26 pages 52 minutes read

Ray Bradbury

Zero Hour

Fiction | Short Story | Adult | Published in 1947

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Summary: “Zero Hour”

“Zero Hour” is a short story by celebrated American science fiction writer Ray Bradbury. It uses irony and foreshadowing to evoke themes of Loss of Innocence, Generational Alienation, and the Role of Technology in Reshaping Society. All of these themes are hallmarks of Bradbury’s broader body of work: Alienation and technology are important themes in 20th-century science fiction, and innocence serves as an important catalyst in several of Bradbury’s stories. “Zero Hour” was first published in 1947 in the science fiction pulp magazine Planet Stories, before being included in Bradbury’s story collection The Illustrated Man in 1951. The story depicts a seemingly normal day in the life of the Morris family, who live in suburban New York in an undefined near-future time. Their world—and everyone else’s—is turned upside down when it is revealed that their young daughter Mink, as well as other children across the country, are playing an instrumental part in ushering in an alien invasion. “Zero Hour” is broadly considered to be a science fiction story, although Bradbury himself held slightly different views about how his works should be categorized; he argued that Fahrenheit 451 was his only science fiction story, while the rest he preferred to describe as fantasy.

This guide refers to the free version of the text that can be found on Project Gutenberg.

“Zero Hour,” which is written in a third-person subjective point of view, opens with a moment of cacophony: Seven-year-old Mink Morris, alongside the other neighborhood children under 10, has come up with a brand-new game to play and is raiding her parents’ kitchen for supplies. The story, however, is told from the perspective of Mink’s mother, Mrs. Morris (with occasional insight into the minds of the adult community). She watches the chaos unfold with an amused, if slightly exasperated, eye, and learns from her breathless daughter that the game is called “Invasion.” Mink runs back outside with a handful of kitchenware and Mrs. Morris, like other neighborhood parents, returns to the routine of her day, checking in on Mink and the other children at regular intervals throughout.

Two separate worlds open up to the reader: that of the children, where a small drama unfolds when Mink refuses to let an older boy join their game for fear he’ll mock them, and that of the adults, who go about their business while feeling “jealous of the fierce energy of the wild tots, tolerantly amused at their flourishings, longing to join in themselves” (Paragraph 13).

After a description of the peaceful city and the peaceful wider world, the story returns from a more omniscient moment to the immediate concerns of Mrs. Morris, who heads to the window to check on Mink. Mink is talking to a rose-bush, while a younger child named Anna struggles to transcribe what the rose-bush is apparently saying. Mrs. Morris interrupts briefly to help Anna with her spelling when Mink grows impatient with the younger girl.

The next check-in with Mink happens when she returns to the house for lunch and then attempts to run back outside after hastily drinking some milk. Mrs. Morris orders her to slow down and have some soup, and inquires as to the source of her hurry. Mink “evasively” (Paragraph 68) mentions her need to return to a new friend named Drill, who Mrs. Morris assumes is a little boy who has recently moved to the neighborhood. In the ensuing conversation, Mink reveals that she’s hurrying so as not to delay the Invasion, in which Drill and his fellow “not exactly Martians” (Paragraph 72) plan to take over a previously invulnerable Earth with the help of the planet’s overlooked children. Mink tells her mother that the aliens have promised the children a better world—capitulating to standard childish wishes like fewer baths—and that she’s sure her mother “won’t be hurt much, really” (Paragraph 110). Mrs. Morris finds all of this amusing.

At four o’clock, Mrs. Morris receives a call from her friend Helen in Scranton. Helen reveals that her son Tim and his friends are also playing the Invasion game with a boy named Drill. The two adults exclaim over the energy and imagination of children and comment on how quickly the game has spread. Mink returns to the kitchen and performs a trick where she makes a yo-yo vanish, then exits the room once more with the declaration that “Zero hour’s five o’clock” (Paragraph 136).

The next hour passes quietly, at least until a little girl runs away from the other children crying. Mrs. Morris emerges from the house and asks Mink what has happened. Mink dismisses her mother’s concerns and says that the other girl is too scared to play Invasion any longer. Frustrated with Mink’s obsession with her game, Mrs. Morris retreats indoors and has a drink while she waits for her husband to come home from work. When five o’clock comes and goes without incident, she laughs a little bit to herself.

Mr. Morris returns from work, and the mood shifts. Mrs. Morris thinks the children are too quiet, and then she hears mysterious buzzing noises. She begins to feel uneasy about the whole thing, and her unease is revealed to be justified when explosions begin to ring out throughout the neighborhood. Panicked, Mrs. Morris drags her husband upstairs to the attic, thinking about all the things that Mink has said that day that she’s dismissed. Mink’s words take on a new light, and she begs Mr. Morris to be quiet so the invaders don’t find them. There are footsteps on the stairs as Mink’s voice calls out, but the footsteps are clearly too heavy to be Mink’s. When the lock on the attic door melts, Mink opens it with “tall blue shadows behind her” (Paragraph 201) and says “Peek-a-boo” (Paragraph 202). The story ends with that seemingly innocuous but contextually eerie line.