I think my first exposure to Ray Bradbury (on the page, at least) was Fahrenheit 451, which was a mistake. Not because that book isn’t a classic – it is – but because novels really weren’t Bradbury’s thing. He was a short story writer and he cranked them out at a furious clip. Although I knew that, the only collection of his stories I’d ever sat down and read was The Martian Chronicles, in which the material is related enough that it’s sometimes considered a novel.
The Illustrated Man has no such pretensions. Sure, there’s a frame story (about a man whose tattoos come to life and predict the future), but it has nothing to do with the stories themselves, each of which rises and falls on its own. Most of them, naturally, not only rise but soar. Highlights are too numerous to list completely, but include “The Veldt,” which must have been one of the first stories to deal with virtual reality, massive TV screens, and artificial intelligence. There’s “The Man,” which takes the concept of being in constant pursuit of perfection to a different level. “The Rocket” uses a nice bit of sleight of hand to tell a story about a father who’d do anything for his children. The version I have even includes one of my favorite of the Martian stories, “Usher II,” in which a eccentric brings to life many of the horrors of Poe and visits them on those who would censor such things.
My two favorites in this collection surprised me.
The first was “The Long Rain,” which is essentially a survival story, which is generally not my kind of thing. But the description (of a Venus that probably doesn’t resemble the real one) is so rich and the layer of madness on top so palpable that it really works. How nobody has made this into a move yet is beyond me (it was one of a few stories adapted for a 1969 film called The Illustrated Man, but it wasn’t received well). I’m thinking Alien meets Aguirre, The Wrath of God – somebody get Herzog on the phone!
The other, “The Fox and the Forest,” falls into one of my least favorite of sci-fi categories – time travel stories. Such stories generally lead to me tearing my hair out. I can’t really say why – maybe it’s because such stories normally deal with the byzantine rules of time travel itself and tend to disappear up their own backside. But this story, perhaps because it’s a short story and doesn’t have time for such things, sidesteps that, as it deals with a couple who flee into the past to escape a dystopian future.
To be fair, one of the other time travel stories I really like is Bradbury’s “A Sound of Thunder,” so maybe he was just on to something when it came to time travel.
My wife isn’t a fan of short stories. She prefers novels because she likes the longer work that allows her to get deeply involved with it. I see her point, but short stories – good ones – dip you into another world so efficiently and effectively that they seem longer than they really are. Certainly when you’re in the hands of a master that’s true. Bradbury doesn’t disappoint.