I’ve always felt that I should want to read Fahrenheit 451̊, that it would be a perfect story for a bibliophile like myself. Yet somehow whenever I’d pick up a copy, I never felt drawn to it. But The Illustrated Man–that was quite different!
It always caught my eye at bookstores, and I would pick it up, read the blurb again, and find myself fighting the urge to sit down, cross-legged in the aisle, and plunge into the mystery of the moving tattoos. Last weekend I quit fighting (though I did have the strength to wait until I was sitting on the couch at home).
I really had no idea what to expect, but for some reason I didn’t expect a series of short stories, though it seems like a perfectly obvious setup for that in hindsight. Once I realized that I was in a book of stories, I expected that the Illustrations would be related to each other somehow or that there would be linking narration of the Illustrated Man’s story between them. But the narration petered out after the second story, and the only commonality the Illustrations seemed to share was that they took place in the future, never the past. Indeed, the future was a very wide range of time that could be as near as ten years from now (“now” being the 1950s when Bradbury first published the book) or 20,000 years from now or some indeterminate point in between the two, and I found this a little jarring at times. I was also a little disappointed that the story of the Illustrated Man himself wasn’t so much a story as it was a hook upon which to hang the other stories. Yet, I can’t imagine experiencing these stories without the hook, in much the same way that I prefer to see my Christmas ornaments hanging on a tree rather than sitting on the coffee table.
Bradbury’s stories in this collection are fascinating and exquisite miniatures; the longest one is 17 pages and the shortest ones are just over 3 pages. It was a little like reading poetry, with the language being so compressed. And like some e. e. cummings’ poems, I couldn’t say for sure what all of the stories meant or rather what the point of every story was, only that I experienced them in a vivid and emotional way. Ray Bradbury’s prose has a wonderful way of awakening all the senses, so that you feel the rain on Venus and taste the dust on Mars. One of the things I enjoy about reading older science fiction is the insight it gives into a previous generation’s expectations, fears and hopes for the future; these stories are both the shadows of things that have been and things that may still come to be. Some of the stories were surprising in their ordinariness; others were unexpected in their scope; some were beyond anything I could have imagined; all of them very well told.
What surprised me most was to find that the future Bradbury envisioned included Christianity in some way. Religion has no place in many of the imagined futures that I’ve read about in other science fiction; it simply isn’t there or it’s absence is noted as a measure of how far we’ve progressed as a species. Not only was Christianity included in two of Bradbury’s stories, he played it straight; the believers were neither deluded fools nor corrupt charlatans, but rather men whose belief in God affected how they chose to live in far flung planets of the galaxy. I think Bradbury shows that he has a much better understanding than other writers of how portable religion can be and how persistently it accompanies the course of human events.
My Synopsis: An afternoon meeting of two travelers leads to a night of unparalleled stories, as one of the men reveals that his body is covered, not with tattoos, but three dimensional Illustrations in living color. “It’s all right in sunlight,” the Illustrated Man explained, “But at night–the pictures move. The pictures change. For, you see, these Illustrations predict the future.”
First line: It was a warm afternoon in early September when I first meet the Illustrated Man.
I would recommend this book to: Anyone who wants to experience a vision of the future from a time before robotic space rovers had given us specific details about our neighboring planets, a time when starting new colonies on Mars seemed within the easy reach of a couple decades. Anyone who likes imaginative short stories that are tightly written and doesn’t mind if they don’t all have happy endings.
Would I read it again: Yes.
My personal rating: 4 out of 5