A morning short story reading group meets at one of our library branches on the second Monday of each month. The library provides the short stories, snacks, and a staff member to make coffee and keep things moving along.
That staff member is me.
I’m learning a lot about how readers read—and that the only New Year’s Resolution this group made was to Eat All the Pumpkin Cake.°
This month, we discussed two very short stories: “There Will Come Soft Rains” and “All Summer in a Day,” both written by Ray Bradbury* in the 1950s.
“Soft Rains” describes the last day—August 4, 2026— of an empty mechanical house as it goes about its programmed rounds of cooking and cleaning and singing and reciting poetry, unaware that it is all alone in the center of a destroyed neighborhood.
“All Summer in a Day” is set on Venus, here described as a wet world where the heavy rains clear for only two hours every seven years. Minutes before the predicted time, a group of schoolchildren take their envy and doubts out on a girl from Earth who can describe the Sun they’ve never seen and do not entirely believe in, with heartbreaking results.
This is what I learned:**
A depressing story isn’t necessarily a bad story. Exactly.
These stories weren’t happy. The house keeps serving its masters until it, too, is destroyed. A small child is kept from the one thing above all that she misses by children who understand too late what they have done to her.
But although the majority of people disliked “Soft Rains” and about half of those said variations on I love Ray Bradbury . . .but not this story, no one said it was awful. They thought it was well-written, and they liked how the absent people were characterized by the things the house did for them.
And most of them were all over the speculative stuff—the mouse and rat robots who cleaned the floor digressed into a ten minutes discussion of Roombas® that was difficult to redirect.
“Summer in a Day” was beautifully written, for all it grabbed hold of the readers’ hearts and yanked hard. With one exception—noted in the next section—this story felt almost too real to the readers.
Although, as one woman said, “Sometimes you want a story that makes you cry. I keep some under a tissue box.”
Genre may be a deterrent but not a dealbreaker. Scientific Facts on the other hand . . .
Half the group said that they weren’t Science Fiction people— to their credit, this was mostly an apology for not understanding the stories as well as they thought they might have.
But they did just fine.
And to my delight, one of those non-Science Fiction people, who had never read Mr. Bradbury in school and wouldn’t have thought to try it otherwise, asked me to help her find more of his work after the group. She was fascinated with his world building. “It’s depressing, but the rest of it is so clever!”
This is in stark contrast to the woman who said she didn’t like science fiction, before telling us that even knowing that this story was written before many facts about Venus were known, she simply couldn’t suspend her disbelief enough to accept that a colony could have been placed on Venus. She then gave a five minute lecture on Goldilocks planets, including their distances from the earth and some ideas about the right percentage of oxygen to sustain life. ***
I can honestly see why she doesn’t care for the genre—we all have an instant-release button on our suspensions of disbelief and this one is hers.
Personal seems more important—and dialogue helps.
None of us has been in a nuclear explosion, and those of us who had lived under the threat of one weren’t convinced it would happen. It’s clear in the story that the house is only a machine—it can’t think for itself.^ And anyone who could have thought for it was dead and gone.
However, all of us were once children and all of us had been teased, if not outright bullied. Even those of us without examples at home remember how mean children can be and we all know about missed opportunities.
Guess which story seemed more heartbreaking to the group?
It was agreed that the concept of “Soft Rains” was a tad abstract for us today—though he all agreed that the impact would have been dire the year it was written.
But this group hurt for that little girl. Especially the one member with severe Seasonal Affective Disorder.
The end of the human race and its marvelous machines is nothing compared to a homesick child facing a seven year wait for sunshine.
There’s a lesson in there, somewhere . . .
Some of you were interested in following along with the group. The list of the stories for this year is here.
In honor of Valentine’s Day month, we’re reading a murder mystery about a man trying to kill his wife—a lot: “Goodbye, Sue Ellen,” by Gillian Roberts.
I found it in Malice Domestic 2, which, failing all else, you should be able to get through the Interlibrary Loan Service of your public library.
° I would say they fell on it like a pack of starving librarians, only they were far more polite and there weren’t any fork stabbings. But that was one clean platter at the end of the meeting.
*If you don’t know who Ray Bradbury is—and as shocking as that seems, I now know there are some who don’t, or didn’t until I passed out the stories—please take the time bookmark this post, then read this online biography, write down all the books and stories, and go to the library to check out The Martian Chronicles or Dandelion Wine. This post will still be here when you get back.
**Aside from making sure we schedule a little early on days when everyone is going to want to catch up on every else’s holidays . . . and that not everyone has read Ray Bradbury . . . and that one of Mr. Bradbury’s stories probably would have been enough.
***No idea if she had all of this right, but she sure sounded like she knew what was what and what wasn’t what. Good enough for me!
^ Or this would have been an entirely different story that I’m pretty sure someone else wrote.