The Illustrated Man (1951)

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Author: Ray Bradbury
Publisher: Simon & Schuster, Inc.

© Copyright Simon & Schuster, Inc.

© Copyright Simon & Schuster, Inc.

I managed more reading when I was younger than I do now, and yet this doesn’t make me any better at it. Some of the works I read as an adolescent still evoke a more vivid memory in me than things I read last week. A good example of this is Ray Bradbury’s 1951 collection The Illustrated Man, of which I still own the old paperback copy I acquired as a teen. Jack Smight adapted the book for the silver screen in 1969, but that’s not the version that still captivates me today.

Often viewed as controversial and occasionally criticised for the purple prose of an earlier generation, Bradbury remains, to my eyes, a visionary, an understated pioneer who understood what science could mean and what science fiction should strive towards. No matter how hard supercilious English undergrads have tried, there’s no denying the power of his prose, and his passing last year robbed our literary landscape of another icon.

Consider the opening pages of The Illustrated Man, which depict a deep, alien, red landscape where a naked man sits cross-legged on a strange ramshackle perch with his back to the reader. Bradbury provides no sense of scale, so the stoic watcher, tattooed from neck to toe, could well be a giant. I remember this image immediately filling my young mind with a sense of strange wonder. I was hooked, compelled to burrow through each of the eighteen unrelated stories collected in this short book.

The through line for The Illustrated Man is that each short story comes to life from a tattoo on the body of a nameless wanderer who claims his mysterious markings come from the future. Every tale investigates the intersection between the reaches and potential of science when confronted with human limitation and psychology. I’ll tell you right now that I was too young the first time I read the book. These are not adventure stories of the sort a young Forgotten Realms fan might seek but rather sober meditations with an existentialist leaning.

In this rainy season, my mind keeps coming back to the sixth story in the collection. “The Long Rain” tells of astronauts stranded on Venus, soaked in a horrible, never-ending rain. The group is making its way to what’s referred to as a sun dome, a protective shelter, but things, of course, go awry. As a detail, the weather, made horrific by its ceaseless, malicious, pounding rhythm does more to sketch a fully alien world than anything James Cameron’s Avatar (2009) offered me.

One by one, the explorers are driven mad by the unrelenting downpour, and the winnowing down of the team allows for an easy dramatic hook that could have been exciting enough in another writer’s hands. However, when an astronaut finally gives up, opting to sit down, lean his head back toward the sky with his mouth open to the rain, and wait to drown as the water fills his lungs, we’re left with an image of such utter horror that we can’t help but know we’re in the hands of a master.

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