After I took a Literature & Film class focused on the idea of The Apocalypse (whatever that may mean to you), I was inspired to think about the end of the world as we know it (and consequently, the beginnings of new ones) through the lenses of different films and stories. Here's a close reading I did of a Ray Bradbury short story that fit the bill of what the end of the world might look like and that instantly grew on me - "There Will Come Soft Rains."
Within the modern age of technology, humans are equipped with tools that provide an infinite amount of possibilities for what one can accomplish; this enormity of possibilities not only renders the future limitless, but begs the question of how the definition of humanity will evolve, and whether or not humans will remain relevant in the face of technological advancement over time. In “August 2026: There Will Come Soft Rains,” Bradbury offers a prophetic look at the future of modern society and technology; he presents a glimpse into the extinction of mankind after a nuclear holocaust in 2026 by describing the disposition of an automated house operating autonomously in a fallen city. By using personification and figurative language to convey a post-apocalyptic portrait of an artificially intelligent house, Bradbury signals a warning about technological singularity – that as the capacity of technology to endure without human support grows, the meaning of humanity and human longevity is increasingly threatened.
Because Bradbury breathes human qualities into the character of the house, one is able to empathize with its humanistic traits and consider it as a living, technological creature. The house’s routine behavior is described through a third-person omniscient viewpoint, which lingers on mechanical actions occurring in different regions of the house: from the front door “[singing] quietly,” cleaning animals “sucking gently at hidden dust,” the “stove making pancakes,” to tables folding “like great butterflies,” Bradbury allows oneself to gain insight into the habitual inner workings of the house in a post-apocalyptic setting, sans human owners (1-3). Moreover, given that the house’s activity is dictated by the passage of time, a specific consequential task follows suit after each point in the house’s schedule is established; this dynamic of documenting time can be observed within instances such as “the nursery walls [glowing] at “Four-thirty” and “dinner dishes [manipulating] like magic tricks” at “Six, seven, eight o’clock” (3-4).
However, a turning point occurs within the house’s schedule; “At ten o’clock, it [begins] to die,” and a series of scenes regarding the house’s gradual demise ensue that encapsulates Bradbury’s overarching criticism on the dynamic between technology and mankind (5). While tracing the house’s strict schedule leading up to its downfall, Bradbury uses figurative language to personify idiosyncrasies of the house and elements of nature that ultimately threaten to destroy its existence. Because Bradbury humanizes the house’s “mechanical paranoia” towards the outside world, its architectural body “[quivering] at each sound,” the mortality of the house is especially prominent during the ten o’clock scene; a force of fire threatens to extinguish its existence: the fire “[feeds] upon Picassos and Matisses in the upper hall… baking off the oily flesh,” shatters the house’s “attic brain,” and eventually causes the structure’s “bare skeletons [to cringe] from the heat” and expose its “red veins and capillaries” to the “scalded air” (2, 5-6).
By ironically referring to fire and characteristics of the house as living creatures, Bradbury strengthens the dynamic of resistance between technology and human nature, implying that as technology has grown increasingly intelligent and human-like, humans have become excessively reliant on technology’s capabilities. With technology overwhelming and replacing organic toils of human labor, Bradbury’s decision to allocate human qualities in technological creatures demonstrates his fatalistic outlook on how advanced technology has become a crutch for society, especially in the context of nuclear warfare, that sucks the marrow of humanity out of the earth and its inhabitants.
However, although Bradbury stresses how technology removes human involvement from the world by depicting an automated house crumbling in an environment ruined by nuclear warfare, Bradbury’s inclusion of components of nature and personification to humanize the house and the fire establishes a tension of opposites: in spite of human extinction, the essence of humanity appears to have not been fully extinguished, but rather absorbed and redistributed into technological mediums themselves. Bradbury’s consistent references to elements of nature, from comparing fading voices in the house to dying children in a “forest,” snapping mirrors to “brittle ice,” and popping wires to “hot chestnuts,” all accentuate the fact that the unnatural entity of technology shapes the scale and form of how humans associate themselves with the natural world, as well as how they can ultimately be disassociated from it (6).
Bradbury’s choice to treat the house as a digitized projection of human characteristics falling victim to extreme consequences of technological warfare emphasizes how technological mediums’ resemblance to humans is a byproduct of society’s hyper-reliance on mechanical machines. In turn, similar to how technology is comprised of different forms of media, Bradbury’s continual personification of the technological house suggests that humans are also mediums themselves – that humans should be more than just moving shadows or a “silhouette” alongside the realm of technology (2). Based on the notion that humans are able to configure their perspective and understanding of the world through integrative technology, Bradbury’s eerie portrayal of a world void of humans due to nuclear warfare implies that humans must harvest benefits from the expansive abilities of technology, rather than abusing technological power to create impulsive destruction. Therefore, Bradbury’s the juxtaposition of nature and technology within descriptions of the house’s downfall strengthens the overarching narrative that technology’s recurring battle with mankind constantly ebbs and flows.
Furthermore, Bradbury’s implementation of verbal repetition and patterns of choppy syntax to describe the house’s deteriorating state not only submerges oneself into a sensory experience of panic, but begins to reveal the artificiality of the artificially intelligent house. For instance, when viewing the text of the house’s repetitive cries, “Help, help! Fire! Run, run!”, jumping through visual hurdles of clipped sentence structures engenders a sensation of being left breathless, almost as if one were in the midst of the suffocating fire himself (6). Likewise, Bradbury’s continuation of incorporating a visual pattern of choppy, repetitive phrases to describe how the house’s voices wail, “Fire, fire, run, run” and eventually begin to fade, “…alone, alone” shows the technological limitations of the house’s responsiveness through recycling limited word choices of “help,” “fire,” and “run” (5-6).
Moreover, Bradbury’s inclusion of jumpy syntax to emphasize the physical destruction of the house evokes the effect of an onomatopoeia; his use of verbal repetition and clipped sentence structures mirror the percussive-sounding verbs utilized to describe sharp noises occurring within the falling house, such as “heat [snapping]” mirrors like “brittle winter ice” and “wires [popping]” their sheathings like “hot chestnuts,” which emphasizes the urgency the house feels as it “[tries] to save itself” (5-6). Ultimately, this effect produces an immersive sense of frantic desperation surrounding the house’s downfall and sheds light on the notion that advanced technology, albeit capable of mirroring human-like autonomy, lacks the pillars of conscientious behavior and intuitive thinking that are innate to humanity.
In addition, Bradbury’s juxtaposition of technology alongside elements of nature to describe the house’s journey towards death underscores the overarching implication that technological mediums are constantly at war with mankind. Bradbury’s thematic warning about technological singularity is fully embodied by the haunting imagery of the “entire west face of the house,” that of which depicts a family’s “images burned in wood in one titanic instant” (2). This imagery is implicative of the Hiroshima Shadow during World War II, a phenomenon notorious for capturing a subject’s “images,” or final moments of life, in a “titanic instant” before being burned alive in a nuclear fire.
Although Bradbury’s illustration of the remnants of human silhouettes on a charred wall is symbolic of the apocalyptic destruction that can be born from abusing nuclear weaponry, it also serves as a warning about destructive technology to society; because the conclusion of Bradbury’s piece lingers on the imagery of the only remaining wall left of the house continuing to function and speak with its electric voice, Bradbury suggests that if humans continue to invest in technology for digressive purposes, such as mindless destruction, human rationality and conscientiousness will become obsolete. Thus, with technological machines, such as Bradbury’s depicted house, exuding artificial impressions of human-like qualities and problem-solving processes, the depletion of human self-sufficiency strengthens the possibility of individuals becoming merely shadows of human beings.
Overall, by using literary elements in “August 2026: There Will Come Soft Rains” to sculpt the character of a technologically advanced house as it copes with the effects of post-nuclear warfare, Bradbury enables oneself to gain a vivid glimpse at his perspective on the evolution of modern technology, its detrimental effects on the future of mankind, and the consequential decay of humanity. Although Bradbury depicts technology as an inevitable force of power and destruction, the house’s ultimate digression into ashes of nothingness, save one wall, shows that the fate of humankind is able to diverge from a fatalistic outcome – that technology will always be running ahead of society, evolving at an unbeatably fast rate – and be rejuvenated by humane aspects of the physical world. Thus, Bradbury’s portrayal of an automated, post-apocalyptic house that thrives off the residue of humanity, but is ultimately swept away by fire, not only acts as a warning for one to keep up with the future of technology, but also serves as a note of caution to avoid being left standing in the shadow of technology itself.