BOOK REVIEW -- THE ILLUSTRATED MAN -- RAY BRADBURY
Originally published 1952
I’ve always believed that Ray Bradbury’s lyrical prose is more suited to the short story than the novel and that the many collections of his prolific work available ably demonstrate this. Some collections, like The Golden Apples Of The Sun, are less brilliant, with more varied stories, and more than the average amount of misfires. The Illustrated Man, on the other hand, is the opposite, with more of a definite ‘hit’-rate than could be expected.
Most of the eighteen stories here were originally published from around 1947 – 1951 in popular magazines of the day, with several more original to this collection. Bradbury uses the framing device of a man who has been tattooed with illustrations all over his body by a witch from the future. The illustrations move every night and stories are told in them; these are those stories. This is interesting and creative, but also unnecessary – the stories are not linked, except in theme, and can be read individually or in any combination you could like, including one after the other, from front to back. But as with all short story collections, these tales are not a novel, and are not meant to be read as one, in several [or one] large chunks. Take the time to feel Bradbury’s deft prose, his thoughtfulness of word-choice on every page, the lyrics in the lines; Bradbury is a stylist, and although occasionally that style becomes too much and drowns out the story, the prose is rich and worth reading slowly. Take the tales one at a time, over many days; give them a chance to live.
Unlike some other collections, The Illustrated Man is a showcase of Bradbury’s science-fiction and fantasy pieces, and not horror. There is a hint of horror here, but only in a handful of stories. The theme is simple wonder, often a child’s wonder at the world and at the amazing and wonderful things in it. Bradbury has dreamed these stories, they are him, evocations of a childhood lost in fantasies of rockets, spacemen, the future. Many of the stories have prescient predictions on the future, some of which are of their time [like clockwork robots], but some, far-seeing insights have echoed and grown in accuracy down the years. Some of the ideas here are very familiar to science-fiction fans in the 21st century, but it must be remembered that Bradbury had these ideas and thoughts many, many years before Star Trek and The Terminator, Gravity and A.I.
Every reader will have their own personal favourite. Mine is The Rocket Man, which I absolutely loved, a brilliant five-star tale and certainly for me on the list of Bradbury’s best. It tells of a ‘rocket man’, an astronaut who lives in two worlds – his home and family life and his work, or rocket missions – but is completely content in neither. While on his rockets, flying about the galaxy, he misses the Earth and his wife and family; while on leave at home, he is dreaming of being back in space, itching to get back to it. His wife regards him as ‘dead’ to her, for she knows he will soon disappear again on dangerous missions, she cannot relax and enjoy his company. His son, too, cannot connect with him, as, even when he is there, he is never really there, but dreaming, pining for his next journey to the stars. I realise I’ve largely told the plot of this story, but it needs to be read to be fully appreciated, the emotions and thoughts of the characters as expressed by Bradbury are much more than a thin description here. It is simply a brilliant story, and lingers long in the mind, and is as relevant now as when it was written, dealing with the pull of ambition and danger, but the bittersweet mediocrity of what is left behind. This is just an excellent story, unreservedly recommended; if you have just half an hour before this book is wrenched forever from your hands, read The Rocket Man and be in awe. If the title is vaguely familiar to you, you might be thinking of the hit song of the same name by Elton John; the lyrics were inspired by this very story.
My next choice would be another very short but excellent story; The City. Unlike the above, the plots of some stories need to be discovered in the reading, for that was the point of their construction. Much like the point behind the construction of the ancient city in this story, on a distant star, and what happens when a ship from Earth sets down upon it, many thousands of years after last contact. An awesome idea, and another excellent story that will leave you with that genuine science-fiction sense of wonder.
Sticking with interstellar themes, The Long Rain is an adventure story set on Venus; can a space crew defy the constant hammering of the rain, and find the safety of a sheltered Sun Dome. Read this memorable story to find out. Kaleidoscope massively pre-dates the 2013 film Gravity, telling, in just a few short pages, of an accident during a spacewalk mission; Bradbury’s emotive words focus more on the fate of the crew, as they helplessly drift away from each other into the depths of space.
Marionettes Inc. is as great a masterclass in writing a short-story as I can think of. The theme is robots, robots that look, not like tin cans on wheels, but indistinguishable from human beings. The story is merely 6 pages long, yet Bradbury has foreseen most of the major plots of future blockbuster films and novels, and crammed the basics, along with constantly-changing twists, into this skilful and prescient story. You could study this story, and learn much about how to construct a short tale; equally, you could quickly read it and be amazed.
The Fox And The Forest is a peculiar title, utterly failing to foreshadow it’s hugely enjoyable story of time-travel. While on a holiday to the past, a man and his wife have done a runner from a war-torn future, and are persued by collection agents. The story slowly reveals itself, and at the end the reader is put in mind of a certain huge movie hit of the 1980’s. It is almost as if Bradbury had a time machine himself. Perhaps he did, in his imagination.
The above tales were my particular favourites, but a large part of what remains is also very enjoyable and entertaining. The Fire Balloons is a story of Mars, and the group of clerics who go there to be missionaries to the inhabitants of the planet, only to find that the Chinese-lantern-like entities that live there are beyond sin. The Visitor, also set on Mars, tells of a world filled with outcasts from Earth, people who are dying or suffering from incurable disease. Into their midst comes a visitor, who can comfort the stricken, with lifelike visions and illusions. But his benevolence is desirable, and even outcasts might be driven to violence...
Much-reprinted story The Veldt pre-invents the Holodeck from Star Trek; in a futuristic nursery, virtual African plains come to life...
The Last Night Of The World and The Highway both concern the end of the world. Bradbury focuses on looking at human reactions to the end, and finds them quiet and civilized. In Zero Hour, all the children of the world appear to be playing a game which will help robotic aliens insidiously invade the planet. A man takes his family for the trip of a lifetime in The Rocket using just his contagious imagination.
The majority of the stories here are okay, still enjoyable, and add to the general flavour of the book. There were only two stories out of the eighteen that I didn’t much care for. Perhaps you will like them better.
I’ve read a number of Bradbury’s story collections over the years, and in the science-fiction field, I think this one is among his finest. The tales continually showcase Bradbury’s bright optimism in people, and their hopes and fears and loves, and how people will prevail; emotions and relationships mean more than the technological progress of the future. More important than scientific progress, mankind’s thoughts and feelings and tenderness will temper any possible dark capitalism of future generations. Bradbury, throughout his long life, and never more so than in the stories here, was always a dreamer, a literary dreamer, dreaming dreams of a hopeful and excited ten-year-old boy. To read these stories is to partake, for a while, in these vivid and inventive dreams. 10/10
|Some of the stories were adapted into a 1969 portmanteau film.|