Thursday, September 2, 2010
The Illustrated Man by Ray Bradbury
As a newly-minted high school reading teacher, my introductory book to spoon-feed to the young'ns was Ray Bradbury's Fahrenheit 451. It was a really good one to start with, as it had a fairly simple and uncomplicated storyline, a small cast of characters, and fairly well-defined themes and literary techniques. Therefore, teaching it to students who weren't native speakers (but whose English was really good nonetheless) was a good experience.
I hadn't read a whole lot of Bradbury prior to that, and really fell in love with the book. F451 was a great read, and something I'll review here once I've let it settle down a bit in my head. After all, I've spent the last couple of months teasing every shred of meaning I could out of it, and that's not the kind of review I write here, now is it? Reading the book gave me a new interest in reading Bradbury, so I picked up a couple of short story collections and started to make my way through them. While I was talking to my department head about it, she recommended that I read The Illustrated Man, a copy of which she just so happened to have sitting around.
The Illustrated Man is a collection of eighteen short stories, more or less unrelated, but brought together under the larger, over-arching story of the Illustrated Man himself. Our narrator, you see, meets a large man on the road. The guy is covered with tattoos, of the highest quality. Their colors are vivid, their details are lifelike, and the man says that, at night, the tattoos come alive. They tell stories, if you watch them long enough. And if you watch them too long, you may see your own future as well....
Well, the narrator decides to watch as the Illustrated Man sleeps, and what he sees are the stories that are presented in this volume.
By and large, the stories are unconnected to each other, which means we can go from a strange future where one family's house takes care of all their material needs to a poor farmer who manages to avoid the end of the world by being in one of his own. Still, there are a few thematic threads that run through the book that are interesting to look at.
One of these themes is the way we relate to technology. Nowhere is this more obvious than in the first tale of the book, "The Veldt." In this story, we meet a family who are completely dependent on their house. It's a technological miracle, where everything is completely automatic. The thought of actually cooking a meal is tantamount to barbarism, and their idea of taking a vacation means just shutting down the more obsequious functions of the house. One of these is the children's nursery. Akin to the holodeck, this room can replicate any environment that the users want. The children's fascination with the savagery of the African savanna worries their parents, though, and the threat of having the room shut down eventually becomes more than the children - or the house - can tolerate.
In "The Concrete Mixer," a Martian invasion force finds themselves overcome by the technology of Earth. Not the military technology, mind you, but the mindless, brain-destroying technology of leisure. Faced with TV and radio, casinos and bars, drive-in movies and fast food, the Martians discover that Earth is far more dangerous than they had ever expected. In "Marionettes, Inc," Bradbury weaves a tale worthy of Philip K. Dick, telling about a very special service that will create an exact android duplicate of yourself. This robot will do all the tedious things in your life, such as go to work, do chores and tolerate your spouse. But what if the perfect robot duplicates are too perfect, and decide that they don't really want to do the drudgery anymore? In "The City," a self-aware metropolis wakes up after twenty thousand years with the arrival of human astronauts - and immediately begins planning its revenge on those who left it so long ago.
Another recurring theme in this collection is that of seeking happiness, through one means or another, and only occasionally finding it. In these stories, characters are looking for something that will make their lives worthwhile, or at the very least a little bit better. In "The Long Rain," a group of explorers on Venus want just one thing - to get out of the eternal, unceasing rain that pummels the planet. The Sun Domes are their only shelter, if they can find one before they die or go mad. In "No Particular Night or Morning," an astronaut searches for the only thing he can be absolutely sure of in this universe - nothingness.
In "The Man," a group of interstellar explorers are looking for a being, who may or may not be Jesus Christ, going from planet to planet and always finding themselves just a little bit too late. In "The Rocket," a poor junkyard owner wants more than anything to fulfill his dream of showing his children outer space, and manages to do it in a slightly roundabout way. And in "Rocket Man," a father tries to find what he really wants - to live among the stars or to stay with his family on Earth, and ultimately realizes that he wants - but cannot have - both.
The stories in here are all pretty good, and there were a few I want to touch on in more detail. The one that I took the most notes on was "The Other Foot," a tale of Mars and the shocking reversal of racial discrimination. In this story, Mars has been colonized by Black exiles from the United States, sent off-planet in an ultimate act of segregation. After decades of eking out an existence on that harsh planet, they learn that a rocket from Earth - probably containing a white astronaut - is on its way. The community reacts in a knee-jerk fashion, preparing a new apartheid on Mars - re-creating the worst of Jim Crow, only in reverse. When the rocket touches down and announces that nuclear war has destroyed everything the colonists had known and loved about Earth, and that white Americans had come to Mars to beg for the help of its citizens, the mob has a change of heart and decides to let bygones be bygones.
As much as I hate post-modernism, I couldn't shut off my critic's voice while reading this story. I wondered if a story about Black oppression written by a white author must automatically be racist in nature, and I wondered if Bradbury's suggestion that Black colonists on Mars would, as a first reaction, try to re-create the worst conditions they had endured on Earth might not be rooted in a fundamental misunderstanding of Black culture. Then the Intellectual Machine That Eats Itself (i.e. Postmodernism) began to ask if perhaps these thoughts were rooted in my own unacknowledged racism, at which point I had to just finish the damn story and move on. It's a question that probably wasn't asked fifty years ago, though, which makes the story an interesting one to revisit in our slightly more enlightened age.
Another story that I really enjoyed was "The Exiles," which has also been titled "The Mad Wizards of Mars." In this tale, the great writes of fiction - and their works - are living (where else?) on Mars. There you can find Edgar Allan Poe and Ambrose Bierce living with Charles Dickens and Shakespeare. They're on Mars because Earth has been systematically destroying their works, and thus depriving them of immortality. When a rocket arrives from Earth carrying the last load of books to be destroyed, the fictionauts launch a last-ditch attempt to save themselves. With Poe leading their armies, they pour all of their power into stopping the rocket. Shakespeare's witches fling curses at the astronauts, and Poe summons all the armies of fiction to defend their existence.
It's a story that you can tell Bradbury had a lot of fun writing, and is full of wonderful references to the authors he loves. Just the image of Edgar Allan Poe screaming defiance at the air is one that I will treasure every time I read the tale.
What's really wonderful about this collection is that it's aged well. Published in 1951, it does suffer from some of the mid-century sci-fi tropes of the day, and modern writers would never be allowed to get away with something like a rainy Venus or humanity calmly accepting the end of the world. But they're still great stories, and well worth the read. So go read 'em.
"I am a frightened and an angry man. I am a god, Mr. Dickens, even as you are a god, even as we all are gods, and our inventions - our people, if you wish - have not only been threatened, but banished and burned, torn up and censored, ruined and done away with. The worlds we created are falling into ruin. Even gods must fight!"
- Edgar Allan Poe, "The Exiles" (Ray Bradbury)
Ray Bradbury on Wikipedia
The Illustrated Man on Wikipedia
The Illustrated Man on Amazon.com
Ray Bradbury's website