illustration of a nature scene with a bird in the grass next to a puddle that shows a translucent reflection of a human

There Will Come Soft Rains

by Ray Bradbury

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Imagery in Bradbury’s Story

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John J. McLaughlin wrote that ''much of the bulk of [Bradbury's] fiction has been concerned with a single theme—the loss of human values to the machine." Nowhere is this more apparent than in Bradbury's collection of stories The Martian Chronicles. In this collection, as Edward Gallagher has pointed out, Bradbury has "dealt with the initial... attempts to successfully establish a footing on Mars," chronicled "the rise and fall of the Mars colony," and "linger[ed] on the possible regeneration of the human race after the devastating atomic war." Bradbury's story "There Will Come Soft Rains" appears in this last section. Yet, in this particular story there is not one single human character, it takes place in Allendale, California, not on Mars, machines are plentiful, and regeneration seems very close to impossible.

The story portrays the life, or inner workings, of a house, standing "alone in a city of rubble and ashes." The inhabitants of the house, "their images burned on wood in one titanic instant," have been eradicated by what one assumes is an atomic blast that makes the "ruined city give off a radioactive glow which could be seen for miles." The impersonal house, equipped with more technological conveniences than one could imagine, continues about its routine, oblivious to the devastation around it. The voice-clock sings, announces time and the daily schedule; the robot mice dart to do their cleaning; the nursery hour and jungle patterns continue as if someone were there to enjoy it. The only live being in the house is the "dog, once huge and fleshy, but now gone to bone and covered with sores," who enters mid-story. Here the reader is struck by Bradbury's ability to place images next to each other that bring us up short. Rather than feeling compassion or sympathy for the animal, the robot mice whir around busily, "angry at having to pick up mud, angry at the inconvenience." We are reminded that the rodent cleaners are mechanical, that feelings—those highly prized human emotions—do not exist in machines.

Later in the story, as the house burns and "trie[s] to save itself," mechanical rain and "blind robot faces,'' attempt to quench the fire as they were programmed to do. The flurry of activity and the growing fire create a "scene of manic confusion, yet unity." Each of the technological pieces in the story do their work as people have designed them to do, but all are active at once; even the voice in the library continues to read the poem by Sara Teasdale, the American poet known for her lyrics of love who killed herself in 1933. The attempts of the machines are unsuccessful. The house is reduced to ''smoke and silence," similar to the town which surrounds it. Clearly, technology has lost, but so too has humanity. With the exception of one last mechanical voice, both people and machines have met with doom. But, the story closes as "dawn show[s] faintly in the east," leaving the reader with a bare modicum of hope that not all is lost.

Sidney Finkelstein wrote that Bradbury should be congratulated for his ability to ''show [his] deep honesty [and] courage in making so implicit and unmistakable a criticism of the destructive forces he sees about his own land." Certainly Bradbury has pictured a place so awful, so replete with destruction, that as readers we want no part of it. We can imagine easily that Bradbury is responding not only to his authorial need to show us how similar our decline can be to the decline of Mars after being settled by earthlings, but also to his horror over the atomic bombing in Hiroshima five years before this story was published. A Catholic priest, present when the bomb exploded wrote of the event: ''the crux of the matter is whether total war in its present form is justifiable, even when it serves a just purpose. Does it not have material and spiritual evil as its consequences which far exceed whatever good that might result?" One can imagine Bradbury echoing those words as he mourns the loss of human values to the ease that the machines create.

Many critics deplore Bradbury's lack of real scientific knowledge, yet they credit him with making science fiction a credible literary form because of his ability to create powerful images. Some of these same critics consider Bradbury's work to be surrealistic, a part of a literary tradition that tries to create new images through a startling juxtaposition of seemingly unrelated images. As an artistic, philosophical, and literary movement begun in the 1920s, surrealism requires that one suspends his or her logical reason in order to see a reality beyond the surface reality. To accomplish this, Bradbury masterfully weaves in imagery, usually in the form of metaphors or similes which compare two unlike things using the words "like" or "as."

Critic Sarah-Warner Pell acclaims Bradbury's imagery for two reasons. She says that its success is found in the fact that ''the meaning or associative value [of the simile or metaphor] is the same or nearly the same for all of us,'' and that the images "relate to common experiences of mankind." The images that predominate through "There Will Come Soft Rains" absolutely qualify for those reasons. If we remember that the 1950s was a time when nuclear war and technological progress were feared and air raid drills prepared school children for the worst, the images Bradbury creates in the story are certainly "tied" images that evoke similar meanings to all of us. To substantiate this we need do no more than look at several of the images in "There Will Come Soft Rains." In fact, when we look at the images he uses, we can also discern a pattern that indicates his preference for nature and beauty over technology and war.

Many of the images in ''There Will Come Soft Rains" contain references to nature, but the comparisons are almost always done in a negative way. This is how Bradbury juxtaposes his images to give us a sense of the surreal, to help us see that the superficial reality of technology as beneficial is in fact, something else. The stove that cooks by itself, a miracle we all might want, unfortunately creates "toast that was like stone," quite unlike the delicately browned, crunchy-outside-and-soft-inside toast a person would make for herself. So, too, the compulsive cleaning mice that clean up the dog's mud and carcass "hummed out as softly as blown gray leaves in an electrical wind." Although they do clean and thus save the humans the trouble, they are compared to gray leaves and gray is a color often associated with death. We can see further evidence of Bradbury's concern that technology will displace humanity and beauty when the wall reaches out to the tables and folds them "like great butterflies." Again, although a house that can provide for all the needs of it occupants is a wishful thought, we see that beauty in such an environment is compromised. The fire that ''feeds upon Picassos and Matisses ... like delicacies'' and the nerves of the house that are "revealed as if a surgeon had torn the skin off to let the red veins and capillaries quiver in the scalded air" do not conjure up pleasant visions. On the contrary, beautiful works of human art are destroyed with apparent pleasure. Even the art of the surgeon is diminished when the Hippocratic oath to prevent and treat disease is ignored. In addition, the gorgeously changing nursery that could provide hours of amusement to the young sounds like nature, but carries a strong menace with its sounds of a ''great matted yellow hive of bees... [and] the lazy bumble of a purring lion." Technology and beauty are at war.

There are however, images that contain no reference to nature. Yet these are predominately negative also. In these we see machinery being compared to humans whose values have gone awry. We see a house that has an "old-maidenly preoccupation with self-protection which bordered on a mechanical paranoia." Bradbury further paints a picture of the same house and we see it ''as an altar with ten thousand attendants ... but the gods had gone away, and the ritual of the religion continued senselessly, uselessly." There are even dinner dishes "manipulated like magic tricks." Although magic has the power to enthrall us all, Bradbury startles us by reminding us of the manipulative powers some people hold.

"There Will Come Soft Rains" is a simple story. The chronology is clear; the sentences are simple; the ease of reading is hard to surpass. However, the intensity of the images and the repugnance of the setting make Bradbury's message indisputable. As Richard Donovan puts it, "Bradbury's fear is that man's mechanical aptitudes, his incredible ability to pry into the secrets of the physical universe, may be his fatal flaw.''

Source: Jennifer Hicks, for Short Stories for Students, Gale Research, 1997. Jennifer Hicks is director of the Academic Support and Writing Assessment program at Massachusetts Bay Community College.

The Subversion of Nature in Bradbury’s Story

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Ray Bradbury's "There Will Come Soft Rains" contains echoes of a theme that has reverberated through the literature of the last 175 years, from Mary Shelley's Frankenstein to Nathaniel Hawthorne's The Birthmark to Robert Louis Stevenson's Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde and, more recently in the myriad novels, stories, and films about various forms of technology that have turned on their masters: Man is not God and only gets into trouble when he tries to play God.

Shelley's Dr. Frankenstein creates life itself, but the creature he creates is condemned to a monstrous and soulless existence, finally turning to murder when the good doctor, having seen that he is not an all-knowing God and fearing the (further) unanticipated consequences of his actions, declines to create a mate for him.

Hawthorne's scientist, Aylmer, believes he must remove a "birthmark" from his beloved's cheek in order to make her perfect. His inability to recognize the conundrum of nature, that what appears to man to be imperfection is actually part of a greater plan unknowable by mere mortals, leads to his beloved's destruction.

Dr. Jekyll, in trying to create pure good, does not have the scientific or moral sense to realize that a by-product of that good is necessarily pure evil. He may manipulate good and evil, but he cannot rid the world of it.

Ray Bradbury, writing in the middle of the twentieth century, does not suggest that we are going against God's will so much as nature's. We live in a humanist and, at times, cynical era, where belief in an all-powerful and beneficent being is widely considered naive and unsophisticated, but nature is regarded as material and undeniable. It feeds us, gives us air to breathe and water to drink. We repay nature by exploiting it for what are often superficial luxuries. Nature would be, some say, better off without us.

Bradbury seems to agree, and he makes evident who would benefit from humankind's continued existence: the false and evil god' 'Baal'' who sits in a ''dark corner of the cellar" as the mechanical and soulless mice make offerings to it of dirt and scraps of decayed dog. This false idol epitomizes the emptiness of the lives of those now gone from this place.

Baal, being a false god, is yet another creation of humankind, another mockery of nature's creations. And so are all the other mechanical monsters. They are all flawed creations which cause humankind's destruction, both in a literal sense (the atomic bombs that destroy the world) and in a metaphorical sense (the mechanized home, drained of the natural juices of life).

In Bradbury's story, there are no people left, and so we are free to enter this house and look around at what they have left behind, speculate on what kind of life they led, what they considered important. By leaving this story unpopulated, we are invited into the remnants of this world and asked to render judgments on those creators who considered themselves equal to, or perhaps a cut above, the elemental forces of nature. The very fact that there are no people says much about the destructive power of their creations, but those smaller, seemingly innocuous mechanical (and perhaps electronic) creations seem even more monstrous as they mockingly, mindlessly perform their tasks which once provided a life of ease—and false security— to their former masters. Humankind has passed away on this planet, and soon humankind's inventions will also die.

Of course, Bradbury is really asking us to make judgments about our own lives and the monsters we create to make our lives easier, to entertain us, and to make us feel safe in a world where we are destroying nature with our greed and arrogance. It is a testament to this story's timelessness that it speaks perhaps even more urgently to us today, as we are more and more distanced from each other and from nature. We have "relationships" in cyberspace but are cut off from real human or natural contact. We live vicarious lives through our television sets— often violent and amoral lives. We fax messages, or send them electronically in a memorandum format, unable even to explore the depth of feeling that letters once conveyed Technology races ahead, outpacing our ability to understand its implications as we are led into a less human, less humane future.

Yet there is a strange kind of optimism here, an optimism that speaks not to us, but to nature itself. It seems to say that our self-destruction is itself natural, that human beings are a small blip on evolution's radar screen. The title of the story, taken from the poem quoted within it, suggests that if humankind were gone, nature would not only endure, but it would also not even notice our disappearance: "Not one would mind, neither bird nor tree / If mankind perished utterly; / And Spring herself, when she woke at dawn / Would scarcely know that we were gone." So there is a paradox here: humankind is a part of nature, not its master, and therefore we must not attempt to change nature. Yet we are constructed by nature in such a way that this attempt issues from our very essence. Therefore, our destruction is inevitable and natural.

Again, the absence of people in the story leads us to look at the world through nature's eyes, not our own, and to become self-aware and critical of our participation in the world.

What kind of world did humanity create while it was extant? Here Bradbury's deft touch is most evident We can see how this empty world was empty even before the great destruction, with mechanical mice vacuuming and a sing-song clock telling us time (it is worth thinking about time, its fearsome, inevitable pace being announced m fairytale rhyming meter in a vain attempt to trivialize its passage). As we grow further and further away from nature, our lives become more and more shallow. Instead of reading poetry—perhaps our last connection to deeper, philosophical thought—it is read to us by an electronic voice. Instead of going out to play in nature, our children watch it projected upon nursery walls. This dull, mechanical world was empty long before the people were taken from it.

But they are gone now as nature, in the form of humankind, has rid itself of humankind. In the end, in a parody of humankind's atomic inferno, the house is consumed by fire, and the machines, madly trying to douse the fire are mere mechanical echoes of those human beings who thought that, not only could they control an ever increasing arsenal of doomsday weapons, but those weapons were a necessary deterrent to their own use. The house tries to give warning as voices wail: "Fire, fire, run, run, like a tragic nursery rhyme, a dozen voices, high, low, like children dying in a forest, alone, alone." These voices are as useless as the human voices might have been before the attack. Their creators, thinking that these mechanical voices would protect them, did not heed the voice of nature nor even the human voices of art and literature that might have brought them more in touch with the natural. The "Picassos and Matisses," consigned to the upper halls (where they were passed by daily, rather than placed in a room where one could sit and contemplate them), did not "humanize" their owners anymore than the mechanical recitation of poetry caused them to consider more than the pretty rhyme and meter. If it had, if people had paid attention to such things (like Bradbury's story itself, one would assume), then humankind would not have dissolved in its own nuclear oven, for it is the artist who is closest to nature and, perhaps, to God.

Bradbury, in his book Zen and the Art of Writing, asserts "how rare the motion picture, the novel, the poem, the story, the painting, or the play which deals with the greatest problem of our time, man and his fabulous tools, man and his mechanical children, man and his amoral robots which lead him, strangely and inexplicably, into immorality." This story is a partial response to that deficiency. We continue to create without regard to what we are creating, without regard to either moral or practical implications (beyond the basic profit motive). We clone sheep, alter DNA, run genetic tests on fetuses, build weapons of mass destruction, eradicate smallpox from the face of the earth, invent a vaccine for polio, send rockets into space, and on and on and we call it all progress. There should be a philosophical basis for differentiating what can enhance our lives and what can only make them empty and mechanical. That basis may be art. That basis may be stones like this one, but—considering that we have become more, not less, dependent upon mechanical comforts, and we have become less literate and less philosophical—perhaps art is not enough.

Source: Robert Peltier, for Short Stories for Students, Gale Research, 1997. Robert Peltier is an English instructor at Trinity College and has published works of both fiction and nonfiction.

The Dangers of Being Earnest-Ray Bradbury and The Martian Chronicles

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I read my first Ray Bradbury story when I was about ten, and it was love at first sight: prose as rich as the cream filling of the Twinkies I loved, creatures bizarre enough to please a ten year old palate, machinery and rockets abundant enough to satisfy a boy living in those pre-Romantic 1950s.

I drifted away from science fiction and Bradbury about fifteen years ago. But I never forgot Bradbury's stories. I remembered the blue triangle baby in "Tomorrow's Child," the writhing pictures on the skin of the Illustrated Man, the Martian's crystal homes in The Martian Chronicles. When my interest in science fiction was reawakened about three years ago, I especially relished the thought of rereading Bradbury's stories, whose images had stuck in my memory for over a decade. However, when I reread Bradbury, I found disquieting elements that I hadn't noticed when I was younger. There was, for instance, a shrill devotion to ideas at the expense of his narratives.

Few people love their ideas as much as Ray Bradbury loves his. He overstates them in newspaper interviews, he forces them into the mouths of his heroes, who then try to harangue us into right reason, and he sometimes stops his narration to lecture us. I'm reminded of Wells, who eventually became more fond of his role as lecturer-moralist than of his role as a storyteller.

Bradbury once estimated that he had turned out almost three million words of fiction before he made his first sale. Those three million words taught Bradbury how to handle prose rhythms and lush description, but they didn't teach him cold-blooded revision.

Never has an author asked so much of his readers. Bradbury's nostalgia for a golden age, his hatred of "glitter-eyed psychiatrists, clever sociologists, resentful educationalists, antiseptic parents," and his anti-materialistic biases occasionally seduce him into artistic lapses. Once an advocate of Technocracy, Bradbury has turned on his previous love with a passion.

In "—And the Moon Be Still as Bright," for instance, the sensitive Jeff Spender likes wood instead of chemical fires, castigates Americans because they love Chicago plumbing too much, quotes Byron, and knows that' 'living is life." All well and good. However, when Spender shoots to death six fellow crew members because they are materialistic philistines, Bradbury continues to justify Spender's behavior. "How would you feel," Spender asks rhetorically, "if a Martian vomited stale liquor on the White House floor?"

Moreover, Captain Wilder, Bradbury's spokesman for the via media, sides with the mass murderer. Wilder secretly hopes that Spender will escape, he almost shoots Parkhill in the back when that entrepreneur charges after Spender, and he demands of his men that Spender be shot "cleanly." Finally, Wilder gives Spender a hero's funeral when he buries him in a Martian sarcophagus. The last we see of Spender is his "peaceful face."

It would seem that readers who are not blinded by Spender's noble sentiments would be fed up with him by the time he kills six people. Bradbury asks too much of us when he comes just short of justifying Spender's behavior on the grounds that he doesn't want to see the golden houses and tile floors desecrated. That is, Bradbury put sullied flesh on an idea and then asked us to admire the flesh along with the idea.

Bradbury's ideas are so violently drawn in The Martian Chronicles that the stories are weakened unless we are as enthusiastic about his ideas as he is. Bradbury can't resist, for instance, forcing his characters onto soap boxes, where they spend their time lecturing us on Rousseauan primitivism, the pleasures of the imagination, and the crassness of American society. At least a fourth of "—And the Moon Be Still as Bright'' consists of Spender's lectures on ecology and aesthetics; and Stendahl in ''Usher IV' and Dad in the "Million Year Picnic" are as preachy as Spender. Bradbury lacks either the inclination or the skill to weave these sentiments into his plot

In an article in Extrapolations, Robert Reilly, infatuated by Bradbury's "neo-humanism," suggests that the Martians of The Martian Chronicles are well-defined and consistent when he calls them a "courteous," "reserved" and gentle race. And it is true that in the fourth expedition Wilder calls the Martians a "graceful, beautiful, and philosophical people." Later, in the story "The Off Season," we see the Martians behaving as kindly as Wilder tells us they behave when, after Sam Parkhill murders a few of them, they turn their cheeks and give Sam Parkhill their land.

Yet these same Martians, under the exigencies of Bradbury's plots, are quite a different people. When Bradbury needs the first Earth expedition murdered, he uses a Martian, one of those ''gentle'' creatures, as the murderer ("Ylla"). Ylla's husband, who lives in that crystal-pillared house built by a race that knows how to blend' 'religion, art, and science," becomes a cold-blooded killer when his jealousy is aroused. The second expedition is wiped out by a Martian psychologist who thinks they are Martian madmen, and we find out that there are an incredible number of Martian madmen among a population that is supposed to be so reasonable and philosophical. Finally, the seventeen members of the third expedition are murdered in their beds by these Martians that we are told by Bradbury to admire. Under the influence of Bradbury's plots, the Martians kill. Under the influence of his "neo-humanism," we are told that the Martians are cleaner and nicer than we are.

Bradbury also occasionally becomes so enamored with his prose that he forgets to ask himself if his descriptions fit his stories. For instance, the conclusion to "The Third Expedition" contains the kind of evocative tableau—with its brass band, coffins, and mourners—that Bradbury is so fond of. However, it is so implausible that it should jar any reader who is not completely caught up in Bradbury's prose. Never have the Martians been pictured as whimsical humorists, yet here they are participating in an American burial after they have killed the American visitors. The "mayor" makes a speech, the "mourners" cry, and the brass band plays ''Columbia, the Gem of the Ocean.'' What are we to think of all this? Until this time, the Martians have shown no sentimental attachment to humans, no traces of whimsy, and no interest in psycho-drama. Yet there they are, still dressed in Earth clothes and Earth faces, forced to act in an implausible scene because the author loves to describe a nostalgic burial and is unable to stop his pen. As an isolated tableau, the burial scene is a masterpiece. It has the power of pleasing our taste for the unexpected and sensational. But the scene doesn't satisfy our need for a well- made plot and internal consistency. That Bradbury is writing fantasy science fiction is no excuse. The world that a fantasy author creates— like the worlds created by medieval theologians— must be internally consistent.

But enough of this. Despite their literary "flaws," I remembered Bradbury's stories, when I had forgotten most of the others. So I reexamined his stories in a search for [what] made his stories memorable. My first discovery was that I—perhaps we—can forgive an author his shortcomings if he can make up for them in other ways. Daniel Defoe didn't know when to stop a story, but we easily forgive him. We remember Crusoe's island adventures and forget his boring overland trip back to England from Portugal. We can forgive Alexander Pope his personal attacks on his various enemies because of his sustained inventiveness and cleverness. So despite his shortcomings, Bradbury's strengths make his books memorable.

Although his prose is occasionally overcooked it is still, in small chunks, superior to any other prose in science fiction. It is prose, like good poetry, that sticks in the mind. Let me point to a single example out of The Martian Chronicles. It's hard to forget those dormant robots waiting in the cellar in' 'Usher II," because Bradbury's prose rhythms are appropriate to the action and because he is master of the small, sensuous detail that captures our imagination:

Full grown without memory, the robots waited In green silks the color of forest pools, in silks the color of frog and fern, they waited. In yellow hair the color of sun and sand, the robots waited. Oiled, with tube bones cut from bronze and sunk in gelatin, the robots lay In coffins for the not dead and not alive, in planked boxes, the Metronomes waited to be set in motion. There was a smell of lubrication and lathed brass...And now there was a vast screaming of yanked nails Now there was a lifting of lids.

Bradbury has more to offer than prose: his imagination is inventive and vivid. I don't agree with Danon Knight that Bradbury has a "mediocre" imagination. Bradbury does not work like Hal Clement, whose controlled visions construct coherent extraterrestrial environments and then people them with believable and appropriate creatures. Bradbury's mind creates the outlandish (stealing a cup of gold from the sun, blue triangle babies, etc.); and when his prose is working, he carries it off. His visions of the Martians and their environment in The Martian Chronicles may be contradictory, but they are aesthetically pleasing and richly imaginative. Crystal homes, blue-sailed sandships, coffined robots, singing books, rockets that turn the winter landscape into summer—these details go a long way toward compensating for other artistic lapses.

Let me list a few images out of Bradbury's stories and see if you don't remember the same ones I remember: the scurrying metal mice in "There Will Come Soft Rains'' who are used as miniature vacuum cleaners, and who continue to work feverishly as their house burns down; the mechanical coffin in "Wake for the Living" that embalms the brother and then digs his grave and covers it behind him; the children's nursery in The Veldt, with electronic walls that fill the room with the smells and sounds of African lions; the crushed butterfly on the boots of the time traveler in ''A Sound of Thunder." And always the running children in tennis shoes, the rockets belching flames, the old-fashioned burials.

But most of all, Bradbury deserves our praise for those stories that deal with, in Damon Knight's words, our "fundamental prerational fears and longings and desires." Bradbury knows, as all good writers know, how to touch that residue of ancient images that we carry around with us: lost Edens (which come in the form of small American towns of the 1920s), new green beginnings for the pioneers on Mars, nostalgia for universally lost childhoods, the fear of the wicked that this way comes. Bradbury—thank goodness—never tires of touching these strings.

Do these strengths of Bradbury overcome his weaknesses? I think they do. In that one thing that is, to my mind, important to most science fiction—an artist's ability to engage us in that world of oiled robots, strange beings, tune paradoxes, other worlds, and bizarre futures—Bradbury is very good. And that's why I remembered Ray Bradbury.

Source: Kent Forrester, "The Dangers of Being Earnest-Ray Bradbury and The Martian Chronicles," in The Journal of General Education, Wol 28, No 1, Spring, 1976, pp 50-54.

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Critical Overview