The Illustrated Man by Ray Bradbury (1951)
I’ve mentioned before that I only recently explored the works of Ray Bradbury. It’s interesting, because I feel like the timing couldn’t be more perfect. I feel like his work is more timely now that it would have been had I started reading him when I was a teen. Recurring themes in Bradbury’s fiction are the dangers of emerging technology and xenophobia. Spend fifteen minutes watching any news channel today and you’ll see that these are still two very relevant issues. Looking back over my life, I honestly can’t remember there being more civil unrest in the world than is present today. So, as wild and crazy as it sounds, reading stories about rockets and Mars actually hit home for me several times throughout this book.
The Illustrated Man is a collection of short stories, tied together by a framing device in the form of an overall story. My book Greetings from Barker Marsh follows a very similar model, and that’s the reason I read it in the first place. (I wanted to make sure I wasn’t unknowingly committing plagiarism 67 years later. Rest easy—I wasn’t….). The book contains a total of eighteen stories, all of which explore the darker depths of technology, society, and psychology. Rather than give you a synopsis of all eighteen tales, I thought I’d recap my three favorite from the book, and hopefully that will peak your interest enough to pick this one up. So with that, here’s my preferred trio of tales from The Illustrated Man.
The Other Foot
What I can only assume was rather controversial for its time, The Other Foot explores the idea of all of the black people on Earth relocating to Mars, where they set up a happy life. Many years later, news of a rocket from Earth on its way to Mars reaches several of the citizens, and their first reaction is to greet the white men on board the ship and expose them to the same kind of segregation and injustices that their people faced on Earth. With plans of lynching, segregated bathrooms, and assigned bus seats, the Martians greet the landing rocket. An aged white man exits and informs the people that back on Earth society had destroyed itself through war, and he was there to ask if the surviving white people would be allowed to move to Mars, where they would work tirelessly for the black citizens already established on that planet. Will the locals stick to their plan, or will a sense of moral decency prevail?
A man buys an artificial person in his own likeness so that he can live his own life without having to put up with his wife. The man’s friend decides to purchase one for himself as well, only to find out that his wife has already bought her own surrogate. Meanwhile, the first man is locked away after the robot doppelganger falls in love with his wife. This one is as much horror as sci-fi, and that’s probably why I like it so much. There’s a weird Invasion of the Body Snatchers/Halloween 3 feel to it.
Kids can be pretty horrific. In this story, children all over Earth are playing a similar game called “Invasion.” Of course the parents do what parents do best, and they dismiss their children’s conversations as typical kid’s stuff. Imagine their surprise whenever Martians land and team up with the Earth children to destroy all of the adults. Again, definitely more of a “horror” story than sci-fi in my opinion.
So there you have it, a quick review of a really great book. The Illustrated Man definitely stands up over time, and I don’t think you’ll be disappointed. Give it a read, and if you dig the anthology style novel, check out my book Greetings from Barker Marsh