Ray Bradbury (1920-2012) wrote horror, science fiction and fantasy tales in the 1950’s, worlds of rocket ships, chain smoking astronauts, Martians and the colonisation of Mars, and monsters that lurk both outside and inside our skins.
The Illustrated Man (1951) is a collection of short stories that ticks all of these tropes, book-ended by a chance Ancient Mariner style meeting (a haunted figure stops a stranger to relate a macabre tale/s) whereby a lone traveller reveals a torso completely covered by tattoos to a fascinated onlooker, tattoos seemingly animated, telling stories from the future.
And so, as our onlooker watches the story of each piece of body art, we are along the ride.
There are stories where humanity’s dependence on technology comes back to bite them, eerily prescient of our Augmented Reality and app for everything age, as with ‘the Veld,;’ whereby a Virtual Reality playground brings to the surface childhood rage in a homicidal form. Anyone who has tried to wrest their child away from some screen or other will relate to this tale.
We also have ‘the Visitor,’ which explores the notion that each world may have its own Messiah figure bringing redemption and healing and requiring faith and belief, whilst ‘the Fox and the Forest’ relate the stories of a couple on the run in 1930’s Mexico from a terrifying future and its agents.
‘The Other Foot’ shows how the racial apartheid politics of 1950’s America could play out on Mars with racial roles reversed, and ‘Kaleidoscope’ and ‘No Principal Night or Morning’ explore humanity’s relationship with the alienating vastness of space, with ‘the Rocket’ exploring the flip side, a longing to explore and awe at interstellar marvels.
A future of nuclear devastation beckons in ‘The Highway’ relating an urban exodus from World War Three, whilst ‘the Last night on the world’ shows the whole of humanity sharing a dream that convinces them that the end is nigh, and the comforts of routine in preparing for the end.
Elsewhere in the cosmos, men are driven mad by the incessant rain of Venus in ‘The Long Rain,’ or butchered by a homicidal city intent on revenge in ‘The City, ‘ whilst a future colony of the diseased on Mars are visited by a man with telepathic gifts to share in ‘the Visitor,’ but will they share?
‘Marionettes Inc.’ shows the human / machine master and servant relationship breaking down as mechanical slaves demand a life of their own.
An alien invasion with children and inter-dimensional aliens working together is represented by ‘Zero-Hour,’ and children feature again as a horrified father witnesses the Hellish side to children at play in ‘The Playground.’
‘Usher II’ is one of the stories that anticipated Fahrenheit 451 with its vision of a book burning future, here with one man’s recreation of the works of Poe to exact revenge on the state censors.
This is a pacy and entertaining collection of future-shock tales that showcases the unique imaginative talents of Ray Bradbury, although for me it lacked the coherence and spiritual intensity of ‘The Martian Chronicles,’ another collection of Bradbury’s short tales. Still an amazing read of amazing tales, though.