Saturday, April 30, 2011

The Illustrated Man By Ray Bradbury

The Illustrated Man
By Ray Bradbury
Copyright 1951


A drifter meets a man along the road who, too, is a drifter – an out of work carnival worker. Despite the warm weather, he is heavily clad. When asked why, he reveals an endless series of tattoos that cover his body. He loathes them and the strange woman – an alien perhaps – who colored his flesh with the illustrations. He tells the man that, at night, the tattoos begin to move, and stories unfold; stories without happy endings. The men camp for the night and the Illustrated Man falls asleep. The drifter watches as the unhappy tales reveal themselves, one my one, upon the man’s inked skin.

The Veldt

Two parents of the future wonder if they’ve perhaps been over indulgent with their children who have become fascinated with their new, modern, nursery. In the house of the future, almost all services such as cooking and cleaning are performed automatically by the house itself. The nursery provides hours of entertainment through its walls which are projection screens that reveal whatever settings the children provide. This brother and sister have grown fond of the African veldt, and the dangerous creatures such as lions. The father resolves to shut down the nursery temporarily to instill a little discipline in the children. When mom talks him into turning it back on for just a little while, the kids act to make sure it never gets turned off again.

The Veldt is one of Bradbury’s earliest and most famous works. It was adapted for sci-fi radio drama in 1951 for Dimension X and again in 1955 for X Minus 1. It was adapted for television for the Ray Bradbury Theater and for the 1969 movie The Illustrated Man.

The idea of a house that made life chore free appears more than a few times in Bradbury’s fiction – perhaps most notably as the house in . . .And There Will Come Soft Rains that goes about performing its daily tasks long after man has ceased to exist and in I Sing the Body Electric. It is reflective of the post war economy and sociology of the early 1950s. After years of deprivation of consumer goods as the country fed the war machine, the efforts of research and development were funneled into inventing and improving consumer goods. The same phenomena emerged after World War I. Science fiction writers of that era did not foresee mankind’s focus returning to building better war machines for a 40 year long Cold War, nor the coming investment of research in development in information technology.

A rocket ship is blown apart, leaving its crew to drift apart through space, living only as long as their oxygen lasts or they enter the atmosphere of whatever heavenly body they eventually encounter. They talk to each other as long as they can. As they talk, one astronaut comes to realize how small and insignificant his life has been – and how short, as if he were a shooting star, ablaze but for a moment.

This science fiction character study is short enough to be interesting and has a wonderful ending.

The Other Foot
In 1965, facing continued racial hostility and tension, blacks on Earth fled to Mars in rockets to build their own society. Word reaches Mars that a ship from Earth, presumably operated by white men, is on its way to Mars. They prepare to lynch the arriving astronaut upon his arrival. But when the man arrives, tells his tale, and promises complete supplication by all survivors of Earth’s nuclear war, the residents reevaluate the situation.

Bradbury’s thoughts on racism are obviously progressive for the time, but his expression of those beliefs would be considered old fashioned and condescending today. Perhaps that judgment is flawed by historical relativism on my part, but unfortunately, historical relatavism's fallacies are being visited upon classical literature today. Witness the bastardization of Twain's Huckleberry Finn

The Highway
A couple operate a rural roadside gas station in Mexico. They notice that a large number of vehicles are headed north on the highway, toward the United States. Finally, one of the cars stops long enough to tell them that atom war has come and the world is being destroyed. The couple is left wondering what The World is.

Perhaps a commentary on how isolated the lives of some people can be. Not an engaging story at all.

The Man
A rocket from earth arrives on a foreign planet. The captain expects to be greeted by the natives with pomp and circumstance. Instead, he finds out he’s been upstaged by an earlier arrival who has healed the sick, repaired the injured, and brought love and harmony to the world. Convinced that the new arrival is one of his competitors trying to dupe the people out of something he wants, he is determined to find the man. In the end, we learn that, no matter how he pursues, he will always be a moment too late.

Many writers of genre fiction are atheists or agnostics. Bradbury does not preach, but its obvious that he is talking about Jesus Christ or some other deity. (He never directly names Christ, but the deeds of the man fit the commonly held conception of Christ). He also provides a little commentary about how one goes about (and does not go about) finding Christ, for Christ does not deign to race mere mortals.

The Long Rain
Four astronauts on Venus search for the sundomes on Venus whilst enduring day after day of constant rain. Slowly, the drumming of the drops, the constant dampness and bleakness of their situation

This is bedrock Golden Age science fiction. It is atmospheric; it has drama; it has action. It’s a well told story that was an absolute pleasure to read.
This story was made into an episode of the Ray Bradbury Theater and was included as one of the stories told in the movie version of the book.

The Rocket Man
A character study of a professional rocket pilot told from the point of view of his son. When he’s home, he tries to keep his eyes from the sky because he longs to be there. When he’s in space, he tries to keep his thoughts from his family because he longs to be with them.

This was supposedly the story that inspired the famous Elton John song of the same name. I’m not a big fan of character studies, but this one was acceptable.

The Fire Balloons
This is the story of Father Peregrine and Father Smith of the Martian Chronicles. Arriving on Mars, Father Peregrine is determined to find the native inhabitants, prove that they have souls and save those souls. What he finds is an advanced race who, by eschewing all physical being, have achieved moral perfection.

This is essentially the same story told in The Martian Chronicles. Just as entertaining in this collection as it was in the context Bradbury’s anthology telling of the rise and fall of man’s settling of Mars.

The Last Night of the World
People all over the world have the same dream, that their world will end the next day. A couple reflects on how they, and the rest of the world will confront this madness. Will there be panic and mayhem, or will calm prevail with its certain inevitability. The couple decides on how they will meet their end.

This short story really lacks any moving plot, but Bradbury makes us ponder in what fashion we would meet our end, knowing it is coming for ourselves and for everyone. I think many would have met it in a more “R” rated fashion than Bradbury’s characters. But this was the 1950s and polite writers did not write about such things.

The Exiles
A rocket ship is on its way to Mars and its crew is beset with problems, for witches on Mars are conjuring spells to slow their arrival. Mars is a land of exile for authors like Edgar Alan Poe, Arthur Machen, and Ambrose Bierce whose works and very existence have been stricken from the annals of Earth. Then there is the snob, Charles Dickens, who feels he doesn’t belong is such company.

My summary might read silly, but in an age when Huck Finn is sanitized for offensive languages and politically correct though and speech codes prevail in academia and in the workplace, Bradbury seems more prescient than silly. Soon, the anti-smoking Nazis will erase all references to smoking from old movies. Remember, you read it hear first.

No Particular Night or Morning
An astronaut aboard a rocket begins obsessing over the existence of what he cannot see. If he can not see it in its corporal form, he can not be sure it exists. It drives him and other members of the crew insane.

This story ranks among the weaker stories in the book. It tries to be 50 percent character study and 50 percent story and, in the space of the few pages it occupies, does neither well.

The Fox and the Forest
An American couple are enjoying themselves as tourists in Mexico. Except they aren’t really Americans and they aren’t really tourists. They are fugitives from the year 2155 where they are forced to work as cogs in the military industrial complex of a never ending war. They are being pursued by a hunter that will bring them back. To hide, they fall in with an American movie company who are on location shooting a movie.

This was good, old fashioned Golden Age fare at its best and a quite enjoyable tale. It was adapted into an episode of for the radio show X Minus 1 in 1957.

The Visitor
A group of exiles lives on Mars, sent there to die of a slowly debilitating disease. A rocket ship lands and a man emerges. This man shows that he can transport people within their minds back to the places and times he loved. The desperate men fight over custody of him.

Bradbury tries to strike an emotional chord and fails to do so. While the story is the proper length for the tale he wants to tell, he does not do enough to develop the feeling of desolation and desperation in the characters to grip the reader and help him buy into their madness and desperation.

The Concrete Mixer
Martians decide they are going to invade Earth. A dissident Martian tries to explain how this is a bad idea because Earthlings have learned how to fight Martians through the various fictional accounts of Martian invasions that have been published. Faced with the alternative of death for treason, the dissident goes along with the invasion force. Instead of conquering the planet, they are welcomed by the earth men. Despite welcoming them, the Earthlings manage to conquer the Martians, but not through any means ever published in the John Carter of Mars series.

This story is about 30 percent Martian invasion and 70 percent commentary on the banality of 1950s California social scene. It is not weapons, but the superficial nature of mankind in California and the rampant consumerism of postwar era that defeats the Martians. It’s not a bad story for one that is blatant social commentary.

Marionettes, Inc.
A painfully married man has found the solution to being two places at once. One of him is at home, spending time with his possessive wife, the other of him is enjoying the Bahamas. He’s gone to Marionettes, Inc. and had an android duplicate made to take care of the unpleasant parts of his life. Except, what the man finds unpleasant, the android learns to love and decides to take over the man’s life.

This story was masterfully crafted, taking just three pages to develop a character and a plot. This is vintage Bradbury.

The story was expanded and made into radio drama for the science fiction series Dimension X and X Minus One and rank among the best of those series. It was also made into an episode of the Ray Bradbury Theater.

The City
An earth rocket lands on a remote planet and finds an abandoned city. While they explore the city, the city is exploring them, analyzing them, and identifying them. When it identifies them as the same race of being that brought destruction to the city’s inhabitants, it takes action.

Stories like this typify Golden Age science fiction and make it so dear to me. Not weighted down in historical background, unladen with technical explanations, yet clever with a new angle on the dangers of space travel.

Zero Hour
A new kids make believe game has swept the country. It’s called “Invasion” and has kids all over the country taking orders from an “imaginary” creature who lives in shrubs and rose bushes. Except he’s not imaginary and his goals are very real. And the kids, they’re not playing. They are deadly serious.

You can see the roots of so many “kids turned to evil” stories in this such as John Wyndham’s The Midwich Cuckoos (upon which the movies Village of the Damned were based) and Steven King’s Children of the Corn. This ranks as one of the top stories in the book.

This story was adapted to radio by Ernest Kinoy for Dimension X and X Minus One. Just as other Bradbury works stood out in these radio shows, the script based on this Bradbury work ranks among the best of those shows.

The Rocket
A poor Italian junkyard owner has saved and saved so that he can buy new metal recycling equipment to keep his business going. Instead, he buys a prototype rocket ship that has no motor or equipment. He fixes it up with video equipment and makes it look real so that he can convince his children that they are going on an adventure in space to see the moon and Mars.

This is a somewhat heartwarming story, but probably not the strongest story upon which to close the book.

The tales have unfolded on the Illustrated Man’s tattooed body. There is but one space left, and it is blank. Our hobo story observer watches as the space slowly fills in with a scene where the Illustrated Man is strangling him to death. He gets up and makes haste away from the place, ending the story.

The Illustrated Man is Bradbury’s best known and perhaps best overall collection of short stories. All were written when he was young and eager to get published. None of the stories are pathetically bad and some are among the best science fiction I’ve ever read.

This is not the last appearance of the Illustrated Man in Bradbury’s work. The tattooed man is a sideshow exhibit in the evil carnival that visits Green Town, Illinois in Something Wicked This Way Comes.

A movie based on three stories from the book was made in 1969 and starred Rod Steiger. It has been a few years since I’ve seen it, but my best recollection of it is that it was “uneven.”

For those unfamiliar with vintage 1950s radio drama and who enjoy science fiction, I'd invite you to download episodes of Dimension X and X Minus One. Both shows did a superb job taking the short works of prolific Golden Age sci-fi writer like Bradbury, Philip K. Dick, Clifford Simak, Robert Bloch, and Robert Heinlein and making them into exceptionally enjoyable plays for the theater of the mind. The writers for those shows such as Ernest Kinoy and George Lefferts are all but lost to history. But when you hear those great stories played out through the audio medium, you appreciate how much these forerunners of television writing loved their craft and appreciated the work they so skillfully adapted.

1 comment:

  1. The part about "No Particular Night or Morning" was very wrong. It was not about character study, nor was it about a story. Not every piece of fiction aims to do either. This part of "The Illustrated Man" aimed to present the Cartesian idea of Skepticism from "Meditations on First Philosophy" by the philosopher Rene Descartes (of "I think therefore I am" fame). Hitchcock is very obviously playing the role of Descartes if you ever end up reading his book (dry, but a good read until about the 3rd Meditation). The point is that when you're dreaming, you think you're awake, so why should you think you're awake now? Are your base 5 senses really that reliable?