Year of First Publication: 1951
Year of Publication for This Edition: 2010
Number of Pages: 254
Publisher: Barnes and Noble
Sub-Genres: Science fiction, Fantasy, Short Fiction
Subjects: Space travel, Mars, Dystopia, Social critique
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Well that took me much longer than it should have, but I finally read my second Bradbury book, The Illustrated Man. Rather than one long story, this book is actually a collection of eighteen stories, all of which take place on the skin of an out-of-work circus freak. Ray Bradbury, everybody.
The title takes a little explaining. When Bradbury was a boy, he was obsessed with the circuses and carnivals that infrequently visited his hometown of Waukegan, Illinois. One of the main attractions at these carnivals was the “Illustrated Man,” a man whose entire body was covered in tattoos. Though most of us born in the 90’s and later have only to walk out our front doors to see the exact same thing, the Illustrated Men where new, bizarre, and exotic for the young Bradbury. They were the stuff of dreams (his dreams, anyway). Twenty years later, he was still fascinated by side shows and the people who worked in them, and the result was this anthology, about a performer whose tattoos come to life at night and each tell a different story.
Originally, I planned to write a short review for each story, but, to avoid penning the Cliff Notes version of the book, I’ll try to give a general overview instead:
When asked why he wrote science fiction, Bradbury replied that the only true science fiction he ever wrote was Fahrenheit 451: everything else, he said, was fantasy. This collection definitely felt more like fantasy than science fiction. While many of these stories deal with space travel and nearly all of them take place in the future, science is never the main focus of any of them: they are always about the characters, about ideas, about the strangeness and terror of this world, as seen in another world. There’s little rhyme or reason to this collection: unlike The Martian Chronicles (which I have yet to read), there’s no common theme running through these stories. Really, the only constant is that, as always, Bradbury’s keen grasp of human nature and his desperate desire to reverse it from its self-destructive course is evident on every page. He’s the kind of writer who only wrote when he had something to say, and in this case, as usual, what he said was well-worth the time of listening to.
Not to mention, Bradbury is a master of description. Take for example the opening paragraph of his story “The Long Rain”:
The rain continued. It was a hard rain, a perpetual rain, a sweating and steaming rain; it was a mizzle, a down-pour, a fountain, a whipping at the eyes, an undertow at the ankles; it was a rain to drown all rains and the memory of rains. It came by the pound and the ton, it hacked at the jungle and cut the trees like scissors and shaved the grass and tunneled the soil and molted the bushes. It shrank men’s hands into the hands of wrinkled apes; it rained a solid glass rain, and it never stopped.
Is it any wonder Aldous Huxley called him a poet? Bradbury is a genius when it comes to immersing his readers in a scene. Of course, Bradbury’s abundant use of metaphors–and occasional mixing of metaphors–isn’t ideal for me, but it is a nice change of pace.
I definitely have my favorites: “The Veldt” was amazing, and even more amazing considering that, even after spoiling the ending for me in one of his essays, Bradbury still managed to set me on edge with that last sentence. Though it was one of the darker stories in the book, “The Visitor” was my second favorite, followed by “The Rocket Man,” “The Other Foot,” and “The Man.” As I’ve said before, I’m surprised that I should love these stories so much, since in the past, I was never a big fan of science fiction or fantasy. I think part of Bradbury’s genius lies in his ability to make his readers care deeply about things they otherwise may have never even thought about, such as Martian settlements or a group of dying men all fighting to control a mutant. He writes with a passion and an abandon unmatched by most other authors, which makes his stories appealing even to those who normally would never read science fiction.
Of course, no author is perfect, and as much as it pains me to pick out the faults in an author whom I love as much as Bradbury, there are a few places where I found his writing to be lacking. First, many, but not all, of Bradbury’s characters seem to sound and act like copies of him. Naturally, I know that authors tend to base characters on themselves, and it’s probably impossible for an author to prevent all traces of his own personality from appearing in his characters, but these characters sound just like Bradbury. The same odd figures of speech, same mix of long and choppy sentences. In other words, the characters’ speech sounded like it was merely an extension of the narration. For a writer of Bradbury’s caliber, I expected his characters to sound more unique.
Also, in a few stories, particularly “The Concrete Mixer,” Bradbury’s complaints against modern culture (what was modern for him) seemed a bit too obvious. He is often able to veil his cultural criticism very well, so that it simply becomes part of the fabric of the story. In those few stories, however, it seemed to stick out.
I sort of balked at the idea of reviewing a short story collection. I thought it would be tricky to review eighteen stories at once as opposed to just one. I wondered how I could give you a taste of what this book is like without delving into the plot of each and every story. Suffice it to say that each story is like falling down a separate rabbit hole, some terrifying, some homey with a touch of dread, but all of them amazing. Sometimes you’ll be slightly terrified, other times you’ll wonder where he’s taking you, but rest assured, the trip is well worth it.