Gems of Fantasy

The Illustrated Man

By Ray Bradbury

‘Sixteen illustrations, sixteen tales. I counted them one by one. Primarily my eyes focussed upon a scene, a large house with two people in it. I saw a flight of vultures on a blazing flesh sky, I saw yellow lions, and I heard voices.’

Ray Bradbury was one of the giants of science fiction and fantasy. His was a long career and he was still writing until just before his death in in 2012. However, he learned his craft in the fanzines of the 1930s and 1940s. Arguably at his best with the short story, he had his first real success with The Martian Chronicles, a collection of short stories finally published as a “fix-up” in a single volume in 1950. His most famous true novel, Fahrenheit 451, was published in 1953.

‘Willie stood with the rope in his hands. He was remembering Earth, the green Earth and the green town where he was born and raised …. Gone to pieces, to ruin, blown up and scattered, all of the supposed or certain evil scattered with it …. Not an empty brass gun shell, or a twisted hemp, or a tree, or even a hill of it to hate.’ (from The Other Foot)

The Illustrated Man, a collection of sixteen previously-published tales (plus prologue and epilogue) appeared first in 1952. The stories demonstrate not only Bradbury’s imagination and writing skill but his versatility. Here, there is no single theme. As well as space opera, there is horror, there is dystopia and there is true fantasy. There are also robots! [See HERE] The tales are linked by the Illustrated Man himself to the living tattoos covering his body.

My favourites – if I must choose – are The Other Foot, a sort of morality tale, Marionettes, Inc, which has robots, The Fox and the Forest, which has time travel, and probably The City, which is . . . well, you have to read it.

‘They looked at the great House, smiling. It began to crack down the middle, as with an earthquake, and as Stendahl watched the magnificent sight he heard Pikes reciting behind him in a low, cadenced voice: “my brain reeled as I saw the mighty walls rushing asunder …..” ‘(from Usher II) *** Note

Readers of modern sci-fi/fantasy, and unfamiliar with Ray Bradbury’s earlier works, will possibly find the stories in The Illustrated Man quaint, especially those featuring space travel. They should remember, however, that Bradbury was writing in the 1950s, when the prospect of visiting other planets was “just down the road” in many people’s view. Even some scientists were talking confidently of Martian expeditions before the end of the century. And stories about exploration of Mars, and even of Venus, were all the rage.

‘The incisions on their necks were invisible, as were their hidden brass hearts and silver organs and the fine golden wire of their nerves …’ (from The City)

In The Other Foot, all the Martian colonists are black people who have escaped dismal lives, prejudice and KKK tactics to make a new life for themselves on another planet. The arrival of a white man in a rocket is a matter of great excitement, especially for the young. However, some are not willing to forgive and forget, including Willie Johnson, bent on revenge for past wrongs to his family.

Marionettes, Inc introduces Braling and Smith, two husbands who discover a unique way of temporarly escaping their straitjacket marriages, the former where there is no love, the latter too much. But things don’t work out quite as they plan.

In The Fox and the Forest, a couple, William and Susan Travis, are trying to escape their dystopian world of 2155 by traveling back to 1938 Mexico. However, would-be deserters are committing a crime  and, if located by the time-travelling agents, are forcibly brought back to the future. And William and Susan cannot be certain the man across the street isn’t an agent.

Finally, The City, set in a far distant future, teaches that, while humans have short memories, artificial intelligences – like elephants – never forget.

‘The men gazed suspiciously at each other with little bright animal eyes. What was spoken was true. They saw each other in the days to come, surprising one another, killing – until the last lucky one remained to enjoy the intellectual treasure that walked among them.’ (from The Visitor)

Having summarised those four stories only, I have to add that all are good, maybe not equally good, but good none-the-less. And I have tried to give a flavour of others too, in the quotations. Bradbury’s prose is colourful, his similes and metaphors original. He has a talent for taking the everyday and mundane and twisting it into the exotic. Quaint the tales may be, but this collection is full of real short story gems.

*** Note: Here, readers should think, Edgar Allan Poe


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