Scott and I have decided to do a kind of book club with Jane, focusing at first on short stories. Today, having read the news story of the death of a man who survived the atomic bombings of both Hiroshima and Nagasaki, I chose Ray Bradbury’s “There Will Come Soft Rains” as our first selection.
The water pelted windowpanes, running down the charred west side where the house had been burned evenly free of its white paint. 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 story was written in 1950. I think I first read it around 1983, because I remember having seen Wargames not long before coming across the story, and nuclear war seemed a very real and near possibility. Remember those scary TV miniseries? The Day After, anyone? Or what was that British one…Threads?
Now here I am in The Future, closer to 2026 (the year in which the story takes place) than to 1950, or to 1983, for that matter. Despite the chilling post-apocalyptic scenario, I couldn’t help but smile at the rather endearing Fifties sensibility enshrined in the high-tech, automated Year 2026 house.
Bridge tables sprouted from patio walls. Playing cards fluttered onto pads in a shower of pips. Martinis manifested on an oaken bench with egg-salad sandwiches. Music played.
But the tables were silent and the cards untouched.
Martinis and bridge in mid-afternoon? It’s quite charming, really. I mean, that and eerie as all get-out.
Those robot mice that clean the house—Bradbury envisioned the Roomba fifty years ahead of its time, in a smaller and more clever incarnation. I could go for a dozen of those little vacuuming mice, “whirling their mustached runners, kneading the rug nap, sucking gently at hidden dust.”
The title comes from a Sara Teasdale poem which is quoted in the story, another chilling moment which might have come off as heavyhanded but doesn’t. The empty house, the last house left standing after the war, reads the poem to its incinerated mistress, the automated voice sounding in the silence.
“There will come soft rains and the smell of the ground,
And swallows circling with their shimmering sound;
And frogs in the pools singing at night,
And wild plum trees in tremulous white;
Robins will wear their feathery fire,
Whistling their whims on a low fence-wire;
And not one will know of the war, not one
Will care at last when it is done.
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.”
The fire burned on the stone hearth and the cigar fell away into a mound of quiet ash on its tray. The empty chairs faced each other between the silent walls, and the music played.
“A strange game. The only winning move is not to play.” —JOSHUA, the Wargames computer
Here’s the climax of that fine film. Major spoiler so don’t click play if you haven’t seen the film yet—Jane, this means you. 🙂
Booknotes: Prairie Fires by Caroline Fraser
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Cybils Call for Judges
Men at Work