The Illustrated Man is a short tale wrapped around eighteen short stories. The framing story is of a tattooed man whom the narrator meets, and whose tattoos foretell the future. The eighteen short stories inside the frame give Ray Bradbury’s visions of our future and, in the process, let us see ourselves as we are in the past and present. Bradbury always asks probing questions in his work, but seldom provides definitive answers. He leaves it to the reader to find his or her own answers inside.
The Illustrated Man is chock full of questions. In order to find the answers, you must read the stories and let them reflect your own mind and soul. The Illustrated Man is a wonderful, scary, awful thrill ride through the future, with our tour guide always happy to show us the darkness that we humans bring to even the brightest of possibilities.
Herewith, eighteen questions for your entertainment, amusement, and enlightenment:
“The Veldt” shows us a future of technological wonder. The Virtual Reality Playroom is now a reality. When children are left in the care of such a machine, their imaginations are shaped by it and shape it in return. Where exactly is the line between virtual and reality?
“Kaleidoscope” poses an equally deep question. When you face certain death, what will you think of the way you led your life?
In “The Other Foot,” we have to face a most compelling question: When we leave Earth, will we be able to leave our prejudices behind?
“The Highway” is a story of nuclear apocalypse. If (or when) we Americans destroy ourselves, will the rest of the world even notice?
“The Man” is a religious allegory disguised as science fiction. Would you recognize the true nature of salvation if you saw it?
In “The Long Rain,” a group of men face the ultimate water torture — rain that never stops. What is your breaking point?
“The Rocket Man” gives us a boy trying to come to terms with his rocket pilot father’s obsession with space. Can we ever truly understand what drives another person into a dangerous occupation?
“The Fire Balloons” confronts us with some religious thoughts. Can alien races be saved? Do they even need salvation?
“The Last Night of the World” is a time for reflection and acceptance. How would you react?
In “The Exiles” we find a disturbing thought. What happens to Mankind’s dreams once he stops dreaming them?
“No Particular Night or Morning” tells of a space ship a long way out in space. How will all that emptiness affect a man’s mind?
In “The Fox and the Forest,” we follow a couple trying to escape from the future. Can we ever really escape our responsibilities?
“The Visitor” takes us to Mars, where memories of Earth are valued almost more than life itself. When you lose your memories and dreams, what is left?
“The Concrete Mixer” is a classic invasion-by-Martians story with a twist. How would aliens cope with human society?
“Marionettes, Inc.” probes the meaning of honesty. After years of living a lie, what is the truth worth?
“The City” is alive. Will the sins of the fathers be visited upon their sons?
“Zero Hour” is another alien invasion story. Can grown-ups ever recognize the truths that children see?
Finally, “The Rocket” tells of a man who gives his children his dreams, their dreams, the stars. How far would you go, how much would you pay to do the same?
Questions. Deep questions, wise questions, hard, probing questions. Bradbury asks, and Bradbury answers. In his own inimitable style, shaping words into sculptures, giving life and breath to dead ink on dead paper, he answers. Then he leaves us to wonder what our own answers are.
The Illustrated Man was first published in 1951, so this is Bradbury the Grand Master of Science Fiction. The science in these stories is, of course, badly outdated, but then Bradbury never emphasized the science. His stories are about people. People in search of truth. People in dire predicaments. The science has always been mere window decoration in Bradbury’s stories. We read him for the power of his insight and the beauty of his language. You will find both in The Illustrated Man.