I am on a plane and have literally just finished Ray Bradbury’s The Illustrated Man. There is within me a burning immediacy, a furnace of response and emotion that is bubbling to the surface and simply *must* get out. I hadn’t read Bradbury since high school, and I had only engaged with the requisite Fahrenheit 451 and The Martian Chronicles, though I remember both being very, very good.
What I want out of life is to write, and to write well. In order to write well–at least according to many authors, bloggers and the relative wisdom of my personal experience–one must read as often or more often than one sits with pen or at the keyboard.
Insert pause here, wherein I deplane, get a ride back to work, hop in my car, drive home, unpack, relax, get completely distracted reestablishing myself at home, then wake up the next morning to finish this review.
I do most of my reading on my Kindle nowadays, but I still frequent bookstores and buy paper books because I feel it’s important to support authors and publishers–or maybe it’s that I think it’ll build enough readerly karma that I’ll get published someday. On a (relatively) recent trip to a great bookstore in Berkeley I picked up several books and among them was The Illustrated Man. I had heard several times over the years that it was an excellent book and that I’d be interested in it, but I didn’t expect to feel the way I did at the end of the book. This is a truly brilliant work.
The Illustrated Man is the quintessential Bradbury work. It is dark Sci-Fi from the era when Sci-Fi was new. It deals heavily in the morality of technological development, the integration of “old” ways of thinking with the new, and with a general, pervasive human darkness that makes sense when you consider that the collection of short stories was published in 1951. Several of the short stories were published in magazines prior to the release of the book, which is metaphorically bound by the story of a man who was given a second chance at life by a witch when she covered him with illustrations. The man’s tattoos are actual moving illustrations, all of which tell stories, some of which tell the future. He’s harassed as he moves from town to town and finally ends up on a hilltop with another gentleman, both of them deciding to sleep there. As night falls, the illustrations begin to move and the second man is transfixed, watching the stories unfold. The subsequent 280 pages are the stories the tattoos tell.
They all share common themes which are to be expected of Bradbury: Mars, rockets, war, superficiality, violence, fear, death, weakening religious conviction, etc. We’ve all read his books in high school. You know what this guy is about. The thing about The Illustrated Man that really resonated with me was the powerful writing. There were countless paragraphs that left me speechless; his command of English language and metaphor is really breathtaking.
There were some shorts I preferred to others, and since the book is comprised of 18 stories, I’ll talk only of a few I found to be particularly wonderful.
The second story in the collection, this one is extremely powerful. A group of soldiers were unceremoniously expelled from their rocket as some concussive force peels apart the hull. They face death together over their communications systems, separated physically by thousands of miles, and run the gamut of emotional fluctuations their impending doom elicits. The ending was very powerful to read:
When I hit the atmosphere, I’ll burn like a meteor.
“I wonder,” he said, “if anyone’ll see me?”
The small boy on the country road looked up and screamed. “Look, Mom, look! A falling star”
The blazing white star fell down the sky of dusk in Illinois.
“Make a wish,” said his mother.”Make a wish.”
The Long Rain
The perpetual rains of Venus drive a small crew of stranded astronauts insane while they search for a special shelter with artificial sunlight built by other Earthmen. All the men but one end up committing suicide before the last man–the captain–finds the shelter they had been seeking.
The Fire Balloons
This story was particularly fine, in my opinion. A group of missionaries is headed to Mars to cleanse the local populace of corrupt miners–ruffians, whoremongers, murderers and the like–of their sins. A young and ambitious Father has heard of a local Martian entity to which he wishes to bring the word of Christ. These entities are spheres of light, and thought by the other missionaries to be irrelevant and less urgent than their need to construct a mission in the human settlement, corralling the sinners therein. Father Peregrine (the aforementioned young father) is selected as the leader of the expedition and insists on going to the mountains in search of the light-beings. After discovering that they are intelligent and good–his methodologies for that will have to remain unmentioned–he begins to push the group of missionaries to build a church and create a religious symbol they can identify with, in hopes of successfully proselytizing them to Episcopalianism. Ultimately, the beings of light communicate that they were once humans who had left their mortal shells behind, cleansing them entirely of sin. The interaction between the priests and the light beings is immensely powerful, and ends beautifully:
“And you know,” said Father Stone finally, fixing his eyes on brother Mathias, who strode ahead with the glass sphere tenderly carried in his arms, that glass sphere with the blue phosphorous light glowing forever inside it, “you know, Father Peregrine, that globe there–”
“It’s Him. It is him, after all.”
À la Fahrenheit 451, many works of creative literature are banned from Earth. The fictional characters and authors of the books are living on Mars, in refuge, so long as copies of the books exist somewhere. A group of men in a rocket are headed to mars to colonize, and the characters stage a counterattack, which fails, as the rocket carries the last copies of the books and symbolically burns them when they land (to honor the march of science,) destroying the colony of exiles before they were able to fight off the intruders.
No Particular Night or Morning
This is another story that deals with Insanity in space. It contains several deeply powerful paragraphs, and I’d like to place one of them below without comment.
“I was never young. Whoever I was then is dead. That’s more of your quills. I don’t want a hide full, thanks. I’ve always figured that you die each day and each day is a box, you see, all numbered and neat; but never go back and lift the lids, because you’ve died a couple thousand times in your life, and that’s a lot of corpses, each dead a different way, each with a worse expression. Each of those days is a different you, somebody you don’t understand or want to understand.
There’s also a sentence in there that resonated with me, and made me want to redouble my efforts as a creative writer. The barb sank pretty deep.
“Did you know I wanted to be a writer? Oh yes, one of those men who always talk about writing but rarely write.”
The Concrete Mixer
In this story, a Martian invasion force is preparing to head to earth and Ettil, a young Martian who was coerced into joining the invasion force, has serious doubts and fears that the violent retaliation (inspired by his many readings of Earth comics and stories wherein a hero vanquishes an invading force) is soon to destroy them all. Instead, the Martians are greeted with open arms and met by a peaceful people who, in Ettil’s eyes, are disturbing in their own ways.
“They’ll rush out on us, hurling chocolate boxes and copies of Klieg Love and Holly Pick-ture, shrieking with their red greasy mouths! Inundate us with banality, destroy our sensibilities! Look at them, being electrocuted by devices, their voices like hums and chants and murmurs! Do you dare go in there?”
“Why not?” asked the other Martians.
“They’ll fry you, bleach you, change you! Crack you, take you away until you’re nothing but a husband, a working man, the one with the money who pays so they can come sit in there devouring their evil chocolates! Do you think you could control them?
“Yes, by the gods!”
From a distance a voice drifted, a high and shrill voice, a woman’s voice saying, “Ain’t that middle one there cute?”
“Martians ain’t so bad after all. Gee, they’re just men,” said another, fading.
“Hey there. Yoo-hoo! Martians! Hey!”
Yelling, Ettil ran…
Ettil, terrified, runs and attempts to hide. He writes a letter to his wife on Mars; it’s intensely powerful.
“Dear, dear Tylla, a few statistics if you will allow. Forty-five thousand people killed every year on this continent of America; made into jelly right in the can, as it were, in the automobiles. Red blood jelly, with white marrow bones like sudden thoughts, ridiculous horror thoughts, transfixed in the immutable jelly. The cars roll up in tight neat sardine rolls–all sauce, all silence.
“Blood manure for green buzzing summer flies, all over the highways. Faces made into Halloween masks by sudden stops. Halloween is one of their holidays. I think they worship the automobile on that night–something to do with death, anyway.”
He meets a man claiming to be a movie producer who invites him to drinks for a “chat” which ends up being a movie pitch. Eventually, Ettil figures out that the conquering of Mars won’t be a violent quest. Rather, it’ll be the slow progress of sedentary consumer culture that will destroy his people. Ettil says:
“Shake hands, Rick.I’ve wanted to meet you. You’re the man who’ll conquer Mars, with cocktails shakers and foot arches and poker chips and riding crops and leather boots and checkered caps and rum collinses.”
“I’m only a humble businessman,” said Van Plank, eyes slyly down. ” I do my work and take my humble little piece of money pie…”
The Earthman continues with his plans for financial domination with Ettil’s help, and the man’s tirade continues. Ultimately, in their drunken revelry, a car full of teenagers runs over Ettil. In his final moments, he remarks that the car sounds just like a cement mixer.
The short stories all share in the darkness evident by my selection of quotes above, and though I wasn’t crazy about all of them, I loved the rest enough that I feel the book deserves a rating of 10/10. I recommend it. Seriously. Read this.