Book review: The Illustrated Man

I have a confession to make.

Up until a few weeks ago, I’d never read any Ray Bradbury. I saw a lot of the blog posts when he died in June this year, and was impressed by the depth of affection and respect readers of sci-fi held for him, but was immune to the tide of weeping and wailing. However, I saw that it was high time that I remedied this deficiency in my education.

For anyone out there as ignorant as I, the premise of ‘The Illustrated Man’ is that an unfortunate carnival performer is tattooed by a witch from the future. The tattoos, although of great beauty, all move at night, each telling its own tale. And on his back is a place left free of adornment, in which you will see your own future…

The book is a collection of 16 short stories, all quite different, loosely threaded together by the idea that they all are represented on the body of the tattooed performer. They vary from dark and hopeless (Kaleidoscope, which describes what goes through men’s minds as they fall through space to their deaths), to social commentary (The Other Foot, in which racism has been allowed to prevail to the extent that black and white people live on different planets), to the faintly ridiculous, although still menacing (The Veld, where lions created by a cyber-nursery eat parents).

One of the stories which has particularly stuck with me personally is The Long Rain. It so painfully and accurately describes the mental anguish that men on Venus undergo as it never, ever stops raining. Their hair and skin become bleached with the relentless water, and as they trudge along, lost, they are unable to sleep with the rain drumming on their skulls. When they finally find refuge, a Sun Dome, it is smashed, and the rain beats in where it should be dry and warm.

The lieutenant felt the cold rain on his cheeks and on his neck and on his moving arms. The cold was beginning to seep into his lungs. He felt the rain on his ears, on his eyes, on his legs.

‘I didn’t sleep last night,’ he said.

‘Who could? Who has? When? How many nights have we slept? Thirty nights, thirty days! Who can sleep with rain slamming their head, banging away…I’d give anything for a hat. Anything at all, just so it wouldn’t hit my head any more.”

‘The Illustrated Man’ was first published in 1952, and the stories do read as being ‘of their time’. That is, they are beautifully written and crafted, and don’t rely a great deal on hard science facts, as we understand them today. There are a few spots where the representation of women is a little dated, as you might expect, but no so badly that it is offensive to a modern reader.

After a couple of  stories, Bradbury drops the pretence of stringing the stories together with tattoos, and we don’t hear of the Illustrated Man again until the (somewhat predictable) Epilogue.

I suppose what I’m really interested in, as someone working on an anthology of stories, is whether this device works? Do we need an overarching theme to bring a group of stories together? I seem to recall once reading a collection of stories which linked them all with a map.

I’d love to hear your thoughts on this.

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4 thoughts on “Book review: The Illustrated Man

  1. The Illustrated Man didn’t work for me though I am a big Bradbury fan. His prose was artful, even up to his death, as he published new books only a couple of years ago. He also wrote the screenplay for Moby Dick in the early 60’s…quite an undertaking to encapsulate that epic tome into a two hour movie. His best compilation is Dandilion Wine, which makes good use of the arching theme concept. My favorite is his first book: October Country which reads like Twilight Zone episodes and which he wr9te as a very young man.

    • Hi! Thanks for dropping by. Interesting that you don’t feel that this book was one of his best. Having only read this one so far, I would be happy to give him another go as an author, so will follow your tip on Dandelion Wine. Do you think that having a theme in the two compliations was necessary, or added anything to the stories?

  2. I would have read that book first in the late 1960’s and I still remember the desperation of the men in the long rain after all these years.

    Back then, SCI-FI wasn’t a established genre. It was very very niche and the theme was likely an attempt to broaden the appeal.

    hope you are feeling well!

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