There Will Come Soft Rains, a Short Story by Ray Bradbury

You can read There Will Come Soft Rains here.


Ray Bradbury’s There Will Come Soft Rains hits hard and deep, leaving the reader with a profound, indescribable discomfort.

The story is about a house and the family that no longer resides in it. It’s 2026, and everything within sight has been obliterated in a nuclear attack. Everything, save for this one house.

It’s a futuristic home, with walls that talk and robots that do household chores. It’s almost a living thing in itself, carrying on with its schedule as if the family it once served were still alive and present. It cooks food, prepares baths, and even reads nightly poems.

Not a single human comes anywhere near the home, however. It’s not even clear if humans still exist.

The family’s dog still lives, though not for long. It wanders into the empty home, checking the doors in search of family and food. It finds neither and dies in the parlor. Within a hour, the robots hauls its remains and incinerates them.

During the house’s usual evening poem, a tree crashes through the kitchen window, shattering a bottle of flammable cleaning solution all over the stove. And despite its best efforts, the house fails to put out the flames.

By the story’s end, the house is gone, with the exception of a single wall that continues to speak as the sun rises again.

There Will Come Soft Rains is so masterfully written, to the point where it’s difficult to wrap one’s brain around. It has a poignant, sobering effect that hangs overhead for the rest of the day.

Yet it’s surprising because this story doesn’t tread over any unexplored roads. Countless other stories touch on the same ideas: the end of humanity, nuclear destruction, an apocalyptic wasteland, and a futuristic, automated home.

How is Bradbury able to take these almost cliche elements and produce such an unexpected and powerful effect?

I believe Bradbury is only able to pull this off because he takes a commonly explored setting and situation and zeroes in on aspects that most other writers would consider to be secondary. They would focus on explaining the events leading up to this apocalypse. They would make efforts to tell the story in human terms, perhaps by telling it through the eyes of a hardened survivor. They might create a sympathetic link by describing in detail the family that once lived in the home.

Instead, Bradbury omits all of those elements entirely. He clears everything out to give his story a sense of futile nothingness. There is nothing remotely human in the story. The only thing that comes close is the talking, automated home that carries on with its schedule as if nothing had happened, which is perhaps the least human reaction to the situation.

The reader can’t help but try and humanize this house. It’s hard not to. The house does talk, after all. This makes the story all the more disturbing because it’s akin to watching someone experience utter tragedy and go on futilely, denying reality to protect themselves.

It’s pathetic. Pitiful.

“It doesn’t matter,” the story seems to say. “You don’t matter. I don’t matter. Whether we live or not, we are all tiny and insignificant in the grand scheme of things.”

There Will Come Soft Rains is a dark one. It isn’t easy to digest. It leaves the reader in a dark mood, but does it in an almost enlightening way, as if exposing a part of the human heart that had long been forgotten.


There’s a lot to take away from this, in terms of writing/storytelling techniques. Two in particular stand out:

  1. Sometimes, the best way to capitalize on an interesting setting or situation is to explain nothing at all.
  2. No story exists in a vacuum. Within, without, before, and after every story is another story. It doesn’t matter how many of these stories the writer tells. It does matter that the writer conveys this sense of continuity.
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As Good as New, a Short Story by Charlie Jane Anders

You can read Charlie Jane Anders’ As Good as New here.


As Good as New is Anders’ unique combination of the ‘genie in a bottle’ scenario played out in a post-apocalyptic setting. The story follows Marisol, a premed student who has cast aside her dreams of being a playwright. She is in the middle of her part-time housecleaning job when global catastrophe hits. Conveniently enough, the owner of the house had a bunker prepared for just this sort of situation, and Marisol is able to duck in and lock herself into safety.

After spending several months watching reruns and eating frozen dinners, Marisol ventures out to find that the world had turned into a chilly wasteland covered in a white fungus responsible for taking out the human race. A corked bottle catches her eye, and upon uncorking it, she meets Richard Wolf, the theater critic turned genie.

Seeing the desolation all around him, Richard seems more annoyed than anything else. “Not again,” he says, which Marisol catches and interprets to mean that the last owner of the bottle had inadvertently brought about humanity’s demise. In classic genie fashion, Richard neither confirms nor denies this.

The two become friends of a sort. Richard is wry as genies go, and Marisol, as a former playwright herself, is eager to win his approval. In between their banter and discussions of theater, Marisol tries to puzzle out what exactly had gone wrong with the previous wisher and how she could frame her wishes to undo the catastrophe without causing another.

Well, she succeeds, much to my surprise. It turns out that this is one genie story with a happy ending. With careful phrasing, she is able to put everything back as it once was and finds herself transported into a coffee shop with her friend Julia.

And that’s… it.

No twist, no lesson, no nothing. Marisol comes out of her apocalyptic experience unscathed and largely unchanged.

I’m struggling to find more to say about this story because there doesn’t seem to be much more to it than that. The setting is left unexplored and the events leading up to the story turn out to be inconsequential. The main character amazingly manages to avoid any sort of development as a human being through an experience that surely must have been quite harrowing. The genie, for all his insistence on remaining silent on the topic of how the apocalypse happens in the first place, turns out to have nothing up his sleeve at all. And Marisol manages to succeed in turning the world back to normal by simply phrasing her wishes in careful, and not particularly clever, manner.

My expectations may have been too high. After all, I found out about this story through a list of “6 Brain-Bending SF/F Stories You can Read on Your Lunch Break” on Barnes and Noble’s blog. If this was the list creator’s idea of “brain-bending,” then I hope for his sake he never watches something like LOST, since that’s sure to kill him.

As Good as New is not a horrible story. It just mixes two classic scenarios in an interesting way and then doesn’t go anywhere with it.


I don’t have to like a story to come away with lessons to carry on with me as a writer. What I’ve learned is this:

A story’s main assets are its setting, its plot, and its characters. If a story does not offer much in the way of those, it better deliver something else, otherwise the reader is bound to walk away empty handed.

 

The Feeling of Power, a Short Story by Isaac Asimov

You can read Isaac Asimov’s short story, The Feeling of Power, here.


What one man considers forward, another may consider backward.

When stated like that, the premise of Asimov’s The Feeling of Power, seems rather simple. And yet The Feeling of Power is anything but. In classic Asimov fashion, the story touches on big ideas, ideas already familiar to most people, but presents them in a way that exposes aspects we may have overlooked.

The story takes place in what they call New Pentagon during an unspecified time in the far off future. Humans have achieved a level of technology that makes much of what we today consider necessary, completely obsolete. This is, as said before, not a revolutionary idea. It is what Asimov does with the idea that is so fascinating.

Computers have become so powerful and ubiquitous, for example, that humans have lost the ability to do basic math. Arithmetic has all but become a lost art. That is, until the events of the story.

Jehan Shuman, a computer expert of the highest degree, introduces select members of the U.S. military and congress to a lowly technician by the name of Myron Aub. This man, Shuman claims, has made a revolutionary discovery. He sets Aub up to stand in front of these highly dignified men and show them his groundbreaking findings. He proceeds to multiply numbers on a piece of paper.

The reaction is nothing short of hilarious. These esteemed generals and politicians are dumbfounded, but also skeptical. But as Aub continues to perform miracles (simple arithmetic) with his pen and paper and they compare his answers to the calculations of their computers, they are completely blown away.

They speak excitedly about the possibilities, of teaching everyone how to perform these simple functions, of weaning the country off its dependence on computers, of going, as we would see it, backwards. And considering the perspective of the characters, is it not true that these developments would not be backward, but rather forward?

Asimov begins the story with this sort of lighthearted, humorous scenario, but abruptly reminds us that the story is in fact taking place in New Pentagon. The conversation immediately turns to arithmetic’s applications in war, of how much money they could save by relying so heavily on computers in their war efforts. They even speak of manning missiles with living men who would replace the computers and personally guide the missiles to their targets themselves.

After all, while computers are costly, humans are expendable.

After the conversation takes this dark turn, Aub realizes what he’s done, and he kills himself. Regardless, no one cares very much and they press forward.


Asimov very artfully pulled off the same technique I saw Ursula Le Guin use in The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas: contrast in tone. Asimov prefaced his intended tone with the polar opposite and allowed it to carry on long enough for the reader to grow comfortable. And then he pivots, hitting the reader with the story’s true colors. The effect as I see it is that the story’s theme and tone becomes amplified.

There’s more to it than that, though. It’s not just a matter of swapping tones. The final tone has to make sense. While it is important that it is shocking, it is even more important that the reader can go back however many pages and see the clues that explain it before it happens. Thus, when the reader gets to the intended tone of the story they can see that it isn’t new – it was always there, had they been reading carefully enough.


While it feels almost criminal to assign any story a score, I will do so just to give it a place among all the other stories I have and will read. I give The Feeling of Power by Isaac Asimov 8.5/10. It’s a short story I would recommend to everyone, friend or foe.

The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas, a Short Story by Ursula Le Guin

You can read The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas here.


If you could only be happy at the expense of others, would you?

This is the question that lies at the heart of Ursula Le Guin’s philosophical allegory, The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas.

Omelas is a city in an unnamed land during an unspecified time. Le Guin reveals very little by way of the particulars – in fact, she’s rather blatant about how little she herself knows of the city. At first glance, her self-professed ambiguity seems downright lazy. She writes of Omelas as if she had no part in its conception. The first half of the story reads like a sort of rough draft, where she’s etching out the details as she goes. For certain aspects of Omelas, she even invites the reader to decide for themselves how they wish to imagine the place.

I admit, it took me a while to understand what she was getting at, and I was tempted to find something else to read. An embarrassing number of pages later, it dawned on me that this seemingly lackadaisical approach was her way of driving home the point that this is a story about ideas and questions, not plot points and details.

There’s one thing she does establish though: the people of Omelas are happy. So happy, in fact, that we could barely conceptualize them. These are a people with no laws, no wars, no greed. And most of all, no guilt.

Despite all this, Le Guin insists that these are not a simple people. They are no less intelligent or passionate or productive than we are. They are exactly as we are, except that they have attained a level of contentment beyond our dreams.

How did they achieve this? Well, there’s a room, Le Guin explains, in which things are quite different. In this room lives a child, and this child is malnourished of food, love, and anything resembling human decency. The people of Omelas know that this child exists. They know where it is and how terrible its conditions are. They sometimes even visit, and when they do, they are generally as cruel as its life is horrific.

They do this because they all understand the condition to their continual happiness. In this reality, they could only go on being happy for as long as this child is miserable. Everything that makes Omelas unique, from its prosperity to its freedom from guilt, would vanish the instant this child experienced joy.

So, most people in Omelas learn this terrible truth and learn to live with it until it passes from their minds entirely. But every once in a while, someone decides to leave. They can’t continue living in Omelas while this child exists, and they silently disappear, never to return.

Are these few in the right? Is it immoral for the people of Omelas to tolerate the utter misery that this child must endure?

Le Guin never explicitly takes a stance on the matter.

As for myself, well… I find that this story has forced me to reexamine my own views on happiness and that this reflection has been fruitless in producing any answers to my questions.

Is my happiness as free of cost as I assume?

Or is there some unnamed person paying dearly for it?

Have I learned to turn a blind eye to the suffering all around me, as the people of Omelas do?

Is it fair to assume that this suffering is inevitable and ultimately out of my hands?

Is it wrong to enjoy what happiness comes out of this suffering?

Is it any better to cast that happiness aside, when either way, the suffering will continue?

I don’t have the answers to these questions. What I do know, though, is that these questions need to be asked, and for that, I cannot praise The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas enough. While it isn’t the most riveting piece I’ve read so far, it is certainly one of the most impactful.

This one is a story to remember.


On the technical side of things, there are a few lessons I have learned from this story.

  1. Contrast is a powerful tool, and sometimes it’s better to throw subtlety out the window. Le Guin goes from 0 to 100 in the span of a sentence. To emphasize the horror of a situation, she began with its polar opposite.
  2. The central questions of a story are often best left unanswered. An author should resist the urge to project their own views on the reader. Let the reader carry these questions with them as they go about their days. The answer they come to on their own will be infinitely more powerful than anything they read in the text.
  3. A story can have neither plots nor characters and still be powerful.

My Misspent Youth, an Essay by Meghan Daum

You can read Meghan Daum’s My Misspent Youth here.


“My misspent youth”.

The words resonated with me immediately. Don’t misunderstand me – I’m still in my twenties and hardly at a vantage point from which I can holistically evaluate my circumstances and the decisions that have brought me here. I’m finding, though, that the self-assuredness so plentiful at eighteen tends, for most people at least, to dwindle right around now.

I am no exception, and apparently, neither was Meghan Daum.

Daum wrote My Misspent Youth in 1999, when she was twenty-nine,disenchanted, and on her way out of New York. In it, she writes frankly of the price tag dangling from her youthful dream, and nineteen years later, her sentiments could not be more relevant. This is a tale that most Americans have lived or are currently living.

After graduating from Vassar College, Daum began the merry chase for her dream in Manhattan. It was a place that represented everything she aspired to as a young woman. A global center steeped in culture and intellectualism, where creatives like herself could – no, must – be in order to actualize their professional goals.

What she didn’t realize at the time (and what young person does?) was that every dream we have dreamed has been dreamed before – and someone’s already put a price on it. When we’re young, we see dreams as mere concepts, but then we grow older. We see more. We struggle. And many of us come to realize we never truly understood what we grew up envisioning, that once the logistics come into play, a dream looks very different in the real world than it had in our heads.

And so it is with my own life, as I’m sure it is in most everyone’s. As soon as I grew old enough to imagine the future, I began deciding for myself the ideals and people and things that would be in it. And of course, I never realized that these these fantasies weren’t just given to me for free. They were being sold to me.

I think most people come to experience what Daum describes in her essay. This absurd moment when you’re halfway toward reaching your goal and instead of congratulations, you’re given a bill.

I like how Daum puts it here:

These days, being a creative person in New York is, in many cases, contingent upon inheriting the means to do it.

Except it seems to me that New York is no longer unique in this.

In a way, it’s hilarious, as this revelation would be particularly soul crushing to anyone who thrives on creative work.

It isn’t all doom and gloom though. As bleak as her financial situation must have been, Daum ends her piece on a rather positive sentiment, one that I’m inclined to agree with. Yes, people will always find ways to profit on the dreams of others. Yes, dreams are never as simple as they are when first conceptualized. But as we grow and learn, we sometimes find ways to get around these realities.

And who better to find them then creatives?

Fire and Ice, a Poem by Robert Frost

Some say the world will end in fire,
Some say in ice.
From what I’ve tasted of desire
I hold with those who favor fire.
But if it had to perish twice,
I think I know enough of hate
To say that for destruction ice
Is also great
And would suffice.

Alright, another adventure down the gullet of poetry.

Today, I’m reading Fire and Ice, a creation by Robert Frost, a poet I have always had fond memories of. And that’s not because I think he’s anymore brilliant than his peers in the literature, but because he wrote poems that touch on interesting ideas while remaining accessible to people like myself, who are relatively untrained in reading poetry.

With my first reading, I basically knew what Frost was getting at. With my second, I confirmed that I’m probably correct in my intuitions, but I found that there’s more to unpack in Frost’s meaning.

It seems that Frost was inclined to believe that between greed and hatred, greed would be more likely to bring about the world’s undoing. I agree with this sentiment, as it seems to me that we, as a society, are more forgiving of greed than we are of hatred. Or perhaps it’s more correct to say that greed is the more prevalent of the two, while hatred is by nature more devastating.

Partly to blame, I think, is that our society seems to have more difficulty ascertaining what counts as greed and what does not. As a result, greed run rampant and unchecked, while hatred must bypass more legal and cultural safeguards.

Yet, all that being said, as Frost seems to say, both could do the job, either together or separately.

A Hanging, an Essay by George Orwell

It is curious, but till that moment I had never realized what it means to destroy a healthy, conscious man. When I saw the prisoner step aside to avoid the puddle, I saw the mystery, the unspeakable wrongness, of cutting a life short when it is in full tide. This man was not dying, he was alive just as we were alive. All the organs of his body were working–bowels digesting food, skin renewing itself, nails growing, tissues forming–all toiling away in solemn foolery. His nails would still be growing when he stood on the drop, when he was falling through the air with a tenth of a second to live. His eyes saw the yellow gravel and the grey walls, and his brain still remembered, foresaw, reasoned–reasoned even about puddles. He and we were a party of men walking together, seeing, hearing, feeling, understanding the same world; and in two minutes, with a sudden snap, one of us would be gone–one mind less, one world less.

George Orwell wrote A Hanging in 1931. You can find it here, courtesy of the Gutenberg Project.

Wow.

It’s not necessarily the quality of the writing – though it is superb – that I marvel it. Rather, it’s the sheer emotional confusion Orwell’s essay has left me in. More than I ever have with any other essay, I truly feel as if I had walked alongside Orwell through his experience.

Let’s start with some context. The essay retells one morning during Orwell’s service in the British Imperial Police in Burma from 1922 to 1927. At the time, Burma was a province in Britain’s Indian Empire. Burma gained its independence in 1948, and today, the sovereign state also goes by the name of the Republic of the Union of Myanmar.

Orwell’s essay tells the story of a man in the last moments of his life. The man is a prisoner – for what, Orwell never says. We know neither his name nor his history. All we know is that he had been imprisoned, until this particular morning when he is walked down to the gallows, where a bag is placed over his head and he is hanged.

From the beginning, there is a stark contrast between the tension Orwell feels and his companions’ blatant sense of dehumanizing urgency. It’s clear from Orwell’s description of the man that cared enough to humanize him:

He was a Hindu, a puny wisp of a man, with a shaven head and vague liquid eyes. He had a thick, sprouting moustache, absurdly too big for his body, rather like the moustache of a comic man on the films.

Compare that to the words of the jail’s superintendent:

“Well, quick march, then. The prisoners can’t get their breakfast till this job’s over.”

This contrast creates a heavy feeling of conflict within the reader, and it emulates, it seems to me, the conflict Orwell felt at the time. This feeling is amplified when, along the way, the procession is halted by the joyful antics of a dog let loose. The dog even jumps up and tries to lick the prisoner in the face. Here, glee and dread intermingle, and it’s an uncomfortable feeling, to say the least.

Orwell manages to restrain the dog, and they continue until the man makes it to the gallows and a rope is noosed around his neck. The man begins to cry out in a chant of sorts:

“Ram! Ram! Ram! Ram! Ram!”

The chant goes on for what feels like forever, and as a reader, I felt just as uncomfortable as Orwell writes he and the surrounding crowd did.

And then the floor drops from beneath the man’s feet. He dies, as we knew he would from the start. And as soon as he’s confirmed dead, Orwell and his companions are hit with this palpable sense of relief and, weirdly enough, joy. The strangest part of it all is that I felt it too. Orwell notes the absurdity of it all, of the jolliness in the air and the laughter that follows, and he never makes an attempt to explain it.

I won’t either. I wouldn’t even know where to begin.

Death and What Comes Next by Terry Pratchett

Death and What Comes Next (you can find it here) is a short story in his Discworld series. To give you some context, Pratchett wrote this story in 2002 for an online puzzle came called TimeHunt. And apparently (according to Wikipedia, at least) there’s some sort of word puzzle hidden in the text of the story that provides a code word for the game. I’m not familiar with the game myself, but alas, it’s gone. As intrigued as I am, it looks like I’ll never know this code word.

Regardless, Death and What Comes Next stands on its own as an amusing, clever story. It takes place somewhere near the brink of a man’s death. The man, as it happens, is a philosopher, and when Death himself shows up, the man naturally attempts to talk his way out of dying.

Much to Death’s annoyance (he’s been through this before), the man gives an impressively concise explanation of quantum theory, triggering a back-and-forth that had me grinning the entire time.

For such a short short story, it’s impressive how likable its characters are. Granted, there are only two. It’s a shame Death and the philosopher couldn’t have met under different circumstances. Their banter is hilarious.

Here’s a bit that forced a particularly hard exhalation from my nose.

ASTONISHING, said Death. REALLY ASTONISHING. LET ME PUT FORWARD ANOTHER SUGGESTION: THAT YOU ARE NOTHING MORE THAN A LUCKY SPECIES OF APE THAT IS TRYING TO UNDERSTAND THE COMPLEXITIES OF CREATION VIA A LANGUAGE THAT EVOLVED IN ORDER TO TELL ONE ANOTHER WHERE THE RIPE FRUIT WAS?

Fighting for breath, the philosopher managed to say: “Don’t be silly.”

THE REMARK WAS NOT INTENDED AS DEROGATORY, said Death. UNDER THE CIRCUMSTANCES, YOU HAVE ACHIEVED A GREAT DEAL.

I haven’t read much of Pratchett’s work, but now I’m wishing I had. I know I’ll be reading a lot more of his stories in the days to come. I’m giving this one a 7/10. It’s a good one, and if you’ve got five minutes to spare (seriously, it’s short), I highly recommend it.


For my own purposes, I’d like to continue writing about specific things I can take away from what I read. Techniques, pretty phrases, lessons learned… things of that nature. Sometimes, though, nothing particularly pops out. And that’s not to say that whatever I’ve read is worse off because of it. It’s one of those “It’s not you, it’s me” scenarios.

So, when I can, I’ll do more than simply review what I read and include a more thorough write-up on that aspect of my reading experience. Both for myself as a writer with lots of room to grow and for anyone else with an interest in developing their craft.

In the past few days, I haven’t written on this as much as I would have liked, and I think that’s inevitable. I’m not some fortune cookie dispenser finding wisdom behind every word. And I think that’s fine. I don’t want to force myself. After all, I’m out of school (and thank god for that), and doing so would only make it feel like I have homework again.

All that being said, I do have one lesson learned from my reading of Death and What Comes Next. This story, comprised entirely of dialogue, reminded me of how, well, underwhelming my dialogue often is. Scratch that. This story slapped me in the face with that fact with its every word. By the end of it, I was practically in tears screaming, “WHY CAN’T I WRITE DIALOGUE LIKE THIS?”

Of course, if shouting was the way to get the answers we needed, it would be a lot harder to concentrate. And while I didn’t get one, I did have an interesting thought that I’ll be testing out myself. From now on, whenever I write a significant exchange between characters, I’m going to ask myself this:

If I cut out everything but the dialogue, could I make a short story out of what remains?

And while I think it may be unrealistic to expect that yes, every exchange between characters can stand on its own as a story, I do believe that making this a habit will help me catch the particularly boring conversations.

Next Door by Kurt Vonnegut

A purple emotion flooded Paul’s being. Childhood dropped away, and he hung, dizzy, on the brink of life, rich, violent, rewarding.

Next Door is a short story in Kurt Vonnegut’s anthology, Welcome to the Monkey House. And it reminds me why I love reading Vonnegut so much.

My favorite thing about Vonnegut is how free of pretension his writing is. His stories are just so accessible, not only in content but in language as well. You’d be hard pressed to find a confusing Vonnegut story.

And that’s not to say that his stories are simple. His plots are interesting, and there’s usually a lot to unpack. Unlike a lot of authors, though, he doesn’t wall that content off with big words and convoluted sentences.

Next Door is another example of this. It’s a story about a duplex. On one side live the Leonards and on the other, the Hargers. Between them is a wall. A very thin one. The reader enters the story as Mr. and Mrs. Leonard argue in hushed voices over whether or not their son Paul is old enough to be left home alone while they go to the cinema. In classic dad fashion, Mr. Leonard insists that she’s smothering him while Mrs. Leonard, in classic mom fashion, insists that her smothering is perfectly justified.

Mr. Leonard wins out, leaving Paul to his own devices for the night. From then on, it’s just Paul, the wall, the Hargers, and an unexpected plus one. I’ll leave you to figure out the details yourself.

This is a quick read that’ll have you beaming from beginning to end. I would absolutely recommend it. And I’m going to do something I haven’t done before. I’m going to start scoring the stories I read, just to give you all a better sense of how much I like what I read.

I’ll be giving Next Door 7.5/10. Now go read it!