The Illustrated Man, by Ray Bradbury: A Review

The Illustrated Man, by Ray Bradbury (HarperCollins UK, 2008)

The Illustrated Man, by Ray Bradbury (HarperCollins UK, 2008)

I don’t care for tattoos. I’ve never really seen the point in them. Despite their proliferation among certain strata of society, and their historical root (I’ve read that upper class late Victorian ladies used to get them, including Winston Churchill’s mother, who had a “discrete snake” tattooed on one wrist), I think I’ll be happier in the distant future not having ever had one. They make me vaguely uneasy when I see them in the wild. And I think that I may have traced the root of my aversion down… to Ray Bradbury’s 1951 classic, The Illustrated Man.

The trick played in The Illustrated Man is closely akin to that used in The Martian Chronicles, in which a number of stories are tied together by one loose narrative, in this case, that of a tattooed wanderer who meets the narrator [Bradbury], who is camping during a walking tour of Wisconsin. The tattooed man reveals his illustrations, and briefly tells the tale of their creation. He then explains why they drive others away: after a certain hour, the illustrations, tattooed on him by an old witch, come to life and tell stories. When the tattooed man falls asleep, the narrator studies him, and recounts the stories told by the moving pictures through the book.

The stories, for the most part, had been previously published rather than being written specifically for the book, and there is no particular unifying theme. When The Illustrated Man was published in 1951, Bradbury had one success under his belt already: the series of interconnected tales of the human colonization of Mars, The Martian Chronicles (1950). His short stories had been appearing in a variety of magazines since 1946, and although his first collection of stories, Dark Carnival (1948), published by the famously esoteric firm of Arkham House, had not brought immediate success, his reputation would be cemented in 1953 by the time of the publication of Fahrenheit 451.

Interestingly, the content of the British version of The Illustrated Man, which I read on my most recent revisiting of these tales, differs significantly from the American original. The original 1952 UK publication of The Illustrated Man omits four stories (and has done since its first printing), and replaces them with two others. The four omitted are “The Rocket Man,” “The Fire Balloons,” “The Exiles,” and “The Concrete Mixer;” the two replacements include, for reasons which are unclear to me at the moment, “Usher II,” which also appears in The Martian Chronicles, and “The Playground.” As such is the case, I will run through short synopses all of the stories from both volumes, missing out only a further tale, confusingly titled “The Illustrated Man,” which has appeared in two much later US printings. Still with me? Good, then let’s begin.

Bradbury’s stories were among the best being written by his generation of American science fiction authors. This was demonstrated not only in the popularity and widespread appeal of and praise for his work, but in their reach beyond the world of print. In 1950, the NBC radio network began producing a series of half-hour science fiction radio dramas, in a series called Dimension X. The series featured the best of contemporary authors, including Isaac Asimov, Robert Heinlein, and Bradbury. After the series ended in 1951, a second attempt was made, this time called X Minus One, which ran from 1955 to 1957 (with a further revival of X Minus One which ran from 1973 to 1975). This later series also featured Asimov, Heinlein, and Bradbury’s tale, along with stories by Clifford D. Simak, Robert Sheckley, L. Sprague de Camp, and many others. In my discussion of the individual stories, I have provided links to free and legal downloads of the 1950s radio versions of these tales, where they exist; if you enjoy science fiction from this era, many of the broadcasts are worth hearing (although the recording quality from Dimension X in particular isn’t always great).

The Illustrated Man, by Ray Bradbury (Bantam Books, 1954)

The Illustrated Man, by Ray Bradbury (Bantam Books, 1954)

Here are capsule run-downs of the contents of the book:

  • The Veldt (UK: The Veld) (1950)

Probably one of the most famous of Bradbury’s stories, and one which is still assigned in high school English classes when the short story is being discussed. Two children are given access to a state-of-the-art automatic nursery by doting parents living in an automatic house. For sinister reasons, they become obsessed with a projection of a hot afternoon in the African veldt, with lions circling ever closer. But when concerned parents attempt to cut them off from the nursery, fearing that they have grown unhealthily obsessed, who will suffer most? I found this tale to still be chilling, and wondered at the technological similarity with the Star Trek “holodeck”, which the story predates by thirty-five-odd years. It also presents a frightening analogy with the technology-obsessed youth (and adults, for that matter), of today. Certainly one of the best tales that Bradbury ever wrote.

This story has also been adapted for radio and television multiple times, including by the 1950s NBC classic series Dimension X / X Minus One and by BBC Radio 4.

To hear archive episodes of Dimension X, visit the Internet Archive (free to download).

To hear archive episodes of X Minus One, visit the Internet Archive (free to download).

  • Kaleidoscope (1949)

A space-ship destroyed by asteroids is ripped apart, flinging her crew into open space. Separated, out of control, and with no hope of rescue, the men are still able to speak to one another via radio. The story centers on Hollis, who is fated by physics to fall back to Earth and burn up in the atmosphere. Faced with their imminent and inescapable deaths, the crew play out conflicts and grudges before saying their good-byes. This is another tale which was adapted for radio on Dimension X, and first broadcast on 15 September 1951.

To hear archive episodes of Dimension X, visit the Internet Archive (free to download).

• The Other Foot (1951)

Fleeing racial tensions on Earth, in this alternate version of The Martian Chronicles, Mars has been colonized by black Americans, who have lived in peace and prosperity for twenty years. They initially react to the threatened arrival of a white man on Mars by deciding to re-enact the segregation that they once experienced on Earth, only in reverse. However, on learning that the Earth has been destroyed in a nuclear exchange, they agree to rise above the past and help to rescue and resettle those survivors that they can.

• The Highway (1950)

Hernando lives beside a highway, and observes an unusual number of vehicles speeding along it, followed by unusual emptiness. When a last car struggles past, he is informed by the driver that the atomic war has come, and that it is the end of the world. To which news he asks his burro: “What do they mean, ‘the world?'”

• The Man (1948)

Captain Hart’s rocket lands on Planet 43 of Star System 3 (seems like those numbers should be the other way round), but doesn’t stir up much interest in the locals. Unfortunately, this is because a slightly more significant historical personage had chosen the day before to make himself known to the inhabitants of Planet 43. Hart’s lieutenant, Martin, takes the news rather better than his Captain, who fears a trick aimed at securing the mineral rights from a rival rocket ship captain.

• The Long Rain (1950)

The crew of an Earth spaceship crashed on the surface of Venus are slowly driven mad by a ceaseless rain. They search fruitlessly for a man-made Sun Dome, but the surviving members of the crew are slowly going mad in the never-ceasing downpour. As this was pretty much how I felt during the seemingly endless rain during the spring of 2015, I sympathized, but perhaps it hit too close to home, as ultimately I didn’t really like this story.

• Usher II (UK Edition Only)

One of the most famous parts of The Martian Chronicles, and therefore an odd choice for inclusion in this edition of The Illustrated Man. A story which depicts something of the society which has sent humans to colonize Mars. An eccentric millionaire called Stendahl, who remembers the golden age of the writers of fantastic and terrible tales (of which Bradbury himself could be said to be a part), decides to replicate the House of Usher from Edgar Allan Poe’s tale. When the Department of Moral Climates comes to investigate, Stendahl begins his campaign against them, killing off the officials by re-enacting various murders from the tales of Poe. Another of the best things the Bradbury ever wrote, and perhaps a sideways glimpse into the genesis of Fahrenheit 451.

• The Rocket Man (US Edition Only, 1951)

A family struggles with an absent father, who is a rocket pilot. The father is irresistibly drawn into space by the experience, but misses his wife and son terribly while he is away. The two opposing pulls create an inexorable tension, which is snapped by the story’s ending. The saddest story in the book, in my view, but I don’t want to spoil it for new readers.

• The Fire Balloons (US Edition Only, 1951)

An odd duck of a story, in which a group of Epicopal priests decide to inflict their presence, uninvited, on Mars and the native Martians. Father Peregrine is taken with the idea of attempting to determine if one of the two Martian races, who manifest themselves as blue globes of fiery energy, are intelligent, and if they have “souls.” What is delightful is the ending, in which the globes essentially tell Father Peregrine and Company off, and suggest that they turn their attentions to more needy creatures. A miss from Bradbury, in my mind.

• The Last Night of the World (1951)

“Do you know, I won’t miss anything but you and the girls. I never liked cities or my work or anything except you three. I won’t miss a thing except perhaps a change in the weather, a glass of icewater when it’s hot, and I might miss sleeping.”

The end of the world is coming, foretold in dreams experienced by everyone. The end is to fall on 19th October 1969. A husband and wife impassively discuss the impending cessation of everything, before going to bed. A curiously comforting tale.

• The Exiles (US Edition Only, 1950)

An expedition to Mars experiences hallucinations, nightmares, and mysterious deaths from the time before launch until they near the Red Planet. There, it is revealed that after a great purge of the literature of the fantastic (books of Poe, Machen, Bierce, Lovecraft, and even Dickens and Shakespeare) in the face of a new rational, scientific outlook on Earth (in this future, even Halloween and Christmas have been abolished, and Father Christmas wastes away in a torch-lit Martian castle), those great authors have escaped. The witches of Macbeth ply their trade against the inbound rocket. As long as a few copies of their books survive, they survive as well, in exile, in Mars.

Truly a delightful story, albeit with a wrenchingly tragic ending, it seems to exist in the same continuum as both “Usher II” (which replaces it in the UK edition) and Fahrenheit 451. Bradbury’s concern seems almost selfish: banning authors of the weird and mystical would almost certainly have seen him banned as well, but he carries this story off with charm.

• No Particular Night or Morning (1950)

On a long voyage into deep space, a member of a rocket crew, Hitchcock, begins to show signs of madness, wherein he ceases to believe in anyone or anything which he cannot see immediately before him. Attempts by the ship’s psychiatrist to treat him meet only with eventual tragedy. Not a bad story, but not a particularly good one, either.

• The Fox and the Forest (1950)

Fleeing a vicious war in the future year of 2155, William and Susan Travis seek refuge in a Mexican village in 1938, before realizing that they have been pursued from the future by an enemy who threatens to forcibly repatriate them. An excellent story overall, but the time travel paradox doesn’t quite work for me. Still one of the best in the book.

This was the third of the tales from The Illustrated Man to be adapted for radio, on both Dimension X (30 August 1951) and later on X Minus One (21 December 1955), as well as the 2014 BBC Radio 4 production.

To hear archive episodes of Dimension X, visit the Internet Archive (free to download).

To hear archive episodes of X Minus One, visit the Internet Archive (free to download).

• The Visitor (1948)

A loose colony of exiles on Mars, suffering from “blood rust,” an incurable, infectious disease, have been sent off Earth to stop contamination and the spread of the disease. Saul Williams, a sufferer, watches the arrival of a new patient by rocket. The newcomer is Leonard Mark, a conjurer and psychic who is able to create amazingly real images of places, people, and events on Earth in the minds of others. Will the outcasts be able to share his gifts, or will they break into all-out war for exclusive rights to his company?

• The Concrete Mixer (US Edition Only, 1949)

A Martian invasion of Earth is seen as futile by unwilling soldier Ettil Vrye, who has somehow gained access to a variety of pulp magazines of the day, and has learned that, in human fiction, the Martians always lose the battle through a variety of resourceful dodges by humanity. The Martian forces dragoon him and invade regardless, only to find that they are being welcomed by the people of Earth. Is it a trick?

• Marionettes, Inc. (1949)

Another of the very best of Bradbury’s writing, “Marionettes, Inc.” revolves around a man who wishes to take a vacation from his domineering wife. He discusses his problem with a friend, and finds that his friend has the answer: a perfect replica made by a company that promises an undetectable duplicate of anyone, anywhere. Of course, there are unforeseen consequences.

This was the fourth of the tales from The Illustrated Man to be adapted for radio, on both Dimension X (30 August 1951) and later on X Minus One (21 December 1955), as well as the 2014 BBC Radio 4 production.

To hear archive episodes of Dimension X, visit the Internet Archive (free to download).

To hear archive episodes of X Minus One, visit the Internet Archive (free to download).

• The City (1950)

A vast automated city, built by the defeated survivors of a long-forgotten war with humanity, waits twenty thousand years to take its protracted revenge both on the human crew of a rocket and, with bombs filled with plague, on the Earth itself. “The City” is, to my mind, one of the more chilling tales in the book.

• Zero Hour (1947)

Children under the age of nine begin playing a new and complicated game of “Invasion” with an invisible friend called Drill. One woman begins to suspect – far too late – that the game is far more sinister than it appears on the surface.

This was the fifth of the tales from The Illustrated Man to be adapted for radio, on X Minus One (5 December 1956), in a double-billing with “There Will Come Soft Rains.”

To hear archive episodes of X Minus One, visit the Internet Archive (free to download).

• The Rocket (1950)

Fiorello Bodoni is a scrapyard owner who dreams of a flight on a rocket. He has saved just enough money to purchase one ticket, but has both a wife and family who would also like to go, and there’s new equipment needed for the yard. When presented with the opportunity to purchase a disused rocket, Bodoni arrives at a unique solution to his quandary.

• The Playground (UK Edition Only, 1951)

Charles Underhill fears for his young son, Jim, when his wife wants to take the child to a public playground. Underhill observes the playground and remembers the savagery and brutality of “play” in his own childhood, and fears for the same events being played out on his child. The playground feels evil, to him, and his fears are confirmed by a mysterious child who calls him by name. This is an odd tale, and doesn’t fit overly well with the rest of the book. Certainly not one of Bradbury’s best, and one of the weakest in the UK edition.

• Epilogue: The Illustrated Man

On seeing the final animated illustration of the tattooed man, which depicts The Illustrated Man strangling the narrator, the latter flees into the night.

Some further thoughts…

The Illustrated Man, by Ray Bradbury (Bantam Spectra, 1989)

The Illustrated Man, by Ray Bradbury (Bantam Spectra, 1989)

Obviously, the science of some of these stories is wrong. We can’t, for instance, simply land on Mars and start farming. And the time travel problem of “The Fox and the Forest” doesn’t quite work: how is time passing in the future equated to time in the past, so that the Searchers know come in pursuit of the William and Susan Travis? And, of course, the only thing that is likely to rain on Venus is sulfuric acid.

That being said, these Bradbury tales are a rich vein to mine, of not only the paranoias and terrors of the post-World War II psyche, but of core ideas which have remained in science fiction writing to this day. Other themes including the fear of nuclear and biological war (“leprosy” bombs are mentioned more than once, which may represent a misconception of the disease on Bradbury’s part), the suppression of artistic liberty, and the exploration of Mars appear repeatedly, as though Bradbury had not yet tired of Mars from his previous work. Yet the ideas are not repetitive; for the most part, each iteration tells a new and different – and intriguing – story. It is hard to imagine so many different ideas coming from the mind of one person, even in this time of rich ferment in science fiction literature. Bradbury’s stories and books don’t always hit their mark, but they are almost universally well-crafted and thought provoking.

If this era of writing and these subjects interest you, I think that you owe it to yourself to give an evening to The Illustrated Man. Although obviously dated in some aspects, as part of a trio of Bradbury’s major works (with The Martian Chronicles and Fahrenheit 451), it stands head and shoulders above much of what has been written since. Four and a half stars, highly recommended.

Reviewed 14 October 2015.

Find your copy of The Illustrated Man at AbeBooks.com.

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About Bill Bibliomane

Reader and writer, collector and cataloguer. Amateur mineralogist, astronomer, numismatist, philatelist: I have too many hobbies. I'm somewhat compulsive when it comes to book shopping. Fortunately for my budget, there are no bookshops near to my home. Unfortunately, I've discovered the Internet. I started out reviewing books for my own amusement. Now I've decided to assemble them on my own site.
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2 Responses to The Illustrated Man, by Ray Bradbury: A Review

  1. PESidaway says:

    I have the same aversion to tattoos, but then I also recoil at any body piercings. I’m sure that says something unpleasant about me (self-critical as ever), but that’s the way it is nonetheless. All of that to one side, Bradbury was a master of these strange tales. Thanks for reminding me of my youthful sci-fi reading days in the 1970s (pretty much the only good memories I have of that decade).

    Liked by 1 person

    • We’re a long way from Lady Churchill’s discrete snake, or from the sailor with the anchor tattoo from some distant port, to be certain.

      For me, October is the most Bradbury of months, if that makes sense. I’ve got two more books of his that I want to get to, but will just see if I have the time. So very many things to read right now.

      Ah, the 1970s. Power cuts, uncollected rubbish, unemployment, queues for fuel, flares, rivers of blood, polyester, Jimmy Carter, disco. Groovy times, as the Clash sang…

      Thanks as always for the comment!

      Liked by 1 person

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