There will come soft rains

A few thoughts about Ray Bradbury, writing, communication, and anthropology.

If there is one author that first sparked my interest in what we broadly call “the human condition,” it would definitely have to be the late Mr Ray Bradbury (William Golding gets a close second with The Lord of the Flies).  I first read some of Bradbury’s short stories way back in seventh grade, and his words have stayed with me ever since (I only wish I could find my seventh grade English teacher to let him know his efforts were not wasted).

Bradbury’s science fiction was always deeply human, and often full of poignant warnings about the potential future of the human race.  He was especially preoccupied with the machines we create, and how they can assert a certain amount of control over our lives.  Near the end of his life he was quoted saying this: “We have too many cellphones. We’ve got too many internets. We have got to get rid of those machines. We have too many machines now.”

One of the stories that I remember most vividly is The Veldt–a story in which two young children end up killing their parents in a savage attempt to protect their treasured virtual world.  It’s a brutal, edgy story that certainly resonates these days, especially with so many people–young and old–buried in various virtual realities.  What happens, after all, when the virtual has more value than the real?  Bradbury certainly had some ideas about that question.

But the story that I remember the most is a simple, short little tale about a mechanized house that keeps serving its masters long after they have been vaporized: There Will Come Soft Rains.

It’s really a simple, short little story. The title comes from a 1920 poem by Sara Teasdale that contemplates the resurgence of nature after the utter destruction of war.  The language that Bradbury uses is anything but complex.  It’s straightforward, but still heavy with suggestive implications and meanings.  That’s one of my favorite parts about Bradbury’s style: his writing had an elegant clarity that was laden with symbolism, moral messages, and lessons about humanity.

For me, there’s a lot to be learned from a writer like Bradbury.  Not just because of the themes he covers, but also his mechanics, craft, and communicative style.  Through relatively sparse prose, he was certainly able to communicate important ideas in effective, interesting, and evocative ways.  For more about his writing and style, check out this piece by Orson Scott Card (author of fantastically anthropological books such as Ender’s Game).

Ok, here’s the part where I bring in anthropology, since this is an anthropology blog after all.  First of all, a lot of science fiction writing–from the Dune series to Orwell’s 1984–has a strong anthropological twist to it.  And I think there is something we can all take away from how great science fiction writers are able to communicate their ideas to wider audiences.  Anthropologists are all around the world, and they happen to be doing some pretty fascinating work.  But if their ideas are never really communicated or shared with broad audiences, then what’s the point?  I mean, why spend all of our time and energy creating mountains of documents that nobody (beside other anthropologists and maybe a tenure committee or two) ever really reads?

This brings me to my second and final point.  Let’s go back to Bradbury’s story about those soft rains that will, eventually, shower upon the collected works of humanity and spark nature’s return.  The point of Bradbury’s story is, at least in part, about the incessant machines and creations of humanity that keep droning along even when the humans are all gone.  The irony is that people made all of those household devices that were supposed to take care of their every little need, day in and day out.  Meanwhile, those same people forgot to tend to the BIGGER ISSUES and they ended up nuking one another and wiping out the human race.  So much for the automated technological genius of the little house.  It all seems so pointless.  The point, to me, is something like this: don’t let all of your neat little creations obscure those bigger issues.

Which brings me to academic anthropology.  In some ways, anthropology is kind of like that automated house that keeps working, on and on, despite the well-being of many of its inhabitants.  We are like the little machines in the house that keep doing our prescribed tasks (writing papers, grants, books, etc) because, well, that’s how the whole damn thing works.  But what about the people who live in the house (that’s us)?  And what about humanity as a whole (read: the general public)?  What’s the purpose of putting in the time to create all of this information, to gather all of those stories and ideas, if we are effectively really only talking to ourselves?  I mean, if we are all taking part in the massive production of this mountain of documents, and yet very few people outside of the discipline have a solid appreciation or understanding of what we do…there’s clearly something amiss in the house of anthropology.  And personally, I’d rather not wait until the soft rains begin falling to start putting that house back in order.


*Title updated on 6/10/12 once I noticed there was a bit of a caps snafu.


Ryan Anderson is a cultural and environmental anthropologist. His current research focuses on coastal conservation, sustainability, and development in the Californias. He also writes about politics, economics, and media. You can reach him at ryan AT savageminds dot org or @anthropologia on twitter.

17 thoughts on “There will come soft rains

  1. I always read TWCSR as already having happened: the “uncontacted” groups did so consciously as a means of remaining away from and out of reach of the terror of modern industrialist capitalist colonialism. It keeps on happening…

  2. A beautiful essay. Thought-provoking, too. I wonder if anyone has done a systematic study of post-human characters in science fiction. I immediately found myself thinking of the robots and dogs imagined by Clifford Simak, the AI overlords imagined, rather differently, in Ian Banks’ Culture series, to which Kerim has pointed, and Neil Ascher’s Polity Agent series, such remarkable “others” as C’Mell in Cordwainer Smith or the Gun in Ken McCleod’s _The Star Fraction_.

  3. Interesting, Ryan. My question is: How can an anthropologist mimic the styles, mechanics, and elements of fiction, when the very basic rule of fiction writers is to show not tell? I can’t imagine how they will show a certain theory or a set of data without telling or saying what it is.

  4. Thanks for your comment, M Izabel.

    That’s actually a question that has crossed my mind as well, and it’s a good one. The basic rule of fiction is indeed show not tell, and I often think about how that can be applied in anthropological writing. For descriptive parts of a text, it works perfectly well of course. But using that method to illustrate a certain theory might be a bit trickier.

    But then, the ways in which we often cite theory can be some of the worst parts of our texts–that’s often where the narrative can get bogged down in jargon and a wall of allusions. In many cases, I’d rather see less overt references to this or that theorist, and more illustrations of how their ideas actually apply to a particular ethnographic or anthropological situation or context.

    For example, Foucault is someone who gets cited a ridiculous amount of times, to the extent that reading some texts can get pretty tedious. Oftentimes people TELL readers about his ideas (on page XX Foucault says this about power) rather than actually SHOWING it through description, data, or a certain narrative that comes from ethnographic research. I catch myself doing this, and it’s something I need to stop.

    In short, I think that the introduction of theories has to be quickly followed by some sort of illustration that really shows readers what it means and helps gives them a solid understanding. I think the worst kind of writing just bounces from one citation/reference to another without really illustrating anything…to me that’s the kind of style that degrades into little more than terrible academic jargon, and personally I hate reading that sort of stuff.

    So, taking Foucault as an example, rather than droning on and on about how Foucault said x, y, and z about the power dynamics of space in a medical context, take the time to write up rich descriptive elements that actually show this happening. That, to me, would be a way in which the basic rule of fiction writers could be applied. Don’t just mention theories and theorists, ILLUSTRATE them with examples.


  5. @Jprs:

    “It keeps on happening…”

    Interesting take. You’re right though…and rain does come in seasonal cycles. If it happens once, there’s no reason it won’t happen again. Well, that is until we get to the point where we’re all just vaporized shadows on the last standing wall of a house, of course…

  6. There is a lot to be said for an old-fashioned, scientific-objective tone, so that, for example, instead of laboriously reciting and replicating Foucault for the umpty-leventh time, just right something along the lines of,

    “That the structuring of space in medical settings has political implications can hardly be denied (Foucault…..). In the case examined here…..

    Or, in a more journalistic tone,

    “Is your doctor’s office a political statement? Many anthropologists would say so (Foucault….).

    There are plenty of devices in the English language for gracefully acknowledging the source of ideas without belaboring the point and presenting oneself as a slavish imitator of the master cited. It is the belaboring of the “theory” to conceal how thin the data are that leaves one feeling nauseous.

  7. There are several reasons why anthropology needs literature. Few societies actually produce anthropologists, but they do produce writers and we can learn from them. But the main point is that fiction relates the actual to the possible, as Bradbury did and that must be the point of studying the human condition. The short story you chose perfectly illustrates how a preoccupation with domestic order obscures the big picture. I am not sure whether machines make this more or less likely. Rousseau revolutionised our thinking on politics, education, sex and the self in four books of the 1760s and each one needed a new genre of its own, a mix of fiction and anthropology.

  8. As a mega-fan of Bradbury’s work I have to contest your characterization of his writing style as “sparse.” In my opinion he is quite the opposite, rendering sentences that are almost florid in the ornateness of their descriptions. Thus Bradbury is often criticized for being all sentence and no plot. In this sense he does share a critical space with some anthropology that evocatively puts a reader in a place, with a people, vividly — but to what ends?

  9. @Matt:

    “As a mega-fan of Bradbury’s work I have to contest your characterization of his writing style as “sparse.” In my opinion he is quite the opposite, rendering sentences that are almost florid in the ornateness of their descriptions.”

    First of all: A mega-fan? How do you get into THAT club?

    Second: good point about Bradbury’s style. Ya, ‘sparse’ wasn’t quite the word I was looking for. You’re right that Bradbury can be pretty descriptive in his writing…but I guess I was trying to say that in my opinion he never really seemed like he was trying to hit you upside the head with his writing style. I think Orson Scott Card said it better than me though (imagine that) when he wrote:

    “Bradbury never made you stop reading to notice how cleverly he wrote. On the contrary, his music held you inside the story, as if the words had come out of your own mind and heart.”

    And then again it depends on the piece. I think TWCSR has a certain simplicity and elegance about it.

    When I was writing this post I was thinking about how Bradbury compares to some of my other favorite writers, and how his style differs. Take someone like William T Vollmann…Bradbury may be descriptive, but he is a world away from the kinds of dense digressions and descriptions that Vollmann will pack into one of his 1000 page books. To me Bradbury’s prose has always been really smooth, clear, yet very descriptive. Not an easy thing to do.

    @John M:

    “It is the belaboring of the “theory” to conceal how thin the data are that leaves one feeling nauseous.”

    Precisely. And don’t get me wrong…sometimes I catch myself doing this sort of thing and that’s when I know things aren’t looking good. I definitely agree that belabored theoretical diatribes are often a sign that there’s not much else going on.

    @JK Hart:

    I like your point about the fact that few societies produce anthropologists yet many produce writers. And I definitely agree that there’s a lot we can learn. If we’re willing, of course.

  10. “Thoughts?”

    First, the obscurantist academic language must change. Is it parroted for exclusivity, pretense, and elitist scholarship? Since Foucault and the rest of the French theorist were vague, they had to be vague too so it would come out that indeed they had read them. When is the retelling or reproduction of vagueness a transfer of knowledge. Even riddles are clear that they are riddles to be analyzed and answered.

    Second, instead of cutting and pasting a lot, mentioning mini-ethnographies and field-based anecdotes makes a piece of anthropological writing textured and layered. They can make a long text lively and readable. Also, how Foucault conceptualized the multiplicity and decentralization of power is more interesting to read than his tediously long thesis on power.

    One can easily understand his concept of power power by just reading this:

    “To place someone in prison, to confine him to deprive him of food and heat, to prevent him from leaving, making love, etc.-this is certainly the most frenzied manifestation of power imaginable. The other day I was speaking to a woman who bad been in prison and she was saying: “Imagine, that at the age of forty, I was punished one day with a meal of dry bread.” What is striking about this story is not the childishness of the exercise of power but the cynicism with which power is exercised as power, in the most archaic, puerile, infantile manner.”

    Intellectuals and power: A conversation between Michel Foucault and Gilles Deleuze (1972)

    Third, conciseness, brevity, and clarity should be the three basic rules in anthropological writing if anthropologists want to be widely read. They can learn these from fiction writers.

    This excerpt from Paul Harding’s “Tinkers” is a good example of showing not telling:

    “He had built the house himself — poured the foundation, raised the frame, joined the pipes, run the wires, plastered the walls, and painted the rooms. Lightning struck once when he was in the open foundation, soldering the last joint of the hot-water tank. It threw him to the opposite wall. He got up and finished the joint. Cracks in his plaster did not stay cracks; clogged pipes got routed; peeling clapboard got scraped and slathered with a new coat of paint.”

    If an anthropologist writes about architecture, it’s reasonable to turn this short paragraph into a chapter to include the materials used, the color of paint, the kind of brush, the iron nails, etc. If his book is about his fieldwork in a village, where everyone does his own stuff, being brief means more spaces for other individuals he observes–maybe a woman who does his own fishing or or a child rice-harvesting.

    Lastly, anthropological writers tend to over-explain and over-analyze. If curiosity is the characteristic that binds all anthropologists, there is an anthropologist in every reader. Make them think and theorize. You don’t need to mention Marx to write about class. Let them find out themselves who Marx or what Marxism is. The fact that they are reading, readers are curious too.

    Anthropologists who write should learn from Faulkner, whose “As I Lay Dying” has only this in chapter 19:

    “My mother is a fish.”

    After reading it, I did not go to bed until I understood why Faulkner made Vardaman exclaim that statement. I learned the beauty of minimalism at fourteen.

    Spoon-feeding, if not insulting, is indeed debilitating.

  11. Sorry for the typos. Just woke up.

    *French theorists were vague, they had to be vague too so it would come out that indeed they had read them. When is the retelling or reproduction of vagueness a transfer of knowledge?

  12. Imo “Science Fiction” is a misnomer. The great majority of sci-fi stories are in fact anti-science morality tales, with strong Luddite overtones. No one exemplifies this more than Ray Bradbury, who was in fact an extremely old fashioned writer with a head full of tired cliches.

    Fortunately truth is stranger, and far more interesting, than fiction.

  13. @Victor:

    “No one exemplifies this more than Ray Bradbury, who was in fact an extremely old fashioned writer with a head full of tired cliches.”

    Hmmm. So I guess this means you’re probably not going to join the “Anthropology + Ray Bradbury” AAA interest group that I was going to start?


  14. @Karen: it’s never too late. Thanks for this link.

    @Victor G: Hmmm, an AAA lack-of-interest group, huh? Not a bad idea…I see a lot of potential there. Imagine the possibilities!

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