The Illustrated Man

Posted: December 22, 2015 in Book reviews

By Ray Bradbury


It’s a sad admission that I haven’t read nearly enough classic fiction, something I am making the occasional inroads into, so when I saw a copy of this I decided to go for it. Initially I think I always though The Illustrated Man was a novel, much like Something Wicked or Fahrenheit 451, but in actual fact it’s a short story collection originally published in the early 1950s.

The titular Illustrated Man refers to a former carnival show freak who had images tattooed over most of his body, only thanks to some supernatural l force the tattoos move and tell stories. This is used as a framing device at the beginning and end, and at points in between, with each story effectively being another tattoo.

It feels almost blasphemous to say this given how revered Bradbury is as an author, but I have to say that I found the quality of the stories to be quite variable. When they’re good they are very good, but some are quite poor.

In part this is down to certain stories feeling quite dated, which isn’t really Bradbury’s fault given they weren’t when he wrote them! In spite of this there’s more than a hint of prescience about some of them. The standout amongst these is “The Veldt” a futuristic tale of a father’s concerns about the overuse and over reliance of his children on a virtual reality room. It’s almost timeless and frankly you could substitute social media, computer gaming or a whole host of other ‘modern’ concerns and the story would still flow as well.

At the other end of the spectrum is “The Other Foot”, the tale of a colony of black people on Mars who plan to institute segregation when an apocalypse on Earth prompts an influx of white settlers. I’m sure at the time it was very forward thinking, unfortunately reading it with a 21st century eye it’s almost wince inducing in its heavy handedness.

Stories I liked include “The Long Rain” featuring men on Venus, a planet deluged by near constant rain. Bradbury’s prose is excellent here, and I could almost feel the constant pounding of raindrops against my skin by the end. “Kaleidoscope” is about a group of astronauts who survive a rocket explosion only to be faced with drifting to their deaths in space. I wasn’t remotely surprised to find out that this story prompted part of the script to Dark Star. There’s also “The Fox and the Forest” featuring a couple who escape a dictatorial regime by escaping into the past, but the agents of the regime are on their tail.

More than one story has the feel of The Twilight Zone or The Outer Limits about it, especially “The Playground” “Marionettes, Inc.” and “The Visitor”. Given the era these stories were written in this isn’t really surprising.

As with any anthology you’re bound to find something you like here, and even though I found some stories a bit of a chore to read (for example “Usher II” and “No Particular Night or Morning”) the next story along was usually more engaging. Bradbury had a keen imagination and if his prose can seem a little stilted and old fashioned at times this is unavoidable given the stories were written over 60 years ago.

To my mind it’s not a classic but it was a diverting enough read with enough variation in its stories to keep me engaged.

  1. I’ve heard a little bit of that on Radio 4 Extra (do you ever listen to their ‘7th Dimension slot? Loads of Big Finish Doctor Who audiobooks!) and enjoyed it. It was only the story of the tattooed man himself, though.

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