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The Illustrated Man

It was a warm afternoon in early September when I first met the Illustrated Man. 

“In these eighteen startling visions of humankind’s destiny, unfolding across a canvas of decorated skin, living cities take their vengeance, technology awakens the most primal natural instincts, and dreams are carried aloft in junkyard rockets.”

I’ve had a copy of The Illustrated Man for practically forever, and as soon as I opened the book I was sorry that I had let it languish for so long on my shelves. Because these stories are good. As the book progressed, they did start to blur together, but perhaps that’s fitting given their medium. And anyway, the vast majority of these stories wowed me. Some of them are quite frightening. 

The book begins with the narrator encountering the Illustrated Man, a man completely covered in tattoos, who tells the story of how he got them (and how he curses them now). When night falls, the beautiful images on his body begin to move, and stories unfold…

The first story, “The Veldt”, is perhaps one of the most disturbing in the whole collection. It tells of a world where even the simplest tasks are accomplished by machines: there’s a toastmaking machine, and a shoetying machine, and a painting pictures machine. And there are nurseries which can be set to different backgrounds, moving wallpapers, if you will. They’re supposed to be just images, and you’re supposed to change them frequently, but one family’s children have an obsession with the African savanna (or veldt). As you might imagine, things do not end well.

There are eighteen stories, and about half of them really stuck with me as being quite good. I’m only going to talk about them. The others were fine too, but just not as compelling. Bradbury really excels at his depictions of nightmarish futuristic worlds, nightmarish because they seem so plausible. Like Neil Gaiman, he’s also a master at turning situations upside down, reversing them from what they normally are. Such is the case in the third story, “The Other Foot”, in which African Americans fled white oppression and built their own colony on Mars. Then one day a rocket with a white man arrives…what follows is a fascinating and wry exploration of whether two wrongs make a right. I’d heard of this story before, and it was quite good.

“The Man” and “The Long Rain” are both about Earthmen’s planetary explorations, although in different ways. “The Man” explores the jaded disbelief of the modern man, who must have facts, facts, and more facts. “The Long Rain” resonated with me given where I live; in it, Venus is a place where it perennially rains, and there’s no escaping it, unless you get to one of the fabled Sun Domes. Otherwise, you’ll die. It was such a chilling story, yet so good.

I also enjoyed “The Rocket Man”, “The Last Night of the World”, and while I didn’t like “The Exiles” very much, there were definitely shades of F-451 in it; the story deals with the burning and banishing of subversive books and authors.

“The Fox and the Forest” was very frightening but masterfully crafted; so was “The Visitor”, which showcased the ugliness of human nature and how in fighting over something precious we ruin it for everyone. “The Concrete Mixer” was also uncanny, as was “Marionettes, Inc.”.”The City” may be one of the scariest in the whole book; it’s about a metropolis with a life of its own and a desire for vengeance. Overall I enjoyed this book; some of the stories I’m sure I’ll treasure, and the overall conceit is a good one.

281 pages.

Rating: ****