August 2026: There Will Come Soft Rains by Ray Bradbury, 1951

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by Ray Bradbury, 1951

"August 2026: There Will Come Soft Rains" addresses the central fear of its time—a nuclear holocaust. This is not uncommon for a work of science fiction written in the 1950s. In 1945, for the first time in human history, the end of the world became a real possibility, and writers of Ray Bradbury's generation were clearly influenced by that event. What is uncommon about "August 2026," then, is not its theme of nuclear disaster but its view of the technology that made such a disaster possible.

In general, from the time of Jules Verne and H. G. Wells to the present, science-fiction writers have been faced with two mutually exclusive views of technological progress. Technology can offer the promise of a future paradise in which mechanization sets humans free from labor, hunger, and disease. Or, technology threatens to eliminate humans completely by making them, quite simply, obsolete. For Bradbury this either/or perception is far too simplistic. In "August 2026" he argues that utopia and dystopia are the same place.

The opening lines of the story introduce the reader to a house without inhabitants in a city without survivors in a world that may well be devoid of human life. The house seems to be the only structure still standing in Allendale, California, and all that is left of the McClellan family, who once lived there, are the silhouettes of their bodies left on the outside of the west wall by the nuclear firestorm. In this posthuman story the house serves as the central character.

The house is fully automated, capable of waking its inhabitants in the morning, reminding them of appointments and bills to be paid, preparing their meals, doing the dishes, cleaning, setting up tables for an afternoon bridge game, and even reading them poetry in the evening. It operates without the need for human intervention or decision, and so it continues to do its various tasks even when those it once served are gone. The house does not know this, of course, though it does seem to have a kind of electronic awareness and capacity for thought. Bradbury offers the house an emotional life of sorts by giving it a maternal voice ("Rain, rain, go away; rubbers, raincoats for today") and instilling it with "an old maidenly preoccupation with self-protection which bordered on a mechanical paranoia."

The story chronicles the last day in the life of the house, August 4, 2026, almost 81 years to the day after the first atomic bombs were used against a civilian population in Japan. The day seems ordinary enough, despite the fact that there is no family within the walls of the house and perhaps no world outside. But this is not an ordinary day. At noon the family dog appears at the door sick with radiation poisoning. The house recognizes the animal's voice and lets it in, but it soon dies, and the cleaning mechanisms dispose of the carcass coldly and efficiently.

Then at ten o'clock, writes Bradbury, "the house began to die." There is an accident; the wind blows a tree branch through the kitchen window, and a bottle of cleaning solvent splatters across the hot stove. The fire spreads quickly, and though the house tries to save itself with its built-in defense mechanisms, it fails. By morning, only one wall is left standing, and an electronic voice repeats the same words over and over: "Today is August 5, 2026, today is August 5, 2026, today is…."

The technology that makes this utopian house possible is the same technology that makes nuclear war possible, and Bradbury does not want the reader to overlook this connection. In fact, he implies that the difference between the house and the bomb is only one of degree. The technology of the mechanized house has already rendered human beings superfluous. The technology of war merely brings that process to its logical end.

In Bradbury's story neither nuclear technology nor the automated house is responsible for the cataclysmic holocaust. The truth is that humans have simply abdicated their position as the dominant species, if indeed they ever really held that position on earth. Despite technology, the end of human life in Bradbury's story is the result of a human crime, a crime of conscious omission.

The house is in the habit of reading poetry to Mrs. McClellan in the evening, and it does so even on this evening, choosing to read the Sara Teasdale poem that gives the story its title:

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 poem states that the natural world does not need us in order to exist, that it would be as it is even if we humans were not here to know it. There is nothing particularly profound about this suggestion in itself, but Bradbury's use of the poem in this story makes an unusual connection between the natural world and the world of technology, which also does not seem to need us in order to exist. Though it is the natural world that all but destroys the technology of the house, technology itself—like the world of nature—is also able to go on without humanity.

What "August 2026" suggests then is more than a simple conflict between civilization and nature. Rather, in this story Bradbury notes that human life is poised quite precariously between the natural world, which we believe we have left behind, and the technological world, which has outdistanced us. To our misfortune, concludes the author, neither of these worlds needs us to be what it is.

—Welch D. Everman

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August 2026: There Will Come Soft Rains by Ray Bradbury, 1951

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