By Dr Oliver Tearle (Loughborough University)
Ray Bradbury (1920-2012) is widely recognised as one of the greatest – and most lyrical – science-fiction writers of the twentieth century, although he preferred to describe himself as a ‘fantasy writer’ or simply as a ‘writer’.
Although he is known for novels such as the dystopian classic Fahrenheit 451 and the horror novel Something Wicked This Way Comes, much of Ray Bradbury’s best work was in the short-story form. But where should the beginner start? Below, we select and introduce our pick of ten of Bradbury’s best short stories. If these whet your appetite for more, we thoroughly recommend The Stories of Ray Bradbury.
1. ‘A Sound of Thunder’.
A time-travel story about how changing the past could bring about momentous and catastrophic changes to the future, ‘A Sound of Thunder’ is often taught and studied in schools and remains a classic of 1950s science fiction. The story was first published in Collier’s magazine in 1952 and then collected a year later in Bradbury’s short-story collection, The Golden Apples of the Sun.
Set in the mid-twenty-first century, the story focuses on a hunting party which travels back to prehistoric times so the lucky tourist can hunt a dinosaur: the ultimate in ‘big game’. But Eckels, one of the men taking part in the safari, makes a small blunder which will have far-reaching implications when the party returns to their present time …
2. ‘The Pedestrian’.
In some ways a precursor to Bradbury’s more famous novel Fahrenheit 451, this 1951 story is set in a future world in which people sit mindlessly and passively in front of their television sets every evening.
The ‘pedestrian’ of the story’s title is the one man in the city who refuses to do so, and doesn’t even own a television, instead preferring to roam the deserted streets and people-watch. Such suspicious behaviour attracts the attention of the authorities. Prophetic in the 1950s, the story took on renewed relevance in the early 2020s in the wake of nationwide shutdowns and stay-at-home orders in response to a virus.
3. ‘All Summer in a Day’.
This 1954 story is set on Venus, where the sun only comes out once every seven years for a couple of hours; the rest of the time, the sun is hidden behind clouds and rains fall constantly. ‘All Summer in a Day’ is about a group of schoolchildren who have grown up on Venus, the sons and daughters of ‘rocket men and women’ who came to the planet from Earth, as the children prepare to experience the first ‘summer’ on Venus that they can remember.
But one of the children can remember what the sun is like, because she grew up on Earth. This prized knowledge makes the other children envious of her, and causes them to do something which they will come to regret.
4. ‘The Flying Machine’.
Often analysed as an allegory for nuclear proliferation during the Cold War, ‘The Flying Machine’ (1953) is in fact more far-reaching than this. A Chinese emperor discovers a man has developed a machine that enables man to fly, and promptly orders for the machine to be destroyed and its inventor put to death.
The story raises some difficult moral questions. Is the Emperor right to destroy the machine and its inventor, because, as he claims, one man’s death is better than a million people potentially dying as a result of his invention? What at first appears to be straightforward allegory for the 1950s arms race is actually a much richer story than this might imply.
5. ‘The Last Night of the World’.
Published in Esquire magazine in February 1951 before being reprinted in his 1952 collection The Illustrated Man, this story is about a husband who tells his wife that the world will end later that night.
‘The Last Night of the World’ is a classic example of Bradbury’s talent for writing brief tales with a moral, using his clear, understated prose style and ear for dialogue to let the salient themes of his story come to the fore.
6. ‘The Golden Kite, the Silver Wind’.
Perhaps the greatest literary rendition of ‘rock, paper, scissors’ ever written, ‘The Golden Kite, the Silver Wind’ is from 1953 and tells of two cities ruled by emperors who continually seek to destroy each other by building their city walls into different shapes which will ‘beat’ the other city and make their own the greatest.
‘The Golden Kite, the Silver Wind’ is another allegory for the Cold War, and the arms race between the United States and the Soviet Union.
7. ‘The Fog Horn’.
This 1951 short story is about a lighthouse whose foghorn emits a noise which attracts the attention of a primeval dinosaur living miles below the ocean. The story contains a number of key themes of Bradbury’s work, especially in its depiction of technology and the need for connection and companionship. In some ways, the story is a love story about a completely different species: one not seen on Earth for millions of years.
8. ‘The Long Rain’.
This is the earliest story on this list, from 1950, though it neatly dovetails with ‘All Summer in a Day’ above. It’s about four men who have crashed on Venus, where it is always raining. In order to preserve their sanity, the spacemen take refuge in the Sun Domes on the planet. However, even the Sun Dome cannot prevent them from slipping into madness and destruction.
9. ‘The Veldt’.
This 1952 story concerns a nursery in an automated home in which a simulation of the African veldt is conjured by some children, but the lions which appear in the nursery start to feel very real. ‘The Veldt’ can be analysed as another of Bradbury’s cautionary tales about the dangers of technology, especially when it threatens the relationship between parents and their children.
10. ‘There Will Come Soft Rains’.
Let’s conclude this pick of Ray Bradbury’s best short stories with one of his best-known. ‘There Will Come Soft Rains’ is, like many stories Bradbury wrote in the early 1950s, haunted by the fear of nuclear war.
Sometimes known by the slightly longer title, ‘August 2026: There Will Come Soft Rains’, the story appeared in Bradbury’s 1951 collection The Martian Chronicles and focuses on a house whose inhabitants have died out in a nuclear blast. The automated house, however, is unaware of this, and so the mechanical mice and other labour-saving devices continue to prepare breakfast for a family that will never sit down to enjoy it again.
Is technology our saviour or our destruction? Once again, Bradbury explores this question, pointing out that powerful new scientific developments have the power to annihilate the very people they are supposed to help.