Thursday, February 10, 2011

Book Review: "The Illustrated Man," by Ray Bradbury (1951)

Overall, I have to say I'm a little disappointed in this book. Those of you who know me personally are probably aware that The Halloween Tree and Something Wicked This Way Comes rank among my all-time favorite books, so I felt very let down that the quality of this anthology was so spotty. I don't know what I was expecting, but the stories just don't seem to live up to the creepy grandeur of the aforementioned titles.

This is not to say that none of them do, or that the book isn't worth reading. The titular Illustrated Man is one of the most promising framing devices I've ever encountered; I sincerely wish I'd thought of him first. But the actual stories that play out upon his skin are... difficult to relate to. Part of it is the technological gap: Bradbury had no conception of the Internet, and his computers still use gears and punch-cards, even in the year 2155. Also, he has nothing but disdain for the common man and his interests, especially television, which seems more than a little hypocritical.

Another difficulty facing the modern reader approaching these stories is an affliction of fame: namely, that many of Bradbury's plot devices seem cliche to us, simply because his inventions became so popular after he invented them that to us, sixty years later, they appear so obvious and badly thought out that our initial reaction is to call him a thief, not realizing that he invented the damn thing. Though this does not really make it any easier on the modern readers to accept his plot twists as credible.

Bradbury's (or rather, 1950s America's) racism and sexism also forms a significant hurdle. In "The Other Foot," Bradbury imagines a post-nuclear earth reaching out to black colonists on Mars (who left 20 years previous to the story, to escape the Jim Crow laws). The black colonists are initially angry, and ready to treat the white colonists as poorly as they were treated on Earth, but thanks to the efforts of one peace-loving black woman, they learn to let go of their anger and let bygones be bygones. (Sounds like a nice story, until you realize that it's about white folk getting completely off the hook for their past atrocities, and getting to live as equals on a planet terraformed entirely by the effort of black people. Hmmmm...)

Another big offender was "Marionettes, Inc.", in which two men order some extremely expensive android copies of themselves to fool their wives so they can go to Mexico for a month. One does it because he can't stand his wife, the other because she's smothering him with love. Couldn't they just, I don't know, be adults and talk openly with their wives about their feelings?!

It's not all bad news, though, and I'd like to end on a good note:

Despite my endless whining and nitpicking, The Illustrated Man is worth a read, if you're a fan of either Ray Bradbury or classic science fiction. The first and last stories ("The Veldt" and "The Rocket Man") alone are worth the price of admission, and even the stories that I wasn't crazy about ("The Long Rain", "The Man", "To No Particular Night or Morning") gave me some very interesting food for thought. "The City" is extremely creepy, and contains some very disturbing visuals of bodily dismemberment; "The Highway" is simultaneously quite beautiful and quite sad; "Zero Hour" ends with a very creepy visual that almost makes up for the blindingly obvious plot-twist.

Like I said at the beginning, it's an OK book, a little careworn, but still serviceable for the most part. Take it with a grain of salt and you'll be fine.


  1. How do you feel about Fahrenheit 451? Isn't that Bradbury's most famous book?

  2. I haven't read that one since I was a freshman in high school. I'd need to reread it before making any sort of assertion.