The Illustrated Man is a collection of eighteen of Bradbury’s short stories, very loosely held together by being supposed illustrations on a man the author met. Like his better known Farenheit 451, these stories are warnings about the direction that society is heading. Judging by the dark nature of the stories—at least Shakespeare also wrote comedies—the world in 1950 was heading down a path of doom. Although the institutional memory of the fifties is one of a happy society, Bradbury saw only excessive entertainment, censorship, and the spectre of a destructive war are all prominent themes in the stories. Each story appears to warn about something.

"The Veldt": The parents’ Happylife Home turns into a curse as the parents’ indulgence of their children causes the children to transfer their loyalty to the almost magic nursery that entertains them rather than the parents who provide for them.

"Kaleidoscope": A rocket’s crew, dying in space after an accident destroys the rocket, considers their approaching death, and in so doing, reflects on what it means to have truly lived life, or failed to live it.

"The Other Foot": Whites, after having destroyed their Earth in nuclear war, beseech the Blacks, who live on Mars, to let them immigrate, even if it means being their servants. Common memories of a shared time cause the Blacks to magnanimously agree to live equally, even despite the old pain of Jim Crow.

"The Highway": City dwellers in South America flee the nuclear war that just started, mourning the end of the world and terrified of the future. But for the poor farmer in the middle of nowhere, life will continue just as it always has, whether or not the cities survive.

"The Man": Hart, Captain of one of three exploration rockets, lands on on a planet a day after Jesus visited. After finally being persuaded (only by their arrival) that it had not been one of the other two captains trying to steal his honors, Hart flies off to try to pursue Him. “And when he has visited three hundred worlds and is seventy or eighty years old he will miss out by only a fraction of a second, and then a smaller fraction of a second. And he will go on and on, thinking to find that very thing which he left behind here, on this planet, in this city—" presumably the peace of harmonious living that Jesus brought.

"The Long Rain": The hard, incessant rain on Venus drives a party of soldiers who crash-landed insane, one by one, as they search for the Sun-huts (which have a warm, yellow sun-lamp in the middle, hot baths, tasty food, and good books). After the first one was discovered to be destroyed by the inhabitants of Venus, only the lieutenant is able to persevere long enough to reach the second one.

"The Rocket Man": A father who spends three months on rocket trips and three days at home returns, and despite his desire to stay with his family, and their attempts to keep him there, the lure of the stars calls him to his fatal final voyage into the sun. Despite the mother having already considered the father effectively dead, the family avoids the day-star for a long time.

"The Fire Balloons": An Episcopal priest and his embassy arrive on Mars and and, despite the desire of the rest of the delegation to go to the drinking sinners of the town, seek the conversion of the benevolent blue fire-spheres (which remind the priest of a certain type of holiday fireworks of his youth). It turns out that the spheres were Martians who had figured out how to leave their bodies a long time ago and were now spirits who had no sin and so did not need conversion.

"The Last Night of the World": Mankind apparently had come to the end of its time on earth, perhaps because of its tendency to ever-greater war, and the Powers That Be were ending it at midnight. The last night is spent living a normal life, with a quiet goodbye at the end.

"The Exiles": Authors of banned books about unscientific “mythology"—Poe, Lewis Carroll, Shakespeare, even Dickens (the spirits in A Christmas Carol did him in) are called to Mars as exiles as Earth begins burning their books. They assault the first rocket, but are ultimately destroyed when the captain burns the last copies of their books upon landing.

"No Particular Night or Morning": Hitchcock (probably not Alfred) goes more and more crazy as he demands that nothing can exist unless it is proven. He takes a space ship to help him in this, but becomes further and further alone, as he can only prove another person’s existence when they are with him. He ends up with the logical conclusion—alone in space, suspended in nowhere, and with nothing that is provable, not even his own body.

"The Fox and the Forest": Not even time travel to Mexico in 1938 enables a couple fleeing from service in the people-killing industry of the War in 2155 to escape the craftiness of the Police. This was a particularly nice story, as it embodies both cleverness and inevitability, along with a unique look on time travel.

"The Visitor": Exiles to Mars dying of an incurable disease each try to keep a newly arrived victim of the disease, who can ease their pain through his ability to mentally project images of home, for themselves, and in so doing, destroy that which the new man would have freely given to all of them.

"The Concrete Mixer": Ettil, an draft-evading Martian, convinced that the invasion of Earth cannot succeed, is shamed into joining the invasion, and watches how Earth welcomes the invading army and subverts it with commercial pleasures.

"Marionettes, Inc.": Braling is found to have purchased a duplicate of himself to replace himself in a stifling marriage so that he can finally take his dream vacation to Rio. His friend Smith is inspired to buy a replacement to avoid incessant togetherness his wife wants. Braling discovers that his duplicate has fallen in love with his wife and refuses to stay cooped up in his box, forcing Braling into it instead, while Smith discovers that his wife has already replaced herself.

"The City": An ancient civilization ruined by our ancestors who fled to Earth built a city personified which patiently waits twenty millenia for our return to accomplish their revenge.

"Zero Hour": A mother discovers too late that the game of Martian Invasion that the children had been consumed by was quite unlike her childhood games of war, in that it was the real thing.

"The Rocket": A Gift of the Magi-like story where a poor junkyard owner whose family years for a ride on a space rocket spends his life savings on an unfunctional prototype rocket and enables his children to have the one rocket ride of their life.

Bradbury’s stories evoke a very different science fiction than early twenty-first century readers are used to reading. His stories feature quite often feature Mars in some aspect, either with Martians in their unending pursuit of conquest of Earth, or as some form of Earth colony. A large number of them speak about Earth’s impending destruction, either by our own hand or by the another race. His exclusive use of the word “rocket”, which, quite unforseen on his part, enhances a bygone feeling by conjuring a 50's era curved rocket with three tail fins. And the themes are quaint because they are often obviously anachronistic.

Bradbury is obsessed with Mars. Mars is the generic setting, pressed into service either for exiles from Earth or as home to an invading army. Both seem strange to the modern reader, no doubt due in large part to the dispelling of the vestiges of Powell’s romantic canal-building civilization by the Viking landers. Mars is so well-known to be millions of years dead that Martian armies simply can no longer be conceived. But the purpose of Bradbury’s fiction was to confront social issues, rather than more modern science fiction which speculates about what might be. Bradbury probably thought Mars was just as dead as we think it is, and exploited a fascination with Mars, popularized by Orwell’s famous invasion scare, to warn about war. He may have even been parodying the popular sentiment, for inevitably the Martians are a dying civilization and end up losing the battle, as Ettil in “The Concrete Mixer” observes.

The themes of the stories, which on the surface would seem to be timeless, have ceased to have relevance to the modern reader. This reviewer is too young to remember a time when the current nuclear détente did not exist. Likewise, the mass epidemic brought back by soldiers from World War I is no longer in cultural memory, so the fear of exile for one’s incurable disease is alien to modern readers. Even something as ever-present as stifling marriages is no longer relevant because our culture is rarely committed to unhappy marriages long enough for them to become stifling. Although there are still many dysfunctional families now (although by no mean as ubiquitous as in Bradbury—his families are inevitably dysfunctional), the modern vision of a dysfunctional family is unlikely to include a mother, father, and 1.5 kids in a white picket-fenced house in the suburbs.

These stories also differ from modern science fiction in a surprising aspect—religion. Bradbury was obviously brought up in the Church, and although his Christianity is bit humanistic (at least in these stories), it is a refreshing change from the relentless atheism of modern science fiction. The Biblical allusion in “The City” was particularly well-done: “In a machine cellar a red want touched a numeral: 178 pounds... 210, 154, 201, 198—each man weighed, registered and the record spooled down into a correlative darkness. ... In twenty thousand years only two other rockets landed here. One from a distant galaxy called Ennt, and the inhabitants of that craft were tested, weighed, found wanting, and let free, unscathed from the city.” In Daniel, Belshazzar was similarly tested, weighed, and found wanting, but instead of freedom, Belshazzar’s kingdom is conquered that evening by the invading army. A subtle irony juxtaposing the physical process of determining if the visitors were humans and a reminder that the city was also metaphorically weighing the moral value of the visitors.

Fortunately, Bradbury’s dismal outlook on the future has not been substantiated. Nuclear holocaust is increasingly less of a worry, World War III has failed to materialize, no epidemic has happened in living memory (although Bird-Flu looms on the horizon), and censorship is relatively unheard of in the West. In an age where Freedom of Speech is used as a catch-all court argument, Bradbury’s fears about censorship seem particularly odd. “The Exiles” is actually more about censorship via faith in science, but we seem to have gotten over our faith in science as a cure to unenlightened mythology—as evidenced by the (overly) long run of the television show “X-Files”, in which the supernatural inevitably wins over the scientific side-kick’s natural explanation.

Like Harlan Ellison, Bradbury’s stories are very dark. Unlike Ellison, Bradbury’s stories have much more of a science-fiction feeling as the setting is much more detailed. While the characters are deep and believable, the characters themselves often do not develop, but it is rather the reader’s (and the characters') understanding of the situation that develops. This is a minor quibble, for the stories are all fresh, even where they present similar themes. The largest problem with a prolonged reading of Bradbury is the recurring fatalities. After a while, this reader began trying to guess how the characters would die, because die they did with the predictability of a Shakespearean tragedy. Even the veneer of the man with the magic tattoos that attempts to bring coherency to the collection is not immune to tragedy. To Bradbury’s credit (or this reader’s failure of imagination), though, the characters always die in a surprising fashion—while you know the end, you do not know the meaning of the end until you reach it.

The Illustrated Man is a foray into early science fiction. The stories, while no longer very relevant, are of fine quality and there are a number of quite interesting ideas. Fortunately, the themes and characters, rather than the ideas, drive the story, so they gripping to read. This is not a book that should be read in one sitting unless you are particularly immune to depression, though. Repeated, unfortunate deaths take their toll even on robust readers.
Review: 8.0
These are quality stories, well-written and intruiging. The writing probably deserves a 9, or at least 8.5, but his themes are just not timeless. Or rather, they ought to be timeless, but the fear is so exaggerated that only in his time-period is society likely to be so far on the extreme. Man seems to much more apt to regress to a blasé mean than he is to go to an unrecoverable extreme—the more severe the problem, the more the rest of the population is likely to try to fix it. If we do ourselves in, it is the subtle, creeping problems that will most likely do it, not an obvious problem like blowing each other up.

Technically the writing is good. The characterization is really good, and all the stories have some mystery of some sort, usually about the nature of the characters themselves that draws the reader in. But emotionally the writing just misses. Society has changed from under these stories, but the stories were too coupled to extremes, or potential, extremes in society to change with it. Even where the theme is still relevant, it is still tied to the original cultural setting. “The Veldt” is still chillingly relevant, for instance, but the Happylife Home parodies the specific advertising of labor-saving devices in the fifties, instead of embodying the ever-present desire to live a life of comfort. Some of this is probably a occupational hazard of science fiction, but O’ Henry (admittedly not a science fiction author) wrote specifically about early twentieth-century America and far from being obsolete, his stories are interesting, not only because of his insight into a portrayal of human nature, but also as an interesting window into a time most readers know little about.

Emotionally, too, we have a limit on the amount of tragic failure we can handle. Yes, life has its pain and disappointments, and the occasional tragedy is a poignant illustration, but when 60% of the stories involve someone dying and only 18% are at all optimistic, well, people generally seem to like sunny climates better than ones where it rains all the time.1

So between the complete failure to be timeless literature and the overly dismal outlook, I just can’t rank this as high as the writing might deserve.

Literary notes

  • Each story very strongly illustrates a theme of human nature or a warning about the direction of society
  • In some of the stories, the reader grows along with the characters—not in the usual sense-of-self fashion but in understanding of the meaning of the situation.
    • It might be that good stories always endeavor that the reader grow in some fashion

“Magic” Items

Tattoos that foretell the future, being animated stories. (In a similar fashion as the wizarding portraits in Harry Potter have a life of their own)
Happylife Home
Automated house that is self-cleaning and has a kitchen table that makes fresh food on demand.
Happylife Nursery
Nursery responds to the thoughts of the children, becoming the setting that they are thinking about. The line between virtual reality and actuality may be a little blurry...
Sun Dome
Warm, peaceful domes located in various convenient places around Venus to offer refuge from the incessant and insanity producing rain. Have a sunlike lamp, warmth, baths, books, food, and everything you’d want after you came in out of the cold rain.
Venusian Rain
A heavy rain. Causes things to decompose quickly, and too much exposure will cause your brain to ignore sensations in your limbs, ears, etc., causing numbness and deafness. Ultimately causes craziness where you stand with your mouth open and drown.
Standard form of long-distance travel. “Take the afternoon rocket to Los Angeles”
Somehow embody their creators and can the author and the author’s creations become reality when persecuted.
Product of Marionettes, Inc
Artificial men (not really robots), but with a mind of their own, much as slaves want freedom.
The City
Mechanical creation designed to determine if a particular set of visitors is human, and if so, replace the contents of the bodies with machinery that dispenses a weapon of destruction upon return.

1  Opera seems to have a similar ratio of death, and everybody dying is a standard joke about opera.