“The Illustrated Man” by Ray Bradbury

My first Ray Bradbury. Fascinating. As stories go they are like others I’ve read: really intriguing ideas, strong atmospheres, but ending weakly, either flattish, or with an ending that isn’t supposed to be obvious but is, kind of. Not that all stories have to have exciting twists or revelations at the end, but some kind of shift into the extra-story world, some kind of attempt to make you stop and think or feel for a while, as most poems attempt, is worth going for.

Fascinating for several reasons. Any sci-fi written some time ago is always interesting because of the accuracy their predictions of the future: the contrast of right and wrong generates its own literary hum. Here, by 2013, we get routine interplanetary space travel and robots indistinguishable from the real people of whom they are copies, but messages sent not electronically but printed on foil and whizzed through tubes.

Thematically it’s pretty homogenous: rockets are everywhere, hovering like darning needles, criss-crossing the sky over earth, landing on fields near Martians and quickly taking off again; all like post-war comics. More important are themes of social justice, particularly in “The Other Foot”, about a potential future revenge for American segregation laws, and the urban poor in “The Rocket”, but most prominent are lonely, futile fathers and hostile children, from the first story’s parenticides in “The Veldt” to the last story’s father’s fears for his son’s imminent miserable childhood making him swap places, via the (ultimately successful) useless father in “The Rocket”, and the Martians-invading-earth-by-turning-children-against-adults in “Zero Hour”. It all suggests a post-war America very unhappy: partly mesmerized by peddled visions of a technological future paradise, but grounded in the realisation that real-world problems of isolation and discrimination aren’t cured by engineers in labs. “The Last Night of the World” perhaps has Bradbury’s solution: a calm and beautifully resigned acceptance of disaster, a peaceful (and shorter – five hours) antidote to Bowie’s “Five Years”. It’s in this story, and brilliantly in “Marionettes, inc.”, that we find fuller treatment of women: often they’re ciphers – from the perspective of each story’s protagonist, but the Bradbury voice makes it clear that he has deeper sympathy, that here are suppressed voices.

The writing is plain and straightforward, with rare (over)bold metaphors and images. What’s interesting is how he’s structured the collection as stories illustrated on the body of a man he meets on the road. This modern ecphrasis, has, as does Achilles’ shield, moving pictures, but also a chilling blank space on the shoulder where, the Man says, a story about the fate of the viewer appears; Bradbury’s “Epilogue” describes what our narrator sees, and his sudden flight from the implied death. We’re left guessing.

These themes and the structure match each other: Bradbury’s illustrations illustrate Man, both homo – the species, how its bright future is compromised by its social flaws – and vir – the male adult, opposed, literally, to his women and children.

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