by Ray Bradbury
294 pages, Harper Voyager
Review by Pat Black
I feel like a spoiled child. Ray Bradbury has disappointed me.
He’s my favourite uncle; so imagine the growing horror on his big, friendly face when he visits at Christmas, and I tear open the wrapping paper, and… what’s this? I don’t want this! Where’s the good stuff?
This is horribly ungrateful, and I do feel ashamed, because The Illustrated Man is stuffed with classic tales. Part of my disappointment comes through having read a few of them before, either alongside other authors or as part of the mega-compilation put together by Everyman a couple of years ago. But the main factor was the format and the framing device for the stories; it’s such a let-down.
The Illustrated Man has been a looming presence in my reading life. Not to have read it seemed as silly as not having seen Citizen Kane or Gone With The Wind (I’m guilty on both counts… yes, I know). I knew about the concept – that a man has tattoos all over his body, and that the ink comes to life after dark, to reveal the stories behind each piece of art. How brilliant. How very Ray Bradbury.
But the actual story, “The Illustrated Man”, does not appear in The Illustrated Man. I’m presuming Bradbury wrote the longer piece after the publication of the book of the same name – after all, it is a very good idea - but surely they should have added it in later editions? It seems as daft as having Meat Loaf release Bat out of Hell without “Bat Out of Hell” in the track listings. Or “Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” appearing on The White Album. You get the idea.
So we start off with a prologue where a narrator meets the illustrated man himself on a hillside in the night. I want to make a wee joke here about young men curling up for a sleep beside half-naked body builders they meet in a park, but such things can happen in Ray Bradbury’s world without the inner spoiled child turning into a sniggering schoolboy.
We see the ink on the man’s body morph and change into images which introduce the stories in the book. It’s a cracking frame for what is to follow, but it is quickly dropped after story number two, with the illustrated man only returning for a brief coda. This seemed a bit of a waste. The framing device should have been a story in itself, unfolding as we go along, with the illustrated man trying to find the witch who cursed him. It seems a waste, otherwise.
The stories themselves don’t seem to fit in with the concept of the illustrated man, either. Cursed by a witch to have living, changing stories inked on his skin, this man belongs in the realm of the fantastical Ray Bradbury – the man who wrote “Homecoming” or “Uncle Einar” or “The Fog Horn”. But the stories in The Illustrated Man are mostly science fiction, a continuation of the themes and concerns of The Martian Chronicles. The gears grind a little. The working parts could have been put together a bit better.
Look… I know uncle Ray brought it all the way through from Los Angeles! I can’t help being disappointed! His stuff is usually so brilliant!
We begin with one of Bradbury’s very best, “The Veld”, where a futuristic mum and dad build a nursery for their two children which prefigures the holodeck on Star Trek. It creates vivid, 3D representations of places and things, down to the wind in your hair and the scent in your nostrils. The idea is that it’ll show the children Narnia or Oz or some other kind of fairy tale kingdom. But, little buggers being little buggers, the mother and father are disturbed to see that their children have recreated an African savannah, where lions prowl in the long grass. What is it that the big cats are eating?
The central is shock is pure Twilight Zone, but the story’s main concern touches on Ray Bradbury’s lifelong dislike of gadgetry, new technology and its dehumanising effect. You can only hope he lived out his final years without having truly engaged with social media and marketing-led journalism. “That’s so horrible even I couldn’t have imagined it!”
“Mars and rocket ships” sci-fi of the 1950s turns some modern readers off. Bradbury himself dismissed such criticism, saying his stories were fantasies, and don’t belong in the same geometrically precise brainbox as Isaac Asimov or Arthur C Clarke. “Kaleidoscope” is a fine example of this – a sublime piece where several astronauts are unceremoniously torn out of their rocket ship, spilling out into certain death in space. In their dwindling radio contact through their helmets, the spacemen journey from bickering and acting out their grievances to a sense of acceptance, and even epiphany.
“The Other Foot” is a Martian Chronicles-style effort, which sees Mars as an interplanetary ghetto. Black people have gotten fed up with their treatment back on Earth, and have found peace and community on the red planet. But Earth, torn apart by nuclear war, soon casts its envious eyes towards Mars’ green fields and blue skies, and a delegation of white men arrives to seek asylum for the motherworld’s survivors. This story has a resonance far beyond the contemporaneous civil rights struggle, with its notion of rich white men as refugees, relying on the charity of people they abused. It firmly plants Bradbury on the side of the angels.
“The Man” saw a surprisingly Christian Ray Bradbury, playing with New Testament imagery and mythology. A space captain is looking to arrest a mysterious man with a message who is travelling across colonised worlds in the cosmos, changing the way people think. The Man is infuriatingly out of reach on every planet the vindictive captain lands on – he’s always just missed him. It’s strange that Bradbury, who had what I would recognise as humanist impulses, reveals such overt Christian leanings. In other editions of this book, I understand “The Fire Balloons” is included, which seeks to look at how divinity can survive in a universe with life forms completely different to humans, and not, it would seem, created in the image of a creator. Again, it’s curiously sympathetic to the business of men in dog collars, but this one was cut out of the UK version I bought.
Hard sci-fi fans’ toes would curl at “The Long Rain”, which sees a set of explorers travelling through a bedraggled Venus, where it rains hard, all the time. They’re searching for the sun domes, dry, warm refuges where people can shelter out of the rain. But the rain messes not only with their equipment, but also their heads. The tap-tap-tap of the deluge destroys everything, eventually, and some of the explorers simply give up.
The setting doesn’t even remotely resemble the real Venus, so I can imagine it might have irritated some readers, but its concept was intriguing. We’ve all been caught out in the rain before.
“The Rocket” was superb whimsy, where a family man has just enough money saved for a single ticket for a trip into space – but who should go? Should it be him? Should it be mama? Which of the children shall take the trip of a lifetime?
The solution to the problem soon arrives, but it doesn’t require any rocket fuel or oxygen supplies. This one made me smile. Global travel has become a signifier of status more than ever before. And with the advent of social media, something that was once considered mind-crushingly dull – being subjected to a slideshow of other people’s holiday photos – is now something most of us either endure or participate in, in HD quality detail, every single day. But for many, the economic reality of backpacking in Vietnam, going off-piste in the French Alps or even that old shrieking buzzard, “taking a gap year”, is an impossible widescreen dream. Uncle Ray – a man who never had a driving licence and travelled everywhere by bus or bicycle – would have sympathised with people whose passport pages are somewhat unillustrated.
“The Fox and the Forest” was the book’s pulpiest story, but it’s also one of the most accomplished. A married couple are enjoying a Mexican fiesta in the 1930s, until they notice a strange man following them. They have come on holiday, but not in any conventional means. They’re time travellers, having escaped into the past to escape their jobs while the people of the future destroy themselves with warfare. The strange man has come to bring them back home; but they don’t much fancy the return trip. This one was tightly plotted, but also curiously evocative of Hemingway.
“No Particular Night Or Morning” sees Bradbury re-examine another fascinating theme; how humanity will operate out among the stars, where age-old mental anchors such as dawn, dusk and even up and down have no meaning. A crewman aboard a spacecraft begins to crack up as it journeys through the stars. There’s nothing to keep him fixed; so his mind begins to drift, and dwindle. The notion of a future played out among the stars inflamed Bradbury’s imagination, but it also brought out the melancholic side of his storytelling. He saw space travel as, pardon the pun, alienating.
“Marionettes Inc.” was another Twilight Zone-style shocker, where a man finds out his neighbour has bought a robotic doppelganger, so that he can step out every now and again for a drink without his wife giving him heat. Where the story is headed was fairly obvious, but I was most struck by Bradbury’s concept of an automaton – a brain made of platinum, copper wiring, all pistons and clanking joints under the skin. This was before the age of the microchip, I realised, but Bradbury’s fears over automation and artificial intelligence would have been exactly the same had he been writing in the present day.
“The City” and “Zero Hour” have apocalyptic things on their mind. In “The City”, the deserted metropolis the human crew discover has been the victim of age-old human dabblings – and it has revenge on its mind.
“Zero Hour” takes a quick snapshot of how you might react if you were told that the end of the world was imminent. Funnily enough, we were told this just last night, with a lump of rock which would have been a potential extinction event had it made planetfall whizzing just past Earth, according to some reports – a hair’s breadth in cosmic terms. Bradbury was writing in the shadow of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, with the Cold War cooling nicely in the background, so nuclear annihilation was an understandable preoccupation. This fear, which I remember being ever-present as I grew up in the 1980s, is something we’ve allowed ourselves to forget, even though all those missiles are still there, pointed straight at you and me.
We finish up with another outright horror story, “The Playground”, where we rediscover that the happiest days of your life are nothing of the sort.
There are other tales included, not all of which are as striking or effective as the ones I’ve described, but all of which have Bradbury’s unique poetry and purpleness. “Usher II” looks at someone trying to recreate the world of Edgar Allan Poe in a theme park during a time when fiction and fantasy are completely banned. A bit much, you might think, until you remember North Korea. “The Visitor” sees a man with unique psychic abilities arriving on Mars, where men are subject to a strange disease, with their minds crying out for intellectual sustenance. And then there’s “The Highway”, where a farmer sees a stream of people pouring out of the United States, with the apocalypse following behind.
These are lonely stories, in a lot of ways, featuring people outcast or at odds with their times. Lots of these tales are shaded a very particular kind of blue. You wonder if Bradbury was a lonely man.
So, I didn’t like the way it was packaged, but for The Illustrated Man the sum of its parts is far greater than the whole. As a short story collection it’s just about on par with The Martian Chronicles, but some way behind The Golden Apples of the Sun. However, the framing device was a waste – it seemed sort of tacked-on, and had it been fleshed out it could have been brilliant.
That said, I can’t knock the individual stories. They were penned by one of the best storytellers of all time, after all. Ungrateful wretch I am, I might have thrown a tantrum at Uncle Ray when I unwrapped his toys, but I still played with them and loved them anyway.
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