Here we go with the second installment and this time a writer I'm pretty sure you've heard of:
The Martian Chronicles by Ray Bradbury
My parents had a piece of furniture in the house that worked as a display case, had drawers for music tapes, a drinks cabinet and a cupboard for storing bits and pieces. Most importantly though, there was a horizontal section along the middle which could be used as a small library shelf. This shelf was filled with paperbacks that my parents had picked up over the years and it included a large amount of science fiction stories and short story collections.
My eye was drawn to them because of the vivid covers: colorful and psychedelic images of spacemen and aliens; of alluring alien females and deadly spaceships, the covers were always rich and interesting and made you want to find out what was inside. I learned the names of a few of the giants: Asimov, Clarke and Heinlein.
Clarke was most well known to me at the time. Arthur C. Clarke's Mysterious World was a show I watched on television and from there I learned he had written 2001, a movie I had seen (but not really understood). My dad was a big fan of Asimov, or appeared to be. He would recommend I read his stories, explained the Three Laws of Robotics to me and seemed to enjoy the intellectual challenges in some of the harder science stuff Asimov wrote. One of my dad's first recommendations for me to read was the Foundation series. Bradbury was mentioned but I never really took notice. The other guys just sounded more interesting.
English class at school was usually always about the classics like Bronte's Jane Eyre or one of Shakespeare's tragedies. However, one day the teacher gave us a short story to read called "A Sound of Thunder" by Ray Bradbury. The concept was simple: Time Travel to the past to hunt the giant predators of the dinosaur age. A guide would take you back and there would be a floating path you would stay on so that you wouldn't interfere with things you shouldn't. The creatures would be pre-tagged, chosen specifically because they were about to die anyway. Care was taken to emphasize: Don't stray from the path.
Of course, on seeing a large Tyrannosaurus growling at them, one of the hunters gets scared and runs from the path back to the time travel machine and the future men start their trip back to the future. Only now do we discover that the man who ran had trampled on a butterfly which was now stuck to his boot. When they arrive back in the future, they see that everything is the same...but different. Crushing that one butterfly caused ripple effects through time which effected everything.
I was hooked. Immediately upon my next visit to the library I picked up two thick anthologies of Bradbury short stories and nestled amongst stories like "A Sound of Thunder" and "The Scythe" were a group of episodic tales about Earth men trying to escape Earth and colonize Mars. Once I found out where those stories came from I then returned and loaned the Martian Chronicles.
From the very beginning it was clear to me that there was more to these stories than simple "Spacemen on Mars" ideas. Bradbury wrote the stories as a future history against a background of the impending destruction of Earth through nuclear war. Often the stories touched upon man's hubris and the idea of Martians as an Aborignal race trying to stop the settlers from staying on their world.
What I loved about these stories was how the Martians were presented. Although they looked different from the humans and possessed telepathic powers, in stories like "Ylla" the Martian female is in a loveless marriage and when she telepathically starts to dream about the approaching astronauts, her husband becomes so jealous that when the First Expedition lands he kills them. To me there was something very human about the way the Martians were presented and this actually foreshadowed stories later where the humans become the new Martians.
In between are some brilliant short stories about the initial expeditions and their failures and then the discovery that the Martians all died out because of the germs brought to Mars by the humans. The humans colonize the planet but then return to Earth where the threatened war ravages the planet and cuts off contact with Mars. The final stories show how the small group of humans on Mars deal with the aftermath of the war and become the new Martians.
My descriptions do the stories little justice. There are several wonderfully crafted tales in the book and it was after reading The Martian Chronicles that I realized how powerful a short story could be. The idea of each short story being a small part of a bigger over-arching tale just made the ideas more compelling to me.
From there I read everything I could get a hold of with Bradbury's name on it including his classics: Fahrenheit 451 and The Illustrated Man. However, I would always come back to The Martian Chronicles and read it in bits or as a whole and it fueled my own creativity as I tried to write my own stories. Even offering inspiration when I wrote music.
Bradbury is a giant in the field and easily my favorite short story writer. The Martian Chronicles is a masterpiece of science fiction in my opinion but I would recommend you browse through his extensive catalog because he has written other fantastic stuff.