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Soft Rains – Ray Bradbury and Cold War Science-Fiction

Since its earliest beginnings, the science-fiction genre has been inextricably tied to concurrent trends in technology. Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (1818) – often hailed as the first true science-fiction story – was developed in light of experiments by Luigi Galvani and Alessandro Volta in electrochemistry. In these experiments the muscles of deceased animals were briefly animated and made to move by electricity, giving Shelley the monstrous conceit of the reanimated corpse. Later pioneers of science-fiction-like Jules Verne produced many stories centring on voyages to exciting foreign worlds and locations – e.g., Journey to the Center of the Earth (1864), 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea (1869), and others – while the Age of colonial expansion boomed under the development of the steam-ship and the earliest attempted flights. What these works reflect is not only the technology that defined their respective eras but the parallel social anxieties that these inventions brought with them. Verne’s contemporary H. G. Wells produced one of science fiction’s foundational works, The War of the Worlds (1898), as an inversion of this colonial dynamic, imagining Earth in the place of the invaded (Link & Canavan, 2019). The central scientific and philosophical concerns of the 20th century stemmed from the Cold War (1947 – 1991) and the prospect of global nuclear war. This article will examine one such piece of short fiction to demonstrate how contemporary science fiction responded to these fears.

A nuclear bomb is tested in 1946
Figure 1: Nuclear testing at Bikini Atoll, Marshall Islands (Atomic Veterans Benefits Program, 1946).

The Cold War period in America represents one of fiction’s most fascinating relationships to scientific development. Science had not only advanced beyond anything imaginable in Verne or Shelley’s time but had by 1945 engendered the whole world with an unprecedented and existential anxiety: nuclear annihilation. 6th August 1945 saw the United States release the first atomic bomb on the Japanese city of Hiroshima, effectively ending the Second World War (1939 – 1945) three days later with a second attack on Nagasaki. Japan’s surrender was unconditional. The devastating impact of the incidents was an epochal event, bringing the world into the age of perennial paranoia. The Soviet Union frantically increased their push to replicate the same power, succeeding in August 1949 (Westad, 2017). This successful Soviet test confirmed the Cold War dynamic of two opposing forces capable of global destruction. The age of atomic paranoia had begun:

“There is a historically specifiable twist which intensifies the anxiety. I mean, the trauma suffered by everyone in the middle of the 20th century when it became clear that, from now on to the end of human history, every person would spend his individual life under the threat not only of individual death, which is certain, but of something almost insupportable psychologically — collective incineration and extinction which could come at any time, virtually without warning” (Sontag, 1990, pp. 223-224).

This era instigated a boom in the production of science-fiction in the written word and especially in the ever-more-ubiquitous form of cinema (O’Donnell). There Will Come Soft Rains is a 1950 short story by American writer Ray Bradbury. Published only nine months after the USSR’s successful test, it is a story profoundly impacted by the nascent fears of worldwide nuclear destruction. In the year 2026, the story describes the automated robotic house of one family in Allendale, California which has continued to serve its non-existent human occupants after a nuclear war has wiped out the human population. Breakfast is served. Outstanding bills are announced. Well-timed sprinklers water the evaporated garden. The systematised comforts imagined for the affluent Americans of tomorrow roll out automatically, to the benefit of no one, against a backdrop of emptiness and eerie radioactive light.

Influential American Sci-Fi Writer Ray Bradbury
Figure 2: Ray Bradbury (Unknown, n.d.).

There is only one description given of the family who once resided in the home. The final moments of the parents and two children are etched permanently in ash on the exterior walls of the house:

“The entire west face of the house was black, save for five places. Here the silhouette in paint of a man mowing a lawn. Here, as in a photograph, a woman bent to pick flowers. Still farther over, their images burned on wood in one titanic instant, a small boy, hands flung into the air; higher up, the image of a thrown ball, and opposite him a girl, hands raised to catch a ball which never came down. The five spots of paint — the man, the woman, the children, the ball- remained. The rest was a thin charcoaled layer” (Bradbury, 1950, p. 2).

The image is more than simply a dramatic choice on Bradbury’s part. It is a deliberate invocation of one of the Hiroshima bombing’s most potent and famous images, of a human form burned forever into the steps of the Sumitomo Bank in Hiroshima (Swift, 2009). Implanted into his American setting, Bradbury brings home the reality of the new global dynamic unleashed by America’s decision to open the Atomic Age.

The shadow in place of a human being evaporated by the Hiroshima blast
Figure 3: Human shadow etched in stone (Matsuhige Yoshito, 1946).

Bradbury’s imagined Californian wasteland is more than simply a place of physical destruction: it is an embodiment of the spiritual destruction that awaits mankind in the dehumanised technological future. While There Will Come Soft Rains is often misconstrued as being simply anti-technology, on a deeper level it is a more nuanced rumination on the removal of humanity from technology (Dominianni, 1984, p. 49). While the house and its automated actions are frequently personified, the facets of daily life rendered needless by the overseeing technology are the most human of all: the preparing of communal meals; the remembrance of birthdays and anniversaries; even the selection of which art to engage with – the story takes its name from a Sara Teasdale poem of the same name from 1918 that rings out in the empty, decaying house.

“There will come soft rains and the smell of the ground And swallows circling with their shimmering sound [...] 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” (lines 1-2, 9-12).

Teasdale’s original work ponders how nature will outlive humanity, scarcely remembering our presence, written in response to the senseless destruction of the First World War (1914 – 1918). It is a fitting and ironic choice to surmise the story. In one sense the prophesied indifference of nature has come true, while the newly emptied world will also never be untouched by our presence, such is the size of the impact human intervention has grown to in the era of The Bomb. Scientific hubris had brought war even to the home as a permanent psychic accompaniment in Bradbury’s time. There Will Come Soft Rains is not a parable of subservience or technology seizing control; it is not even simply an anti-war message. It is a warning against the relinquishing of humanity in return for “progress”, resulting at best in superficiality, and at worst in apocalyptic destruction.

Bibliographical References

Bradbury, R. ‘There Will Come Soft Rains’. Collier’s Weekly. (1950, May 6). Cromwell-Collier Publishing Company.

Dominianni, R. ‘Ray Bradbury’s 2026: A Year With Current Value’. The English Journal. (Vol 73, No. 7. November 1984). pp. 49-51.

Link, E. C. and Canavan, G. Eds. The Cambridge History of Science-Fiction. (2019). Cambridge University Press.

O'Donnell, V. ‘Science Fiction Films and Cold War Anxiety’

Sontag, S. ‘The Imagination of Disaster’. In Against Interpretation and Other Essays. (1990 Ed.) Picador. pp. 209-225

Swift, J. ‘The Soviet-American Arms Race’. History Review. (Issue 63, March 2009).

Westad, O. A. The Cold War: A Global History. (2017). Penguin Books.

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Seán Downey

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