Scott's Reviews > The Illustrated Man

The Illustrated Man by Ray Bradbury
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bookshelves: classics, science-fiction

One of the great joys of exploring old Science Fiction is coming across stories like the best works in this book, stories that make you wonder how you could possibly have gone so long without reading them.

Bradbury is best known for his novel Fahrenheit 451, which is deservedly famous, However to my jaded readers' eye some of his short stories deliver more bang for buck, more emotional punch per word. Of course, not all the works in this book are great or even good, and like almost every short story collection I have read there is the occasional turd floating in what is an otherwise inviting pool.

The first story in this collection however is a gem. Kaleidoscope is a tale of the doomed crew of a ship that has torn open, sending them careening into the vacuum in their spacesuits with no hope of rescue or survival, only radio linking them as they drift further apart

We watch as the men come to terms with their deaths, assess their own lives and reflect on the lives of their fellow crew. There is anger, sadness, regret, joy and acceptance in this poignant and touching tale, and I ate it up.

As an opener for a collection it's a real winner, a genuine classic.

From here we travel around the solar system and into the far future. In The Long Rain Bradbury tells an engaging story of a crashed crew on a Venus where the never-ending rain drives visitors insane, and The City is an interesting tale of a millennia-long search for vengeance.

Bradbury also engages in some particularly interesting explorations of religious faith in a science fiction context. All these ruminations, in The Man and The Fire Balloons, are from a Christian perspective, but Bradbury was raised a Baptist and writes convincingly from the deist mindset. The Fire Balloons in particular is an interesting story of Christian missionaries going to Mars, where they must choose between ministering to the humans there or attempting to convert the strange ethereal natives of the red planet.

Like many of his contemporaries Bradbury's storytelling is refreshingly direct. There's little narrative artifice here, other than some lovely turns of phrase and some silky-smooth writing.

The central binding thread - that the stories are the changing, story-telling tattoos of the 'Illustrated Man' is nice, but both unnecessary and underutilized. The stories themselves stand without the need for a common segue and the tattooed man idea feels tacked on.

Of course, being a short story collection, there are a few weak stories in here, tainting the water somewhat. For me maybe a third of the book is comprised of weaker material. The Veldt - a tale of technology warping children (and our dangerous reliance on tech in general) didn’t really fly for me, and The Highway - a seeming reflection on the differences between city and country life and perceptions of what ‘civilization’ is also left me cold. The penultimate story, Zero Hour also seemed a little trite, although it is hard to tell with older SF whether this is due to so many similar stories having been written since, turning an original idea into cliche.

Being as these stories were written in 1951 there are a few tell-tale anachronisms that are common in works of the era, something that I personally love spotting in SF of this vintage.

The most noticeable of these is the ubiquity of smoking. It seems Bradbury simply couldn’t imagine a world where people without nicotine addicts, and in his stories spaceship crew chain-smoke inside their vessels, and time travellers buy cartons of cigarettes on trips to the past.

Other classic 1950s SF hallmarks are present such as tape decks being used in far-future societies, and advanced machines being comprised of cogs, gears and hydraulics. It all seems very quaint now, although I suppose in a millennia or two we may well look back on Iain M. Banks' super-AIs and field-powered drones as being hopelessly dated.

Overall though, the good in The Illustrated Man strongly outweighs the bad. I urge you not to wait as long as I did before reading this- several of the stories in here are genuine classics of the genre, and they are well worth your time.

3.5 stars
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Reading Progress

December 4, 2017 – Started Reading
December 4, 2017 – Shelved
December 12, 2017 – Shelved as: classics
December 12, 2017 – Shelved as: science-fiction
December 12, 2017 – Finished Reading

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