Ray Bradbury Does Science Fiction With A Purpose

Okay, book #8 of the new year is done, and it was crazy. I read The Illustrated Man by Ray Bradbury, which was a collection of 18 short stories plus a prologue and epilogue for some context. Prior to this, the only Bradbury I’d read was Fahrenheit 451 and his short story The Other Foot (which was included in this collection). It’s been a while since I read it, but I remember falling completely in love with Fahrenheit 451, so I was really looking forward to starting this novel without really knowing what it was about.

Bradbury is so good with words and imagery. Even if his stories weren’t clever and meaningful (which they are) I think I would still love reading his writing. For lack of a more eloquent term, it’s pretty. Every sentence just flows, it’s satisfying to read writing like that.

This novel is filled with 18 short stories, like I mentioned, and none of them are necessarily related except for the fact that they all depict something from the future, and are viewed by the narrator who is sleeping under the stars next to this illustrated man. The premise is that the illustrated man worked for a carnival and got these magical tattoos to keep his job. The images on his body move and predict the future, but they tend to portray bleak and gruesome happenings so he’s left wandering around with his tattoos, out of work.

It’s an interesting method of storytelling, but it works I think. It’s both easy and hard to remember that you’re reading these stories as an interpretation from the narrator, who is viewing them on a man’s body. That premise is surreal, but still thought provoking. So that’s sort of how each individual chapter (short story) reads as well.

The plots vary pretty widely throughout, but almost all of them tend to be eerie, and relate futuristic technology with flawed, emotional (and sometimes emotionless) humans. One actually terrified me, the chapter called “Zero Hour” had hands down the creepiest ending I have read in a while. And of course that’s the one I was up reading last night around midnight, so I wasn’t able to sleep for a while after that one. The book also kicks off with a pretty creepy one along the same lines as “Zero Hour” called “The Veldt.” Both of these are about children who end up manipulating their parents in really, really disturbing ways. Thinking about these two chapters is still giving me goose bumps, they’re real creepy.

But then some of the stories are gently hopeful. Like I mentioned, all the stories are about the future, so there’s a lot of space travel in each chapter, nuclear war scares, robots, and other futuristic tropes. There’s a sweet chapter called “The Last Night of the World” that involved a married couple knowingly living out their last night before the world is going to end. It’s simple and sweet, but also thought-provoking and kind of frightening.

The other one that terrified me, though in a less violent but more nausea-inducing way, was a chapter called “No Particular Night or Morning.” It deals with a man in space who’s essentially losing it, and questioning everything about his previous existence on Earth. He loses his mind and ultimately escapes the ship to free-float through space. Something about this story was so sinister; it was another one that kept me up, unable to sleep the night I read it.

So in that way, every chapter touches on a hugely vast and important question, like “is anything real?” or “why are we here?” but through short stories that are seemingly light, usually until the very end. Most of the endings left a sort of sick, ominous feeling in me, but then like I said, there’s balance with some sweet, hopeful stories scattered throughout. It was also interesting becoming involved in the stories but without necessarily getting attached to any of the characters. The stories are so short that it’s hard to get many details about the characters across, but the simple details about them and the deductions you’re forced to make from lack of information make for a more involved read in the end, I think.

Last thought on this book: my absolute favorite part of the whole novel might have been the introduction. That was where Bradbury’s language was the prettiest (need to find a better synonym…) and I found myself rereading a lot of his passages in this brief intro. It didn’t even necessarily relate to the novel that followed it, but was more Bradbury relating a conversation with a waiter in Paris to his writing. It was beautiful. He writes so beautifully. I want to read all the things he’s written. You go, Ray. ◊

I end as I began. With my Parisian waiter friend, Laurent, dancing all night, dancing, dancing. My tunes and numbers are here. They have filled my years, the years when I refused to die. And in order to do that I wrote, I wrote, I wrote, at noon or 3:00 A.M. So as not to be dead.”

– Ray Bradbury, from the introduction

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