This post is part of a series on Ray Bradbury and his book, “The Martian Chronicles,” which will run from Memorial Day weekend through Labor Day weekend.
THERE WILL COME SOFT RAINS
This story has been so often anthologized that it is probably the best known of all the stories in The Martian Chronicles. The fame is probably deserved, too, since it is a phenomenal short story and a great example of Bradbury’s mastery of the form.
In “The Long Years,” we got a glimpse of Mars in the year 2026, learning that the planet was nearly uninhabited, and Captain Wilder’s own curiosity about Earth should have echoed the reader’s, as we were meant to wonder if it was also a ‘tomb planet.’ “There Will Come Soft Rains” answers that question for us, and it is an unsettling answer.
The story, strikingly, has no human characters. The protagonist is a mechanized house, and we watch it die, the final house in the city where it once stood to do so. The apocalyptic carnage of the scene that Bradbury describes deviates abrasively from mundane nature of the running commentary the house provides, and in that tension lies the success of the story.
There are so many fascinating things in this story, this post could get very long and unwieldy, but I’ll try to show some restraint and simply highlight three things that perhaps deserve the most attention.
First, I think the silhouettes of the family that once lived in the house, visible on the side of the house, is one of the most striking images in the book. Perhaps the most striking. When I first read the story, I misunderstood what I was reading here. I thought the family had been ‘burned’ into the side of the house, but that’s not what Bradbury suggests. Rather, the whole side of the house is charred EXCEPT where the family member intercepted the force of the atomic wave. Where their bodies absorbed that force, the house was somewhat spared, thus the silhouettes are the only places where paint remains, not vice versa. I first read this as a teenager, and this image has never left me.
A second striking thing about this story is the Sara Teasdale poem the story is named for, “There will come soft rains.” It is the poem the house chooses to read in the evening to the long dead family that no longer dwells there. The poem is just 12 lines long, but they’re pretty dark lines. If you read just the first 6, you have some typical Romanticism, with glowing, almost over-the-top descriptions of the beauty of nature. The last 6 lines, by contrast, speak of how nature won’t miss us when we’re finally gone, the strong implication being we’re going to destroy ourselves and nature might almost be better off without us.
Third, and last, Bradbury’s story begins on August 4th and ends on August 5th. Hiroshima, of course, was bombed on August 6th. He’s too careful a writer for this to be an accident. Here we get pretty close to the heart of The Martian Chronicles, I think. The world in 1950 was pretty scared – and rightfully so – of the power that had been unleashed with the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. That fear is clearly in and around and under this entire book. Here, it is perhaps most clear, as Bradbury juxtaposes the remarkably inventive and imaginative technology of the mechanized house with the remarkably destructive technology of the atomic bombs that have laid waste to the Earth.
This is, I think, Bradbury’s fundamental point. The same people and the same science & technology that may one day produce rockets that can travel to Mars and houses that can cook our breakfast, are the same people with the same science and technology that have already made the bomb. So what does the future look like? And will we be able to avoid the atomic holocaust envisioned here?
It is comforting to think that 64 years after The Martian Chronicles was first published, the atomic/nuclear holocaust still hasn’t come. And, believing in a sovereign God who holds the world in His hand comforts me sufficiently so that I don’t think it ever will, but that doesn’t mean that Bradbury’s question isn’t still relevant. Technology and how we use it has always been a double-edged sword, and if our hope is in ourselves and in our creations alone, we have cause to be afraid…
Next week, we’ll look at the last story in The Martian Chronicles, “The Million-Year Picnic.”