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
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

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

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

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
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
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
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.
Back to the home
Follow Ted Gioia on Twitter at

Conceptual Fiction:
A Reading List
(with links to essays on each work)

Home Page

Abbott, Edwin A.

Adams, Douglas
The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy

Aldiss, Brian
Barefoot in the Head

Aldiss, Brian

Aldiss, Brian
Report on Probability A

Allende, Isabel
The House of the Spirits

Amado, Jorge
Dona Flor and Her Two Husbands

Amis, Martin
Time's Arrow

The Golden Ass

Asimov, Isaac
The Foundation Trilogy

Asimov, Isaac
I, Robot

Atwood, Margaret
The Handmaid's Tale

Banks, Iain M.
The State of the Art

Ballard, J.G.
The Atrocity Exhibition

Ballard, J.G.

Ballard, J.G.
The Crystal World

Ballard, J.G.
The Drowned World

Barth, John
Giles Goat-Boy

Bester, Alfred
The Demolished Man

Blish, James
A Case of Conscience

Borges, Jorge Luis

Bradbury, Ray
Dandelion Wine

Bradbury, Ray
Fahrenheit 451

Bradbury, Ray
The Illustrated Man

Bradbury, Ray
The Martian Chronicles

Bradbury, Ray
Something Wicked This Way Comes

Brockmeier, Kevin
The View from the Seventh Layer

Bulgakov, Mikhail
The Master and Margarita

Bunch, David R.

Burgess, Anthony
A Clockwork Orange

Card, Orson Scott
Ender's Game

Carpentier, Alejo
The Kingdom of This World

Carroll, Lewis
Alice's Adventures in Wonderland

Chabon, Michael
The Yiddish Policemen's Union

Chambers, Robert W.
The King in Yellow

Chiang, Ted
Stories of Your Life and Others

Clarke, Arthur C.
Childhood's End

Clarke, Arthur C.
A Fall of Moondust

Clarke, Arthur C.
2001: A Space Odyssey

Clarke, Susanna
Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell

Crowley, John
Little, Big

Danielewski, Mark Z.
The Fifty Year Sword

Danielewski, Mark Z.
House of Leaves

Davies, Robertson
Fifth Business

Delany, Samuel R.

Delany, Samuel R.

Delany, Samuel R.
The Einstein Intersection

Delany, Samuel R.

Dick, Philip K.
Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?

Dick, Philip K.
Flow My Tears, the Policeman Said

Dick, Philip K.
The Man in the High Castle

Dick, Philip K.

Dick, Philip K.

Disch, Thomas M.
Camp Concentration

Disch, Thomas M.
The Genocides

Doctorow, Cory
Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom

Donoso, José
The Obscene Bird of Night

Ellison, Harlan (editor)
Dangerous Visions

Ellison, Harlan
I Have No Mouth & I Must Scream

Esquivel, Laura
Like Water for Chocolate

Farmer, Philip José
To Your Scattered Bodies Go

Fowles, John
A Maggot

Fuentes, Carlos

Gaiman, Neil
American Gods

Gaiman, Neil

Gibson, William
Burning Chrome

Gibson, William

Grass, Günter
The Tin Drum

Greene, Graham
The End of the Affair

Grossman, Lev
The Magicians

Haldeman, Joe
The Forever War

Hall, Steven
The Raw Shark Texts

Harrison, M. John
The Centauri Device

Harrison, M. John

Heinlein, Robert
The Moon is a Harsh Mistress

Heinlein, Robert:
Stranger in a Strange Land

Heinlein, Robert
Time Enough for Love

Helprin, Mark
Winter's Tale

Herbert, Frank

Hill, Susan
The Woman in Black

Hoffman, Alice
Practical Magic

Houellebecq, Michel

Huxley, Aldous
Brave New World

Jackson, Shirley
The Haunting of Hill House

James, Henry
The Turn of the Screw

James, M.R.
Ghost Stories of an Antiquary

Keret, Etgar
Suddenly, A Knock at the Door

Ketchum, Jack
Off Season

Keyes, Daniel
Flowers for Algernon

King, Stephen

Kundera, Milan
The Book of Laughter and Forgetting

Kunzru, Hari
Gods Without Men

Lafferty, R.A.
Nine Hundred Grandmothers

Le Guin, Ursula K.
The Dispossessed

Le Guin, Ursula K.
The Lathe of Heaven

Le Guin, Ursula K.
The Left Hand of Darkness

Leiber, Fritz
The Big Time

Leiber, Fritz
Conjure Wife

Leiber, Fritz
Swords & Deviltry

Leiber, Fritz
The Wanderer

Lem, Stanislaw
His Master's Voice

Lem, Stanislaw

Lethem, Jonathan
The Fortress of Solitude

Levin, Ira
Rosemary's Baby

Lewis, C. S.
The Chronicles of Narnia

Link, Kelly
Magic for Beginners

Lovecraft, H.P.

Malzberg, Barry N.
Herovit's World

Mandel, Emily St. John
Station Eleven

Mann, Thomas
Doctor Faustus

Márquez, Gabriel García
100 Years of Solitude

Markson, David
Wittgenstein's Mistress

Matheson, Richard
Hell House

Matheson, Richard
I Am Legend

Matheson, Richard
What Dreams May Come

McCarthy, Cormac
The Road

Miéville, China
Perdido Street Station

Miller, Jr., Walter M.
A Canticle for Leibowitz

Millhauser, Steven
Dangerous Laughter

Mitchell, David
Cloud Atlas

Moorcock, Michael
Behold the Man

Moorcock, Michael
The Final Programme

Morrison, Toni

Murakami, Haruki

Murakami, Haruki
Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the
End of the World

Nabokov, Vladimir
Ada, or Ardor

Niffenegger, Audrey
The Time Traveler's Wife

Niven, Larry

Noon, Jeff

Obreht, Téa
The Tiger's Wife

O'Brien, Flann
At Swim-Two-Birds

Okri, Ben
The Famished Road

Percy, Walker
Love in the Ruins

Poe, Edgar Allan
Tales of Mystery & Imagination

Pohl, Frederik

Pratchett, Terry
The Color of Magic

Pynchon, Thomas
Gravity's Rainbow

Rabelais, François
Gargantua and Pantagruel

Rice, Anne
Interview with the Vampire

Robinson, Kim Stanley
Red Mars

Rowling, J.K.
Harry Potter & the Sorcerer's Stone

Rushdie, Salman
Midnight's Children

Russ, Joanna
The Female Man

Saramago, José

Sheckley, Robert
Dimension of Miracles

Sheckley, Robert

Sheckley, Robert
Store of the Worlds

Shelley, Mary

Silverberg, Robert
Dying  Inside

Silverberg, Robert

Silverberg, Robert
The World Inside

Simak, Clifford

Simak, Clifford
The Trouble with Tycho

Smith, Clark Ashton
The Dark Eidolon

Smith, Cordwainer

Smith, Cordwainer
The Rediscovery of Man

Stephenson, Neal
Snow Crash

Spinrad, Norman
Bug Jack Barron

Stoker, Bram

Stross, Charles

Sturgeon, Theodore
More Than Human

Sturgeon, Theodore
Some of Your Blood

Swift, Jonathan
Gulliver's Travels

Thomas, D.M.
The White Hotel

Tiptree, Jr., James
Warm Worlds and Otherwise

Tolkien, J.R.R.
The Hobbit

Updike, John
The Witches of Eastwick

Van Vogt, A.E.
The Mixed Men

Van Vogt, A.E.

Van Vogt, A.E.
The Voyage of the Space Beagle

Van Vogt, A.E.
The World of Null A

Vance, Jack
The Dragon Masters

Vance, Jack

Vance, Jack
The Languages of Pao

Verne, Jules
Around the Moon

Verne, Jules
From the Earth to the Moon

Verne, Jules:
Journey to the Center of the Earth

Vollmann, William T
Last Stories and Other Stories

Vonnegut, Kurt
Cat's Cradle

Vonnegut, Kurt
The Sirens of Titan

Vonnegut, Kurt

Wallace, David Foster
Infinite Jest

Walpole, Horace
Hieroglyphic Tales

Wells, H.G.
The First Men in the Moon

Wells, H.G.
The Island of Dr. Moreau

Wells, H.G.
The Time Machine

Wilson, Robert Anton & Robert Shea
The Illuminatus! Trilogy

Winton, Tim

Woolf, Virginia

Zabor, Rafi
The Bear Comes Home

Zelazny, Roger
Lord of Light

Zelazny, Roger
This Immortal

Special Features

Notes on Conceptual Fiction
My Year of Horrible Reading
When Science Fiction Grew Up
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
The Most Secretive Sci-Fi Author
Curse You, Neil Armstrong!
Robert Heinlein at 100
A.E, van Vogt Tribute
The Puzzling Case of Robert Sheckley
The Avant-Garde Sci-Fi of Brian Aldiss
Science Fiction 1958-1975: A Reading List

Links to related sites

The New Canon
Great Books Guide
Postmodern Mystery
Fractious Fiction
Ted Gioia's web site
Ted Gioia on Twitter


SF Site
Graeme's Fantasy Book Review
Los Angeles Review of Books
The Millions
Big Dumb Object
SF Novelists
More Words, Deeper Hole
The Misread City
Reviews and Responses
SF Signal
True Science Fiction
Tor blog

Disclosure:  Conceptual Fiction
and its sister sites may receive review
copies and promotional materials
from publishers, authors,  publicists
or other parties.

All rights reserved.