By Dr Oliver Tearle (Loughborough University)
‘The Locusts’ is a short chapter or tale within The Martian Chronicles, Ray Bradbury’s 1950 science fiction novel which describes human exploration of, and settlement on, the planet Mars at the turn of the century after Earth becomes uninhabitable in the wake of nuclear war.
In ‘The Locusts’, ninety thousand Americans from Earth emigrate to Mars. Although it might be more accurately described as a vignette rather than a conventional short story, ‘The Locusts’ is worthy of closer analysis in its own right because of the way Bradbury describes humans arriving on Mars.
‘The Locusts’: plot summary
In The Martian Chronicles, Bradbury states that this fictional vignette takes place in February 2002, fifty-two years after the book was first published. ‘The Locusts’ is one of the pieces Bradbury wrote specifically for inclusion in The Martian Chronicles, a book which also incorporated a number of previously published short stories.
The vignette describes rockets from Earth arriving on the surface of Mars, burning the ground as they land. The rockets beat like drums and swarm like locusts, hence the title of this vignette. Men emerge from the rockets, holding hammers which they intend to use to beat the surrounding Martian landscape into something that resembles Earth, the world they have left behind.
They take out nails and begin hammering them into the ground, in order to erect cottages that can serve as dwellings. The women who had arrived in the rockets then came in with flower-pots and pans, setting up a kitchen area where they can cook inside these humble dwellings.
Within six months, we are told, there were a dozen small towns set up across the surface of the planet. These towns lit up with neon lighting and electric bulbs. The narrator tells us that some ninety thousand people arrived on Mars from Earth, and more were packing their construction materials so they can follow them and add to the number of settlers.
‘The Locusts’: analysis
Bradbury’s The Martian Chronicles is an example of a ‘fix-up’ novel, which means that the book was compiled from a number of pre-existing stories which were put together, with some new material filling the ‘gaps’ in the overarching narrative. Overall, the book tells of the earliest human settlers on Mars following a nuclear war on Earth.
Much of Bradbury’s early fiction from this period is concerned with colonisation. His early short story ‘The City’, which was included in The Illustrated Man (1953), is about a city which has waited twenty thousand years for man to return so that the city can visit a terrible revenge upon Earth. Earthmen once came to the city and left a deadly disease behind which killed the city’s inhabitants.
That story can be analysed as an allegory about colonialism, but instead of one nation exploring, conquering, and subjugating another, one whole planet – Earth – has taken over another planet in a different star system. The city of the story’s title was once colonised by Earthmen, who brought disease with them; this disease wiped out the natives of this alien city.
Many early European settlers to the New World also brought diseases with them from the Old World. Serious diseases like smallpox, measles, typhus, and cholera were all unknown to native Americans, and so there was no natural immunity to these diseases among indigenous peoples. The simile of locusts in this short vignette, meanwhile, also summons disease, alluding to the plague of locusts in the Old Testament.
In ‘The Locusts’, we can detect a similar commentary on colonialism. The Americans from Earth, having arrived on Mars, do not seek to make contact with the indigenous Martians but instead begin to hack away at the Martian ground, erecting their dwellings and endeavouring to change the face of the strange world around them so that it’s less alien to them. Rather than adapting to their new surroundings, they seek to replicate their previous environment.
Might we not detect a parallel with colonial settlers travelling to a new world and immediately seeking to impose their values and preferences (which they perceive as superior) upon the land? Perhaps. It is revealing that Bradbury chose the title ‘The Locusts’ for this little interim piece in the larger story, with the image of a swarm of dangerous insects – pests, we might say – portraying the rockets bringing the Earthmen and women to Mars painting the settlers in a negative light. Although it is the rockets rather than the people inside them which are branded as ‘like locusts’, it is a telling simile nonetheless. And Bradbury also uses the word ‘invasion’ to describe the arrival of the rockets.
But what suggested this image of a swarm of locusts to Bradbury, or was it simply an inspired piece of imaginative writing? We might grant the latter while nevertheless seeking an answer to the former. The whole of The Martian Chronicles can be viewed as Bradbury’s imaginative response to, and inversion of, the greatest tale of Martian invasion ever written: H. G. Wells’s 1898 novel The War of the Worlds.
But in Wells’s novel, it is the Martians doing the invading (of Earth, and specifically England). Bradbury reverses the direction of traffic, but perhaps at the back of his mind he was recalling the famous opening sentence of Wells’s novel. For although we find no locusts in Wells’s novel, we do find the suggestive word ‘swarm’:
No one would have believed in the last years of the nineteenth century that this world was being watched keenly and closely by intelligences greater than man’s and yet as mortal as his own; that as men busied themselves about their various concerns they were scrutinised and studied, perhaps almost as narrowly as a man with a microscope might scrutinise the transient creatures that swarm and multiply in a drop of water.