyclical nature of the year, and of life, and of memory, and how as we grow up we get worse at remembering, worse at keeping our touch with the tremendous excitement of living… But also how important it is to actively keep it alive!
“There the bottles stood, burning in the cellar twilight, one for ever living summer day.”
“This way, you get to live the summer over for a minute or two here and there along the way through the winter, and when the bottles are empty the summer’s gone for good and there are no regrets…”
“But Doug, Tom, you’ll find as you get older the days kind of blur… can’t tell one from the other…”
“Heck, I’ll never forget a day! I’ll always remember, I know!”
“Of course you will, Tom. Of course you will.”
8. “—And The Moon Be Still As Bright” from The Martian Chronicles
Wistful, imaginative Bradbury at his best. Packed with insightful and smile-inducing quotes.
A story about humans arriving on Mars and making the same mistakes made on Earth all over again. Martians existed here previously, but have mysteriously disappeared. The humans trouble themselves little over this fact, and begin their crusade of commercial interests: steamrolling an ancient civilization, establishing atomic bomb depots, and building hot-dog stands. (ok, maybe the latter isn’t quite of the same significance as the former two, but I needed a list).
The story follows the crisis of conscience within one man, Captain Wilder, as he ponders whether what they’re doing on Mars can be right. The majority have no problems, so why should he? What is his conscience against the will of a majority, he wonders?
The story leads down an inquisitive and interesting path, delving into conversations on humanity, religion, and nature. They speak about the epochs of humanity: the move from a society based on Faith, to a society based on Darwin and Huxley, and their incompatibilities. How humanity stopped working with nature. And then we were left with whatever we have now, destined to curse other innocent, unsuspecting planets.
What’s interesting about the Martians, though, is that they create a society that perfectly blended religion and science, each enriching the other. I’m not religious, but the idea is interesting, and not one I’ve come across in science fiction before.
Ultimately this one’s kind of depressing, but also illuminating. Love it.
“Doesn’t an old thing always know when a new thing comes?”
“The animal does question life. It lives.”
“Science is no more than an investigation of a miracle we can never explain, and art an interpretation of that miracle”
“We Earth Men have a talent for ruining big, beautiful things”