The Illustrated Man

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Read 01/09/2017-12/09/2017

Rating: 4 stars

Read for the Reader’s Room Road Trip Challenge

I love Ray Bradbury. I love his imagination and the way he spins pictures out of words. The Illustrated Man is a collection of stories based around the tattoos on the body of a carnival worker. The narrator, on a hiking holiday, encounters him one evening and shares some food with him. He learns that the tattooed man has trouble holding down a job, because there is something different about his tattoos.

As for the rest of him, I cannot say how I sat and stared, for he was a root of rockets and fountains and people, in such intricate detail and color that you could hear the voices murmuring small and muted, from the crowds that inhabited his body. When his flesh twitched, the tiny mouths flickered, the tiny green and gold eyes winked, the tiny pink hands gestured.

As darkness falls, the tattoos start to play out their stories.

The Veldt starts things off in excellent Bradbury utopia/dystopia style. George and Lydia Hadley live in a Happy-life Home with their children Peter and Wendy. The Happy-life Home does everything for them. It cooks, cleans, turns lights on and off, rocks the occupants to sleep at night, makes them comfortable by day. An add on nursery that presents as real the thoughts of the person using the room educates the children. Peter and Wendy work out how to control the nursery, so that it only obeys them. This comes in handy when their parents deny them anything they want. There is a disconnect in the parent-child relationship. The utopia of having amazing technology that removes inconvenience and effort from life has become a dystopia of lack of control.

“I don’t know anything,” [George] said, “except that I’m beginning to be sorry we bought that room for the children. If children are neurotic at all, a room like that —”
“It’s supposed to help them work off their neuroses in a healthful way.”
“I’m starting to wonder.” He stared at the ceiling.
“We’ve given the children everything they ever wanted. Is this our reward – secrecy, disobedience?”
“Who was it said, ‘Children are carpets, they should be stepped on occasionally’? We’ve never lifted a hand. They’re insufferable – let’s admit it. They come and go when they like; they treat us as if we were offspring. They’re spoiled and we’re spoiled.”

The children engineer for the nursery to take on the appearance of the African veldt, complete with lions who hunt zebra and giraffe, complete with the smell of lions, complete with the screams of whatever the lions are hunting and killing. The screams come in the night. The story builds up an air of menace. What is the aim of the children? Do they want to frighten their parents into giving them what they want? Is it a form of blackmail by fear? Or do they want to kill their parents?

The stories in this collection look to a future where space travel is the norm, and humanity has colonised most of the other planets in the solar system. Convenience in the home is the watchword of technology. There’s a price to pay for these advances, though. Families become disconnected. Space travellers faced with the dangers of the universe regret the way life has turned out. The pull of being up among the stars is too strong for regular life on earth to compete with. The factual is prized above the imaginary, with the loss of some cultural aspects. And, of course, there’s the consequence of nuclear technology. The hydrogen bomb features in some of these tales, and it’s the source of annihilation and desolation. Something fundamental has been lost in the stories that flow from the Illustrated Man’s tattoos, and it’s a sense of community and belonging. Beware the shiny allure of progress, Bradbury seems to be saying, don’t lose sight of what matters.

The Exiles is one of my favourite stories in the collection. In it, Bradbury imagines a time on earth when Hallowe’en and Christmas are banned, and books that deal in the supernatural are burned. The authors of and characters in those books are exiled to Mars. Shakespeare, Poe, Bierce, Blackwood and Dickens are among them. One day a rocket ship from Earth approaches. One of the crew has a collection of the last copies of books by banned authors with him. The authors and their characters band together to repell what they see as a hostile invasion, with the exception of Dickens, who is outraged that he was ever banished. Much as Tinkerbell only exists if people keep believing in her, the characters in the books only exist for as long as a copy of the book exists and someone reads it. It’s not just characters in books and plays, either. Father Christmas makes a sorry figure, wasting away through lack of belief back on Earth.

I also enjoyed Zero Hour, which sees the Martians being creative in their invasion methodology, and a seven year old girl displaying a sinister amount of pleasure in the prospect of the coming new world order. The final story, The Rocket, is another good tale. A poor metal reclamation worker dreams of flying to Mars and saves up to buy a rocket ticket for one person in his family. Everyone wants to go but no-one wants the consequences, so the father blows his savings on a second hand prototype rocket and comes up with an imaginative way of taking his children on a rocket trip. His skeptical wife won’t join in with what she sees as dangerous madness, but when the trip is complete she understands that her husband is the best father in the world.

The stories in this collection were written between 1948 and 1953, a period that saw hope for a future without war replaced with fear about the annihilation of humanity through the use of nuclear technology. Bradbury imagines a range of futures. Some are a decade or so away from when he was writing, others take the story centuries into the future. There is also a sense of the past, with some of the tales carrying echoes of Western Civilisation’s arrogant need to colonise and impose its systems on other cultures, as has happened throughout history with landgrabs and religious missions, and still happens today, in more subtle ways.

This is a great collection of science fiction stories. The connection to the tattoos on the Illustrated Man is lost partway through the book, and is only regained with the devilish epilogue.

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