Few books have been as formative and influential for me as Ray Bradbury’s 1950 short story fix-up novel The Martian Chronicles. While the book as a whole is far from perfect – there are problematic depictions of gender and race throughout the middle section of the book – There will Come Soft Rains has always struck me, both as a poignantly beautiful story, but also as an exciting experiment in prose.
Bradbury’s story has no characters. There are no agents, save for the brief appearance of a dog, which only appears long enough to die. It is a slice of life story with no life in it, taking place in a world after a nuclear holocaust has wiped out human life. The dead are represented only as “silhouette[s] in paint” (Bradbury 2), white shadows on the side of the house where bomb blasts had burnt everything else black. Bradbury paints an image of human memory only as tattoos on the structures we have left behind, and without explicitly stating how the world might have ended. Too often, speculative fiction takes pages and pages to explain how the author’s imagined reality differs from our own, and I think Bradbury gives a good reminder that a reader can build the world up without so many excruciating details.
The entire story could be cut down to barely two sentences: an automated “house lay empty. The clock ticked on, repeating and repeating its sounds into the emptiness. […] at ten o’clock the house began to die” (1-3). Bradbury takes this almost entirely static scene, and transforms it through his treatment and anthropomorphizing of the environment. Proximity alarms do not merely go off, but “quivered at each sound” (2). The stove does not cook quickly but “at a psychopathic rate” (5). Bradbury’s setting may be a house, but the house is a body, with even an “attic brain” (4) in the place a head might go. The house itself becomes the character, and its continued attempts to care for residents long dead transform from a machine doing what it is programmed to do, to a kind of kinetic mourning, emotion and catharsis represented by the preprogrammed actions.
When the house begins to burn, Bradbury gives it panic. Then once the house knows nothing can save it, Bradbury gives it fear of death, “It’s bared skeleton cringing from the heat” (5). When the fire alarm fails, Bradbury gives the house a death. The speakers do not switch off, but instead, its “voices died” (5). The destruction is a tragedy, juxtaposed by the early death of the dog, which dies with no ceremony or emotion. Its corpse is inanimate and disposable, and once it has been cleared away, the narrative does not linger on it. Bradbury shows how a living thing can become inanimate, while inanimate things can become living, depending on the words an author chooses to manifest them. The house throws the dog in the incinerator, so flame takes dog as well as house. However, where the animal receives a tight-lipped “the dog was gone” (2), the house receives a grave salute after death: “smoke and silence. A great quantity of smoke” (5).
In my writing, I struggle to write environment. I am more comfortable with character and dialogue than with scenery, often trusting my reader’s imagination to create the “stage,” so to speak. Depending on the nature of the story, this can work. However, Bradbury offers an alternative by giving humanity to brick, and floor, and table. There Will Come Soft Rains provides another option. By allowing homes to become bodies, describing surroundings can become emotive.
Bradbury, Ray. The Martian Chronicles. Harper Perennial, 2011.