The Illustrated Man

by Ray Bradbury

Reviewed by Ted Gioia

Let’s get this straight from the start: you don’t read Bradbury
to learn about future of science and technology. These
aspects of his books are perfunctory and as true-to-life as the
Cheshire Cat's smile. In Bradbury's tale “Zero Hour” from
The
Illustrated Man
, first published
in 1947, the reader encounters
homes with vacuum elevators, food-
delivery tubes, chromium cars, and
electro-magnet dusting machines,
among other inventions that never
were. They are merely stage props,
adding color to the real action,
which (as so often with Bradbury)
is psychological and emotive in
nature.

The dusting machine could run on
microwave rather than magnets. It
wouldn't make any difference. The
cars could be made out of palladium
instead of chromium, who cares?
But the human angle in this story, so
typical of Bradbury’s work, builds on
the subtle divide between the impressionable minds of
youngsters, with their rich imaginative life, and the staid,
skeptical outlook of adults. Ah,
now we are in Bradbury
territory.

You want predictions about the future? Well, Bradbury’s
most accurate forecast in
The Illustrated Man may have
simply been the title character’s full array of tattoos. Who
would have guessed, back in the 1940s, that radical top-to-
toe body art would be so popular in the new millennium? A
few piercings, and the Illustrated Man would be at home in
your trendiest modern-day nightclub, and ready for his own
reality show on MTV. We may have made few steps toward
colonizing Mars, but we
are tattooing like there is no
tomorrow.

In all seriousness . . . hmmm, perhaps with this author it is
better to say all
non-seriousness . . . Bradbury’s fascination
with the make-believe life of youngsters is very much a
commentary on his own approach to his craft. Ray Bradbury
is the child who never grew up, the Peter Pan of sci-fi. The
theme of youthful fantasy recurs in the concluding story of
The Illustrated Man, “The Rocket,” in which a poor junkyard
owner buys a model of a spaceship, and with clever use of
movie screens, mirrors and other equipment is able to
convince his children that he is taking them on a trip to Mars
and back. In fact, the rocket never leaves the ground, but for
this author, the power of imagination is a levitating force far
more potent than the meager hyperspace drives and thrust
shifters of his sci-fi peers.

This same story includes a Bradbury rarity: strange alien
creatures appear with three yellow eyes and twelve fingers.
But, alas, they are only dolls used as playthings by the kids.
Yet children’s imaginary friends are not always harmless, as
the parents eventually learn in “Zero Hour.” In a similar vein,
“The Veldt”— a justly celebrated story that opens
The
Illustrated Man
and was later adapted for radio and
television—Bradbury builds his story around a virtual reality
nursery with 3D screens on all its walls that enables children
to bring their fantasies to life. But in this instance the
difference between virtual reality and actual reality blurs to
disastrous effect. Yes, there is moral there for readers in the
age of the Internet and Grand Theft Auto, but it is
not a lesson
about technology itself; rather it tells us something about how
people let it take over and debase their lives.

Although Bradbury is invariably pigeonholed as a science
fiction writer, he often seems more at home in the mindspace
of the horror genre. It is no coincidence that the protagonist
in
Fahrenheit 451, when faced with a decision of which book
to memorize to save it against those who consign all stories to
the flames, selects the tales of Edgar Allan Poe. In “The
Exiles” from
The Illustrated Man, a peculiar combination of
gothic horror conventions with a veneer of science fiction,
Poe even appears as a character. And in other works from this
period, we also find Poe, Lovecraft and other horror-meisters
either as influences or actual elements in the plot. Indeed, the
overarching frame story of
The Illustrated Man, with its
unsettling account of a man whose tattoos come to life, is
straight out of this same tradition.

Bradbury is attracted to the horror genre because it openly
embraces the psychological elements usually given short
shrift by the sci-fi literati. Science may be an objective
external phenomenon, but the horrifying is, first and
foremost, a mental state. And this author is always more
interested in the subjective response than in the objective
stimulus. On the other hand, Bradbury’s prose style, which
emphasizes brightness, lucidity, the clarity of free play—what
Matthew Arnold might have included under the rubric of
“sweetness and light”—won’t allow him to linger in the
macabre. He toys with the dark side only to give more
definition to its opposite.

As a result, Bradbury hardly develops the eerie framing story
of
The Illustrated Man, which another author would have
milked for every creepy detail. After the initial set-up, and
some token gestures to link the tales together, he abandons
attempts to connect the dots, or even mention our tattooed
exile from civil society, except for a brief wrap-up at the end
of the book. Instead, Bradbury uses the individual “cinematic
tattoos” to probe his pet ideas, familiar themes that also
figure in his other works of the era. The colonization of Mars,
which forms the unifying concept behind
The Martian
Chronicles is almost as prominent in The Illustrated Man, and
one could easily move several of the stories between these
two volumes without disturbing the overall structure of the
respective works. The concern with censorship and book-
burning that animates
Fahrenheit 451 also recurs in several
stories here. In addition, we find the wistful, nostalgic tone—a
Bradbury trademark—and his preoccupation with children
and the most child-like of technologies: namely spaceships,
human-like robots, and those fanciful bits of machinery that
we now call consumer electronics.

But, as I cautioned at the outset, the gadgetry here is hardly
the main point. For this writer, the flashy techno-gimmicks of
his tales are often embraced a gateway to the child in all of us,
a way of recapturing wonder in an age that has too little of it.
Inevitably there is a also cost in these stories, and many of his
most pointed tales depict the sad fate of those who are slaves
to technology. And that is a theme that is even more relevant
today than when these stories were first published.

You could never accuse Bradbury of such an indiscretion. It
is worth remembering that this author, whose life spanned the
period from the introduction of the Model T Ford to the most
modern and streamlined hybrid vehicles, never learned to
drive a car. He is a proud technophobe who also scorns
computers, the Internet and ATMs. But you don’t need a
driver’s license to traverse the galaxy in your imagination.
And for that, Ray Bradbury is the first person you would want
behind the wheel.
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Special Features
Notes on Conceptual Fiction
Ray Bradbury: A Tribute
The Year of Magical Reading
Remembering Fritz Leiber
A Tribute to Richard Matheson
Samuel Delany's 70th birthday
The Sci-Fi of Kurt Vonnegut
Curse You, Neil Armstrong!
Robert Heinlein at 100
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