There may be no greater writer of speculative fiction shorts than Ray Bradbury, and The Illustrated Man is one of his most celebrated collections. Tied loosely around a framing device more dependent on Something Wicked This Way Comes than anything inherent to the collection, the stories plumb the depth of the human heart and emerge bittersweet.
The collection opens with the narrator traveling the Wisconsin countryside by foot. His fire a beacon in the night, a man who’s just been kicked out of the circus comes to join him. Covered in tattoos, the man asks for the narrator’s hospitality before settling into the story of how he came to be unemployed. A deal with a witch gone wrong, the tattoos he asked for are not what he received: most people who see the metamorphing images end up dead shortly thereafter. The circumstances dictate his terms of employment are most often of the short variety. Curling up beside the fire, the man eventually goes to sleep, leaving the narrator to watch the illustrations come to life on his tattooed flesh.
What follows are 18 stories set amongst a variety of technical possibilities. None connected in any fashion save humanity, the framing device is a loose one at best, and indeed, Bradbury abandons it in the early going. Parenting, religion, desire, aging, technology, and the value of books are only a handful of the subjects broached. Bradbury being Bradbury, the stories remain a rich mosaic of the subtle elements of life.
In The Illustrated Man are a story about one man’s near encounter with Jesus in space. Two stories seem studies for Fahrenheit 451—books an evil to be destroyed. Space a long journey, another tells of a man who has trouble handling the distance while traveling. There is a satirical piece on the classic Martian invasion, while another uses Mars as commentary on race: an all black Mars visited by a lone white man in a rocket ship. (There is even a reprint of a story from The Martian Chronicles, “The Fire Balloons”.) The rocket is a recurring motif. Along with the aforementioned Chronicles story, “The Rocket Man” tells of the life of a workaday spaceman and the divide he feels in his heart to both explore the stars and be on Earth with his family. “The Rocket” tells of a poor man and how he eventually fulfills his children’s dreams by getting them into space. There is even a time travel story involving the escape from war.
In the end, The Illustrated Man is a collection in which the individual stories outshine the quality of the framing device it is so named after. Bradbury ignoring the practicalities of technology and instead utilizing it as a tool to explore humanity, there is no question, however: the collection remains science fiction given the abundance of rockets, space travel, Mars, gadgets, and other futuristic technology. Many of the stories well known outside collection, e.g. “The Veldt”, the book is one that can easily be digested in pieces with nothing to the whole lost.