Science fiction often aims at describing the important impact of scientific and technological research on mankind. In fact, the central issue in much of the sci-fi literature is the role that science and technology can play in the modern world. Various sci-fi writers have different ideas about what that particular role, direct or indirect, actually is—or should be. This essay will focus on how Ray Bradbury's “There Will Come Soft Rains” and Henry Kuttner's “Private Eye” view the dangers that science and technology pose to two crucial aspects of our lives. According to these two sci-fi short stories, technological progress has run amok, turning into a latter-day Frankenstein's Monster. Not only is the revolution in science and technology endangering human rights and freedoms, especially the right to privacy, it is also presenting an existential threat to all of humanity in the form of man-exterminating nuclear armaments.
“There Will Come Soft Rains”
Bradbury's short story was published in 1950 during the early Cold War era, when the dread of fiery death in a cataclysmic nuclear conflagration was intense and overwhelming. The story centers on a single surviving middle-class house in Allendale—the ruins of a Californian city emitting a nighttime “radioactive glow” after being incinerated in a nuclear attack. All the 21st-century “talking” electronic gadgetry inside the home is still functioning, but the family members are all gone, except for four human silhouettes etched out in white paint on the charred western wall of the house—a man mowing the lawn, a woman picking flowers from the house garden, as well as a boy and a girl playing with a ball out in the yard. “The five spots of paint—the man, the woman, the children, the ball-remained. The rest was a thin charcoaled layer” (Bradbury 231). The ghastly shadows of the evaporated McClellan family are a tragic reminder of quite similar human silhouettes discovered in Hiroshima and Nagasaki soon after these two Japanese cities were leveled by atomic blasts in August 1945.
The personification of a post-apocalyptic “talking” house disastrously emptied of its former human occupants is symbolic of post-WWII America's nightmarish fear that human civilization could be destroyed in a new world war—only fought this time with nuclear weapons. In spite of the still standing townhouse with its still functioning modern-day gadgetry, there are no human survivors from a real atomic war in the story. Like Bradbury, many Americans were scared that a nuclear Armageddon may extinguish all life on the planet on the heels of the most devastating conflict in human history, which had taken the lives of well over 65 million people. Not only were the horrors of World War II still alive in everyone's memory but they were made all the more terrifying by the terroristic use of a new weapon of mass destruction—two devastating atomic bombs code-named “Little Boy” and “Fat Man”—which had wiped out hundreds of thousands of defenseless civilians in the two targeted Japanese cities, even though there had been no military troops, heavy weaponry, or even any major war-related industries in either city. While at least 67 other Japanese cities, including the capital Tokyo, were reduced to ash and rubble by daily conventional bombing, Hiroshima and Nagasaki had been deliberately spared for the sole purpose of testing the destructiveness of the new atomic monstrosity. Not even Tokyo's last-minute desperate offer (made during the Potsdam Conference in July 1945) to surrender unconditionally—should the Allies promise not to punish Japan's god-like Emperor and allow him to remain on the throne—could prevent the inevitable nuclear catastrophe.
In 1950, many people around the world were panicking that a similarly inescapable apocalypse might obliterate mankind. Supposedly created to serve man, science and technology seemed to have been paradoxically transformed into humanity's would-be gravedigger. Much like the hideous Creation of Mary Shelley's famous scientist and researcher, Dr. Victor Frankenstein, modern technology had turned against man and become a vengeful monster threatening to end human existence on the planet. Dr. J. Robert Oppenheimer, “father” of the U.S. nuclear-weapons program (the “Manhattan Project”), claims to have mused in terror during the first atomic test in New Mexico on July 16, 1945, silently reciting Hinduism's ancient Sanskrit scripture, the Bhagavad Gita: "Now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds...." (“J. Robert Oppenheimer”). Bradbury and many other Americans obviously shared the famed nuclear physicist's terror of the world-destructive role assumed by science and technology in modern times. (Dr. Oppenheimer was later stripped of his security clearance and fired from his government job for opposing the new and vastly more devastating thermonuclear or hydrogen bomb).
Kuttner's short story also attacks the barbarity of nuclear war, in which only the shadows of the evaporated victims are left on a surviving concrete wall (as in Hiroshima and Nagasaki): “[A] man's shadow can be photographed on concrete, if he's unlucky enough to be caught in an atomic blast. Which is something. The shadow's about all there is left” (207). But this story focuses more on another potential danger from modern science and technology, whose achievements have reinforced the government's ability to spy on and control its citizenry. “Private Eye” first appeared in 1949—the same year that George Orwell published his famous sci-fi novel about “Big Brother watching you,” namely the dystopian Nineteen Eighty-Four. This was also the era of McCarthyism—the notorious Red-baiting hysteria gripping America in the late 1940s and the 1950s, when thousands of law-abiding Americans were blacklisted, fired from their jobs, arrested, and imprisoned under the draconian Smith Act merely for associating with a “subversive” domestic organization. (The Red Scare's witch-hunters destroyed the life of even someone as world famous and tragically innocent as the detective-story writer Dashiell Hammett).
“Private Eye” describes a futuristic world astonishingly alike the “Stand Your Ground” legal chaos in today's America (especially in those states where registered firearms can be legally brought inside schools, colleges, movie theaters, churches, restaurants, bars, hospitals, etc.). State laws supporting an expansive right to self-defense now allow the use of deadly force in cases where the defendant can at most claim to have feared for his or her life, even if those fears have subsequently proven to be totally unjustified or exaggerated. Quite similarly, in Kuttner's noir story, “the act of homicide was declared nonpunishable, unless intent and forethought could be proved” (208). The combination of an anarchic legal system and rapid advances in science and technology has allowed the government of the day to develop an innovative technological “solution” to the crime problem that clearly jeopardizes the rights and freedoms of all free citizens, especially their right to privacy, also known as “the right to be left alone,“ as former Supreme Court Justice Louis D. Brandeis once defined it (Brandeis).
To catch more sophisticated criminals (like the shrewd and ever-scheming homicidal protagonist, Sam Clay), the law-enforcement authorities in the story resort to employing a truly Orwellian invention of modern technology—namely, the “Private Eye,” an intrusive and “extratemporal” mass-surveillance instrument which can see and hear absolutely everything that has taken place in a suspect's past—up to a range of some 50 years. According to the “scientific“ detail provided by Kuttner, “It was sensitive enough to pick up the 'fingerprints' of light and sound waves imprinted on matter, descramble and screen them, and reproduce the image of what had happened” (207). That is why it is now virtually impossible to commit a serious crime and then escape detection, arrest, and legal punishment.
There are some very disturbing changes forced upon American society by this kind of all-pervasive electronic surveillance device. All physical surroundings have been converted into a gigantic monitoring network (which is functioning as a “universal memory” as well as “a universal social conscience, an externalized one”). Wherever and whenever Americans happen to be, their every spoken word and external action are constantly recorded and stored in secret video archives for possible future police viewing. As Kuttner writes, “The sole remaining fortress of privacy was the human mind” (208)—which alone is inaccessible to the “forensic sociologists” and other trained technicians, operating the “Eye.” In fact, teams of government sleuths perform most of their police work inside large screening halls, where they are busy time-viewing video-and-audio tapes of each defendant's life and—should they want to take a closer look at one past event or another—can even transport themselves deep into his or her distant childhood. Sam Clay's paranoia is fed by his self-disciplining dread that “[t]here were dozens of trained men watching everything he did just now. Literally he stood on an open stage surrounded by intent observers who made notes on every expression of his face, every muscle flection, every breath he drew” (Kuttner 219). There is no privacy left for absolutely anybody, since personal information is no longer protected from the government's inescapable scrutiny. This explains why, unlike the rebellious non-conformist hero, the vast majority of Americans have resigned themselves to living in a society without any individual privacy, in which, as Kuttner writes, “The Eye was everywhere—literally everywhere” (219).
Such an “omnipotent,” “omniscient,” and “omnipresent” surveillance tool of the future is hardly unheard-of today. As revealed by Edward Snowden and other whistle-blowers, several government agencies, including the National Security Agency (NSA), have already been conducting 24/7 searches of all private communications at home and abroad (snail mail, telephone calls, emails, faxes, text messaging, Skype video calls, tweets, Facebook posts, wireless telegrams, etc.). Exactly like in “Private Eye,” all intercepted communications are recorded and stored for possible future inspection, although only those involving individuals of interest to the government are actually read and transcribed. Life thus imitates art—the sci-fi technological nightmare of “Private Eye,” in which the past of absolutely every citizen may be put under the government's ubiquitous spyglass, has now become a living reality!
The modern applications of science and technology have produced some grave ethical and moral dilemmas that are bedeviling and marring mankind's technologically transformed “brave new world.” In Kuttner's neo-noir “Private Eye,” for example, science and technology have practically destroyed everyone's right to individual privacy, which—though unmentioned in the U.S. Constitution—is a basic and inalienable human right. However, this kind of menace to citizen rights and freedoms is hardly the worst possible threat to mankind's “bright future” brought on by scientific and technological progress! Instead of being humanity's humble servants, science and technology in “There Will Come Soft Rains” have been transformed into a nuclear Grim Reaper and indeed a potential “destroyer” of our entire world. Long before nuclear-power stations and nuclear-powered icebreakers came into existence, the energy of the atom was first used by man to destroy man, killing hundreds of thousands of Japanese civilians in Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Though designed to help and serve mankind, science and technology are threatening to doom our human future—exactly like the intruding stray planet in H.G. Wells' “disaster” short story “The Star.”
Can one really trust these so-called “best inventions” of the human mind when science and technology either serve the soft totalitarianism of Kuttner's surveillance state or, still worse, are in the murderous hands of the appropriately named “Killer Ape”—our hyper-aggressive human species—armed today with deadly atomic weapons, as in Bradbury's grisly tale of post-Armageddon “survival”?
Bradbury, Ray. “There Will Come Soft Rains.”Science Fiction: The Science Fiction Research Association Anthology. Eds. Patricia S. Warricket al. New York: Harper & Row, 1988. 230-235. Print.
Brandeis, Louis D., and Samuel D. Warren. “The Right to Privacy.”Harvard Law Review. Vol. IV, No. 5. December 15, 1890. Web. 8 Oct. 2015.
Kuttner, Henry. “Private Eye.”Science Fiction: The Science Fiction Research Association Anthology. Eds. Patricia S. Warricket al. New York: Harper & Row, 1988. 207-229. Print.
"J. Robert Oppenheimer: 'I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds.' ”YouTube. YouTube.com, 6 Aug. 2011. Web. 29 Sept. 2015.