The Illustrated Man is a collection of Ray Bradbury’s stories which are sandwiched between the account of the titular man whose tattoos come alive at night and set the scenes for the 18 tales in this collection. All of these stories are classic Ray Bradbury — full of spacemen, Earth-Mars conflict, psychiatrists, spoiled children, bad marriages, book burning, domestic work-saving technologies, and nervous breakdowns. They deal with the fear of atomic war, loneliness, prejudice, madness, and the dangers of automobiles, junk food, and media entertainment (but smoking is okay).
All of the tales are written in Bradbury’s incomparable prose and most of them are emotionally touching. But, not surprisingly, they’re almost all grim, making The Illustrated Man a book that you probably won’t want to read all at once unless you want to have your own book-burning nervous breakdown.
- “The Veldt” — a father and mother are concerned about the reality of their kids’ virtual games.
- “Kaleidoscope” — a man reflects on his life as he spins toward Earth after his rocket blows up.
- “The Other Foot” — black people living on Mars prepare for a visit from white men.
- “The Man” — spacemen land on a new planet and wonder what important event could have overshadowed their arrival.
- “The Rocket Man” — a boy and his mom receive a rare visit from his Rocket Man father.
- “Marionettes, Inc.” — a dissatisfied husband purchases a clone so he can escape to Rio for a month without his wife knowing.
- “The Rocket” — about the best father in the world.
This is a great collection (by Tantor Audio) for Bradbury fans who’d like to listen to his stories. Scott Brick’s pleasant and enthusiastic voice is deft enough to realistically portray an old black woman named Hattie, a gum-smacking blonde California bimbo, and an entire Italian family. I recommend this version!
The Illustrated Man serves as a perfect introduction to Ray Bradbury, capturing, as Kat said, his most recognizable themes and settings. This collection of short stories provides a bewildering and often frightening glimpse into the Bradbury psyche, often contrasting the mental struggles of individuals with the corruptive power of the human race and its pursuit of technology.
The opening story, “The Veldt,” proved to be the one that stuck with me the most for the sheer spine tingling horror of it. It tells the story of two parents living in a futuristic house in which machines do everything the inhabitants require. The house also holds a “nursery” — a virtual reality game room which conjures up any setting or scene the user of the room imagines. The parents struggle to understand why their young children persistently choose to conjure an African savannah in which lions roar in the distance and devour the remains of a carcass. The parents resort to a psychiatrist, whose suggestion that the family move away and learn self-sufficiency sets the story on the path to its inevitable conclusion. There’s really nothing creepier than murderous children.
Talking of creepy children, another favorite was “Zero Hour,” in which a group of children enthusiastically play a game called “invasion.” It transpires that children all over the country are playing the same game, a fact laughed off by their parents until the game proves to be more serious than they could ever have imagined.
Other stories focus on space travel, and while I am not normally a science fiction reader, I enjoyed all of Bradbury’s space stories in The Illustrated Man. His focus is less on the actual craft and the mechanics of space travel and more on the minds of those doing the travelling and the societies they find.
“Kaleidoscope,” a story that charts the musings of a crew as they float through space knowing they are about to die, manages to be both simple and troubling. So much of Bradbury’s work very consciously forces the reader to think and this story in particular felt like an admonishment, a hearty push to contemplate our own lives and the death-bed regrets we’re all sure to have.
“No Particular Night or Morning” adopts a similarly reflective tone, following the conversations of two friends on a mission in space. The troubled Hitchcock becomes increasingly distressed at the emptiness of space and the idea that nothing is real unless he can see and touch it in that very moment. To me the story was an extension of that age old problem — if a tree falls in a wood when no one’s there, does it make a sound. Something that always used to bother me.
I found “The Long Rain,” a story about a group of travellers searching for shelter on Venus, to be a perfectly excruciating story (but then I do hate the rain). The way Bradbury describes the relentless drumming of the rain, the feel of it pounding against the skin and the sheer horror of always being touched had me clawing at my own skin in sympathy as one by one the crew succumb to madness and rage. Similarly, “The Visitor,” about a group of terminally ill people quarantined on Mars, elicited horror and sympathy in equal measure. The visitor of the story is a man with the gift of telepathy who can transport people to a virtual world drawn from their memories. The desperate reaction of the condemned men is, in classic Bradbury style, both understandable and deplorable. Indeed, so many of these stories touch on our ability to be both despicable and loving in equal measure, and the power of memory and imagination to be restorative but also destructive.
The version of The Illustrated Man I read also included the short stories “Usher II” from The Martian Chronicles and “The Playgorund,” which some versions omit. “Usher II” is a must read for anyone familiar with the stories of Edgar Allen Poe and it also touches on that favorite Bradbury crime — book burning. A literary expert who has escaped earth due to the relentless censorship sets up a classic haunted house full of mechanical creatures, ghosts and ghouls. He invites some of earth’s worst book burning offenders to enjoy an evening of “entertainment.” If only the guests had been more familiar with Poe’s work they may have escaped the gruesome consequences.
I read The Illustrated Man in a number of a sittings, mainly because each story is so intense it’s a bit overwhelming all in one go — particularly for anyone who finds the concepts of space and nothingness mind-boggling and the advance of technology and robotics slightly disturbing (as I do). But it’s a collection I see myself dipping in and out of over and over again. Bradbury has such a talent for eliciting empathy and thoughtfulness and a simultaneous gift for the creepy and the sinister. The combination is a compelling collection of short stories that pack an almighty punch.