The Illustrated Man demonstrates the enduring appeal of Ray Bradbury’s short fiction.
Built around the framing structure of a circus performer whose body art takes on a life of its own, acting out glimpses of the future, The Illustrated Man gathers a variety of Bradbury’s sci fi/fantasy shorts written from the late 1940s through the mid-50s. The stories were mid-century futurist, imagining a world where everything was automated, leaving people to find new ways to muck up their lives. Many of the tales involved space exploration and the relations between Earth and a variety of alien cultures.
Most of the stories in the collection aren’t especially action-intensive. A few have more elaborate plots, but many use the an exotic alien world or the vastness of space as a backdrop, a spark for Bradbury’s unique character studies and morality explorations. Bradbury frequently comes back to the topic of inhumanity, of the selfish and cruel ways that living, putatively intelligent creatures treat one another. The metaphor of mixing Earthly and alien cultures provides a vivid vessel for that kind of contemplation, made even more explicit in one short with a very provocative racial theme.
The evolving nature of families and a variety of societal relationships were central to the collection. Many of the stories revolve around people trying to locate a sense of belonging and permanence in a rapidly changing world. It was a theme that was especially meaningful at the time Bradbury wrote these stories, a period of rapid social change and technological advancement. Those explorations remain relevant, even as some of the elements that Bradbury postulated as “futuristically fantastic” are coming to pass in the real world. That longing for connection and frequent failure to achieve it suffuse these character sketches.
Bradbury also frequently employed religious imagery and some stories explicitly explored religious themes. That quest for the spiritual, for something bigger than a terrestrial life, always seemed to be baked into the otherwise science-driven quests of space exploration. Bradbury’s reinterpretation of Judeo-Christian imagery and iconography in the context of fantasy elements was fairly groundbreaking at the time and its influence on modern fantasy and sci fi writing remains strong.
For genre fans, The Illustrated Man should be on your “must read” list, as an example of the pioneering spirit and enduring influence of Ray Bradbury.