In January of 1999, a rocket is launched from Ohio. It creates so much warmth that all the snow melts, and for a moment it is summer. In February of that same year, on Mars, a Martian woman named Ylla has dreams of a rocket coming down from the sky, bearing a light-skinned, blue-eyed creature named Nathaniel York. Martians have golden skin, light hair, and yellow, button-like eyes. Her husband Yll thinks she is sick and takes her to town to distract her. That night, she has more dreams, and learns exactly when the rocket will land. But she talks in her sleep, and Yll hears her. The rocket is coming that afternoon, but he makes her stay inside while he "goes hunting," taking with him a strange gun that shoots stinging bees. She hears two gunshots from far away at just the time the rocket is supposed to have arrived.
One night in August of 1999, all over Mars, people begin to hum Earth tunes and to have strange dreams. Musicians automatically begin to play earth tunes--one woman sings "She walks in beauty," by Lord Byron. The next morning, Earth men land, led by Captain Williams. They go from house to house, saying that they are from Earth, but everyone turns them away. They find that they can communicate with the Martians by telepathy. Finally, they are referred to Mr. Iii. They are becoming very discouraged not to receive any attention. Mr. Iii shows them into a room filled with Martians. They welcome Williams and his three men with a huge, spontaneous civilization. Slowly, they realize that they have been put in an insane asylum because they said they were from Earth. Mr. Xxx is a psychologist who thinks that Williams' crew and rocket are "secondary hallucinations." He shoots Williams and is horrified to see that his "hallucinations" remain. Mr. Xxx assumes that he, too, has gone insane, so he shoots the rest of the crew and himself.
In March of 2000, a man runs to the launchpad, demanding as a taxpayer to be let onto the third rocket to Mars. He is arrested. When the rocket lands, in April of 2000, the crew of 16 finds itself in an ideal small American town. Captain John Black is skeptical, but Hinkston is convinced that they are witnessing some kind of miracle. Upon exploration, members of the crew begin to meet different long-lost members of their families. There is even a brass band. Black finds himself in the home of his parents and his brother John. He lays down to sleep in bed with his brother, only to realize that it is probably all a Martian trap. He tries to run away, but his "brother" stops him. He dies screaming. The next morning, sixteen coffins emerge from sixteen homes, and as the families march to the funeral, their faces slowly begin to shimmer, turning into the faces of Martians.
The United States is sending rocket after rocket to Mars. The first rocket has only two men in it; one wonders whether humans expected there to be any Martians at all. That crew is killed arbitrarily, by a lone husband killing the man of his wife's dreams. Ylla's strange dreams seem almost prophetic at first, but then the same thing happens to many Martians before the second expedition lands. And the experience of that expedition shows that Martians are telepathic, to the extent that what they see and look like themselves seems to be based on what is imagined. It seems that, when humans are approaching, Martians' minds are flooded with visions of them and the songs they know, because the Martians are telepathic. This telepathy also explains the way Mr. Xxx believes that Williams's rocket could be a hallucination. Because Martians are telepathic, when one Martian believes in something, other Martians necessarily see it also.
The second expedition is killed by chance; in fact, their story is almost a joke. It contains the most extreme cases of far-fetched telepathy of the entire novel; astronauts being mistaken as insane Martians is absurd. When the third expedition arrives, however, it seems that the Martians have been waiting for them and have set a trap. Apparently, the Martians also have the ability to make humans hallucinate. At least, the Martians find it easy to assume the shape of what is most pleasing to humans--a small home town filled with the dearly departed. This phenomenon will be repeated in "The Martian."
These opening chapters are the most far-fetched of the book. Martians figure less prominently in the rest of the book, and so do their strange, complicated powers. One might wish that Bradbury had explained the Martians' powers more thoroughly, but when something is mysterious, perhaps, it is more gripping.