By Dr Oliver Tearle (Loughborough University)
‘The City’ is a short story about revenge best served cold. Written by the American author Ray Bradbury (1920-2012), the story was included in his 1952 collection The Illustrated Man. The story is about a city which has waited twenty thousand years for man to return so that the city can visit a terrible revenge upon Earth for a past crime.
Some of the themes touched upon in ‘The City’, either directly or indirectly, are revenge, the posthuman, and colonialism. Before we offer a fuller analysis of Bradbury’s story, though, here’s a brief summary of its plot.
‘The City’: plot summary
The story is about a city which acts like an animate being, with eyes, ears, and a brain. The inhabitants of the city, who died thousands of years ago, made the city into one large organism before they perished from incurable leprosy (as we discover towards the end of the story). The city has waited twenty thousand years.
At the beginning of the story, we don’t know what it has been waiting for, but we will discover that it has been waiting for men from Earth to return to this planet, and this city, so that the city can exact its revenge upon all of humankind.
At the beginning of Bradbury’s story, a crew of Earthmen arrive in a rocket and begin to explore and examine the city. As they do so, they start to awaken the parts of the city which have remained dormant for thousands of years. The smell of the men awakens the large Nose of the city – in other words, its olfactory receptors.
One of the crew, a man named Smith, is suspicious of the city’s strange behaviour and urges the captain of the mission to return to the rocket and leave. But the captain dismisses his fears, believing that the entire city is dead and that they are the first men from Earth ever to visit the city.
However, shortly after this the captain is caught in a trap sprung by the city, and his body is sliced up and his body parts examined scientifically. The city recognises that the captain shared the same features as previous men from Earth, and puts his body back together, with his vital organs replaced by mechanical ones. This bionic man is then released into the streets, where he promptly shoots Smith dead before addressing the remaining crew.
He tells them that he now is the city, having been programmed by it to go among them and wreak the city’s revenge upon all of mankind from Earth. This is because the last inhabitants of the city died out when Earthmen visited the city, thousands of years ago, bringing with them a terrible disease. This deadly disease, a form of leprosy, wiped out the city’s population, but not because they had programmed the city to enact their revenge when Earthmen next returned to the planet.
The rest of the crew are then seized and killed by the city, which turns them all into bionic men like the captain. They all look the same as before, but underneath they are machines programmed by the city to take golden bombs containing a deadly disease culture back to Earth and drop it upon the inhabitants, wiping them out as Earthmen had wiped out the citizens of this city. Once the rocket has departed, the city appears to breathe a sigh of relief, knowing it can wind down and die now that it has carried out its revenge.
‘The City’: analysis
Bradbury’s story can be analysed as an allegory about colonialism, but instead of one nation exploring, conquering, and subjugating another, one whole planet – Earth – has taken over another planet in a different star system. The city of the story’s title was once colonised by Earthmen, who brought disease with them; this disease wiped out the natives of this alien city.
Many early European settlers to the New World also brought diseases with them from the Old World. Serious diseases like smallpox, measles, typhus, and cholera were all unknown to native Americans, and so there was no natural immunity to these diseases among indigenous peoples. By taking the history of European settlement in America to a galactic level, Bradbury removes the subject from its specific historical moorings so that readers can dwell upon the universal moral questions surrounding colonialism.
‘The City’ is an example of a revenge tale, but again, this is applied on a galactic scale, in keeping with science fiction. (Bradbury preferred to regard himself as a ‘fantasy’ writer, but much of his work, including stories such as ‘The City’, can also be categorised as science fiction.) The large scale applies not just to the sheer space involved (literal space, as in outer space), but the time: rather than being about a single character waiting years to exact a revenge against someone who wronged them, this story is about a whole people waiting millennia, long after they have all themselves perished, to wreak a terrible vengeance upon the sons of the sons (and so on) of the original perpetrators.
When we analyse such a component of the story alongside its colonial (or postcolonial?) theme, this raises some interesting questions. If we do choose to interpret ‘The City’ as an allegory for European colonialism and the roughshod way many early settlers swept aside native peoples, bringing them disease and displacing them, then where is the moral centre of Bradbury’s tale? Should we feel sympathy for the city in its long-term quest for revenge?
The answer is perhaps no – and yes. We can feel sympathy for its plight, or rather for the fates of its citizens who died when Earthmen casually colonised their homeland and inadvertently killed them, and even express sympathy for the idea of reparation. But the idea of making the sons pay for the sins of the fathers (or great-great-great etc. grandfathers) is likely to strike modern readers as immoral, even odious. After all, killing the descendants of those colonial Earthmen by visiting germ warfare upon them isn’t going to bring the citizens of ‘the city’ back from the dead.
Indeed, the city is itself a city of the dead: despite its status as living organism, there are no living humans left walking its streets or living in its buildings. The revenge is exacted in a coldly inhuman – indeed, literally inhuman – manner which shows even less regard for human life than the original Earthly visitors did for the natives. But then these descendants of Earthmen have come to visit the city. For what purpose? To see if there’s potential for a neo-colonial takeover?
This is what makes Ray Bradbury’s fiction so difficult to pin down. Even if the story is allegory, we are left with enough gaps in the story’s details for us to speculate on the moral thrust of the tale. We are left wondering, debating, and conjecturing, and discussing one of the most important topics of the last few centuries of our own small planet’s behaviour – and the human exploitation of large parts of it.