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There Will Come Soft Rains

When I was at school I found English a challenging subject. I mean I always passed and there was never anything actually difficult about it, but it was just so vague and indistinct. There are no facts and a lot of opinion which creates a different type of challenge to physics, for example, which is almost the opposite.

But there are a few things – highlights if you want to call them that – which I remember about the subject. I remember some Shakespeare, especially King Lear and MacBeth, but more than anything else I remember “the Silver Locusts”.

The Silver Locusts (also known as the Martian Chronicles) is a science fiction novel (or a series of short stories linked together into a single book) about the colonisation of Mars. It was written in the 1950s by Ray Bradbury, who recently died, which is the event which lead to me wanting to write this post.

When I say the book was a science fiction story about the colonisation of Mars I am only being partly correct. That is what appears to be the case on the surface but underneath the stories examined issues such as exploitation of the environment, nuclear war, racism, colonisation, repression of indigenous cultures, censorship, and the appropriate use of technology.

At the time (remember this was many years ago now: in the 1970s) I mainly read “hard” science fiction (Asimov, Clarke, etc) but Bradbury’s work was quite different. It is more like poetry and uses a lot of metaphor, allusion, and other less direct mechanisms.

There is absolutely nothing wrong with hard science fiction and I like the way it explores ideas about the future often before anyone has considered the same ideas in “real life” (Arthur C Clarke’s “invention” of the geosynchronous communications satellite is a classic example of this) but often the “softer” form by people like Bradbury leads to deeper questions.

And that’s what fiction is all about, in my opinion. Another thing I remember from school is my form 7 (year 13) teacher saying that the purpose of science fiction is to examine the way people act in foreign environments. I don’t think so. It goes away beyond that. Science fiction asks questions. Hopefully difficult questions without any obvious right or wrong answer.

After watching the majority of movies or TV programs or even completing reading a book I often feel that I have been entertained (and that’s fine because I don’t want to be engulfed in deeply philosophical material all the time) but I also feel cheated because I then wonder “what was the point?” Reaching the end of a truly great story should be a beginning, not an end.

I think Bradbury’s work was like that.

Here’s an excerpt from the last couple of chapters in “The Martian Chronicles” which describe the destruction of Earth and the new start on Mars…

August 2026: There Will Come Soft Rains

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.

The gentle sprinkler rain filled the garden with falling light.

October 2026: the Million-Year Picnic

He put his tiny radio to his ear again. After two mintes he dropped his hand as you would drop a rag.

“It’s over at last,” he said to Mom. “The radio just went off the atomic beam. Every other world station’s gone. They dwindled down to a couple in the last few years. Now the air’s completely silent. It’ll probably remain silent.” […]

Night came quickly in the thin atmosphere, and Dad left them in the square by the pulsing fountain, went down to the boat, and came walking back carrying a stack of paper in his big hands.

He laid the papers in a clutter in an old courtyard and set them afire. To keep warm, they crouched around the blaze and laughed, and Timothy saw the little letters leap like frightened animals when the flames touched and engulfed them.

The papers crinkled like an old man’s skin, and the cremation surrounded innumerable words: “GOVERNMENT BONDS; Business Graph, 1999; Religious Prejudice: An Essay; The Science of Logistics; Problems of the Pan-American Unity; Stock Report for July 3, 1998; The War Digest…”

Dad had insisted on bringing these papers for this purpose. He sat there and fed them into the fire, one by one, with satisfaction, and told his children what it all meant. […]

The night came down around them, and there were stars. But Timothy couldn’t find Earth. It had already set. That was something to think about. […]

They reached the canal. It was long and straight and cool and wet and reflective in the night. “I’ve always wanted to see a Martian,” said Michael. “Where are they, Dad? You promised.”

“There they are,” said Dad, and he shifted Michael on his shoulder and pointed straight down. The Martians were there. Timothy began to shiver.

The Martians were there – in the canal – reflected in the water. Timothy and Michael and Robert and Mom and Dad.

The Martians stared back up at them for a long, long silent time from the rippling water…

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