Harry Bittering and his family arrive as settlers on Mars. While he cannot explain why, Harry has an immediate and visceral reaction to the Martian environment—the wind blowing across the plains, the unsettling atmosphere, the old ruins. He impulsively suggests that the family return to Earth, but his wife Cora, encourages him to have a positive outlook. They walk into town from the rocket, with Harry unable to shake the sense of uncanny foreboding.
Harry continues to have trouble settling into his life on Mars. While on the surface everything is ordinary, he is constantly checking up on things to make sure they haven’t changed in the night. He is suspicious of the Martian environment, and is always waiting, unknowingly, for the other shoe to drop. The paper he receives from Earth each morning, still “toast-warm” from the arriving rocket, is one of his few consolations. It represents a reassuring tie to the world of Earth that they have left behind, although Cora indicates that the connection is more tenuous than Harry might like. She brings up the fact that Mars is somewhat safer than Earth, considering the atomic bomb.
Harry’s continued psychological discomfort with his life on Mars is symbolic of his failure to truly assimilate into the Martian environment – the planet remains foreign to him, and he remains foreign to it. His continued heightened suspicion of the environment and nostalgia for Earthly things represents his alienation from Mars and his fear of the possibility of change.
The Bittering children also have a sense of unease regarding the environment, and they repeatedly ask to be reassured by their father about their new life on Mars. They are particularly fascinated and concerned by the old Martian ruins, wondering who used to live there and what happened to them. They, too, have a sense of foreboding, and cannot shake the feeling that “something” will happen. While Harry tries to reassure both his children and himself that the ruins are harmless, and that the fate of any previous Martians will not be their own, he is unable to do so to anyone’s satisfaction.
The children’s fears and anxieties about Mars, like Harry’s, reflect a concern with change, destruction, and the passage of time as symbolized by the Martian ruins on the outskirts of their own tenuous settlements. The Martian cities are strange and unsettling both because they are so unlike the settlers’ own Earth-like towns, and also because they are abandoned and mysterious, echoing the characters’ own anxieties about their precarious existence on a foreign planet.
Later that afternoon, word comes from Earth that there has been an outbreak of nuclear war, and that no more rockets will be arriving from the planet. Laura, who brings the news, is in tears. At first the family is in stunned disbelief, unsure of what to do with this new information. Harry is particularly affected by the news, at first accusing his daughter of lying and then panicking at the thought of being trapped on Mars for the rest of his life.
When their connection to Earth is violently severed by nuclear war, the settlers must face the fact that they are no longer a colony of a much larger civilization, but are instead stranded in a new place, without any contact from their former home. The Bittering family must decide how they will react to this change: either with continued resistance or with acceptance and a desire to move forward.
Harry’s unease with the Martian environment is exacerbated by the severed connection to Earth. He reflects upon the names the settlers have given the Martian geographical features, and he is uneasy with the way that they have affixed new, American names to these ancient landmarks. They seem out of place in this strange and alien world.
Harry’s ruminations on names and language reflect his continued anxieties surrounding memories, history, and the past, indicating that identity is fluid and changeable, and that individual people and even whole civilizations can be easily lost to the passage of time.
Harry views even innocuous aspects of the new world with suspicion. His scrutiny is rewarded when he notices changes to the crops they have brought from Earth: the carrots, onions, grass, and trees have all turned different colors and seem subtly different from how they should be. The changes eventually progress so that once-familiar crops and animals now seem unnatural and absurd, with violet grass, green roses, and cows with unicorn horns. Harry is deeply disturbed by these changes, and vows to do something about it.
What was once intimately familiar and natural is gradually beginning to change with prolonged exposure to the Martian environment, reflecting the ways in which place can shift perception and identity even in regards to the most basic and ordinary things, like plants and animals. Harry struggles to come to terms with his extreme fear of and resistance toward the changes that the Martian environment is working upon the settlement.
Harry heads into town and is disconcerted to find that the other settlers are less concerned than he is about being stranded on a possibly malevolent, constantly shifting and changing planet. Harry, in a panic, suggests that they build a rocket to return to Earth, but they reject this idea. The other settlers have already accepted many of the changes that Mars has wrought and are not overly worried about them. They point out that Harry himself is changing, showing him in a mirror that his eyes are developing the signature Martian gold flecks.
Unlike Harry, the other settlers have largely accepted the changes, and have come to see the Mars as familiar and comfortable, indicating that they already consider the planet their home rather than a temporary colony, and are no longer put off by the strange environment. Harry, meanwhile, is still resistant to that change, even and especially changes to his own person, and he struggles with what becoming fully “Martian” might mean for himself and his family.
While Harry still devotedly works on his rocket, he begins to experience other changes. His eyes grow more golden, along with those of his family and friends, and their skin begins to darken in the Martian sun. Waking up from sleep one night, he is startled to find that he has been speaking in the Martian language. Increasingly panicked, Harry shuns the company of the other settlers, preferring to spend long hours working on the rocket.
As the Martian influence continues to pervade the lives of the Bitterings both physically and mentally, the family changes even without their realizing it. In particular, their gradual switch to Martian language indicates the ways in which language and memory intertwine and influence one another, with their forgetfulness of Earthly things growing in tandem with their new Martian appearance and speech. Undergoing these changes, they are becoming a native part of the planet, rather than unattached colonizers.
Cora finally encourages Harry to pause his work on the rocket and join the family for a picnic and swim in the Martian canals. Cora is already displaying the forgetful symptoms of the other settlers with respect to their former lives on Earth, and she asserts that her eyes have always been golden, unaware of the recent change. Harry, while swimming, reflects that not all change is bad, and that some change is regenerative and positive. The children begin insisting on being called Martian names, and the parents eventually relent. They come across a small Martian villa and reflect upon how pleasant it would be to live there, but Harry insists that they return to town for the moment.
As they continue to forget both their former lives on Earth and their former language, the Bittering family adapts more fully to the Martian environment. They begin to consider inhabiting the Martian villas rather than their own settlements, indicating the ways in which they are relinquishing the trappings of their ill-suited colonial possessions in favor of those that are better suited to their new environment and lifestyle.
Harry’s drive to work on the rocket dwindles as the settlers become more and more at home on Mars and their ties to Earth grow weaker. One day, he sees other settlers packing up to move up to the mountains and into the abandoned villas that they had seen earlier. When Harry asks them where they are going, he is startled to realize that they now almost exclusively use the Martian names for the mountain ranges and rivers. Eventually, Harry himself is persuaded to move up there, and he and his family begin packing up their belongings. However, they are no longer attached to most of the things that they have brought from Earth, whether that be encyclopedias or fancy dresses, specially designed furniture or once-cherished books. They end up leaving much of it behind them when they leave the old settlement.
The settlers’ assimilation to Mars is reflected in the fact that they now use the Martian names for things—there is no longer any disconnect between the place where they live and the names that they use, since they now refer to everything by the original Martian names rather than English interpolations. Similarly, their Earthly possessions are relinquished in favor of things that are more appropriate to the Martian environment, indicating the ways in which the settlers now belong more fully to Mars than to Earth.
The family moves up to the villas, and become even more thoroughly Martian. They begin entirely calling each other by Martian names, speaking the Martian language, and embodying a Martian lifestyle of leisure. They gradually forget that they were ever even from Earth, looking with pity upon the small Earth settlement and wondering what became of the people there. While Harry wonders once or twice whether they should return, they ultimately remain in the villa, having forgotten everything about Earth. He and Cora reflect on how “odd” and “ridiculous” the houses of the “ugly” Earth people are, and how “glad” they are that the Earth people have finally gone.
In moving up to the villas, in speaking the Martian language more and more, and in their forgetfulness about their own past, the settlers are shown to have become fully “Martian,” with little to no trace of their Earthly origins present. Their gradual change represents the transformative power of place, and the ways in which colonization fails to account for the particularities of different environments. At the same time, their forgetfulness is tinged with melancholy, as much of what Harry initially feared has come to pass, with their initial identities swept away by the Martian wind.
Five years later, a Captain and Lieutenant from Earth arrive, declaring that they won the war and are there to rescue the settlers. They are startled to realize that the settlement has been abandoned, and they chalk the disappearance up to a mysterious plague. They mistake the old settlers, who have completely forgotten their origins, for native Martians, and begin plans to reconstruct and expand the settlement with new settlers from Earth. As the captain discusses various suggestions for new place names—such as the “Lincoln Mountains” or “Washington Canal”—the Lieutenant is distracted by the “blue color and the quiet mist of the hills far beyond town.”
The arrival of new settlers represents the continued efforts of Earth to colonize Mars and remake the planet in its own image. The initial settlers are now so transformed that they are no longer recognizable, reflecting the ways in which identity is tied to place and memory and is ultimately unstable and in flux. Furthermore, the story hints that the new settlers will go the way of the old settlers, already bewitched by the Martian hills and the different way of life that they might offer.