Tuesday, July 07, 2015

The Illustrated Man by Ray Bradbury

I actually picked up this classic novel because I was reading a review of The Whispers, a new TV show inspired by a short story in this collection and they made the story out to seem pretty good. The library had a copy in stock, so I walked over and grabbed it. Now, I'm not entirely new to Bradbury, but for somebody who loves sci-fi and fantasy, I've actually not read an excessive amount of his written work. I've seen tons of adaptations of it, but the source material? Not as much.

I have to say, I'm not sure The Illustrated Man was the right place for me to start. The bookend story of the Illustrated Man himself was fascinating, I got right into the book because it was so compelling at even just the few pages that it took up. But it's really just a bookend, sadly, there's not much more to it than a few pages.
Some of the stories were quite good, most of them more than a little depressing to be honest. Not a lot of happy endings, but then I'm not sure Bradbury really did all that many purely happy endings. I'm not saying this as a bad thing, just maybe that colored my view because I wasn't in the mood for realistic endings.

Obviously some of the stories are better than others, but none stuck out to me as particularly bad. Quite a few of them are quite dated though, and the entire book very obviously exists in it's own time and place, and a time and place that doesn't exist anymore. The Cold War is very evident, as are the racial tensions of that era. Sometimes Bradbury's take on the hot topics seems almost simplistic, but you have to remember when he was writing them. In "The Other Foot," Mars has been colonized with black people who escaped Earth to escape racism and persecution. Then, decades later, a rocket from Earth approaches with their first white visitor. There's a lot about this story that just doesn't work in today's climate and with today's problems, and actually the play on "reverse racism" coming from a modern author would be kind of insulting and possibly offensive. But The Illustrated Man was published in 1951, before the Civil Rights movement was national news, and from that perspective thinking of a white writer telling this story becomes an entirely different experience.

There's a lot of stuff that doesn't hold up to the science we know today, and the vision of space travel is pretty quaint. In "The Long Rain" a group of astronauts crash land on the wrong spot on Venus, and go mad from the constant pouring rain on the planet. They briefly mention the native aliens, who live in the oceans and almost never come on land. Actually, humanoid aliens populate most of the planets in this book, and it's kind of nice to think back on a time when we believed that must be true. As a bonus, I read "The Long Rain" right before I went camping during a storm that lasted about 12 hours, the timing was not lost on me as I started getting fed up with the sound of the rain on the tent and mumbling about just wanting to be dry again.

Another thing Bradbury does well is not shying away from making children terrifying, like in The Veldt and in Zero Hour, the story that The Whispers was inspired by. Zero Hour is a lot more cynical than the show seems to be, possibly because of the length. You expand a few pages into a series and I guess you have to add more sinister plotting and conspiracies or something. Zero Hour is almost phenomenally compact. Most of the stories are, they tell what they need to tell and move on. "Kaleidoscope" is especially well done, it tells the story of that moment in time, but in a full way that makes it feel like part of a larger whole. You get a sense of past, present, and future, even though you're experiencing only maybe ten minutes in a life. And the story starts and ends almost in the middle of moments, it's just very well structured.

All in all, The Illustrated Man is a good book, but it has all the highs and lows of classic science fiction. If you like reading classic books and can put yourself in the context that they were written and published in, you'll probably enjoy it. But if you have trouble with that suspension of disbelief, then when the advanced Martian society decides to finally conquer Earth, you'll probably not really be taken in.