Tuesday, 14 February 2012

Ray Bradbury- The Illustrated Man

The Illustrated Man
Doubleday
Ray Bradbury
1951

"If El Greco had painted miniatures in his prime, no bigger than your hand, infinitely detailed with all his sulphurous color, elongation, and anatomy, perhaps he might have used this man's body for his art. The colors burned in three dimensions. They were windows looking in upon fiery reality. Here, gathered on one wall, were all the finest scenes in the universe, the man was a walking treasure gallery. This wasn't the work of a cheap carnival tattoo man with three colors and whiskey on his breath. This was the accomplishment of a living genius, vibrant, clear, and beautiful." 

My first exposure to the work of the highly prolific and well-respected sci-fi author Ray Bradbury went rather smoothly with this, an anthology of previously published thematically-linked short stories given a new framework to link them together. I'm not a fan of sci-fi for the sake of sci-fi, but I do appreciate how the unlimited scope and opportunity for imagination can be used by talented authors to enhance their philosophies beyond that of normal drama, and also how perhaps less naturally talented writers can still make an impact and write an interesting story through a striking imagination. After reading this book, I'd initially place Bradbury in the middle of this; perhaps lower on the totem than the likes of Arthur C. Clarke or William Gibson, but talented enough to strike a chord with the reader through coming up with stories with a greater meaning than they initially present.

The framework involves the story of the eponymous illustrated man and a narrator who meets him; a tattooed vagrant whose magical body art twists and turns to show a multitude of animated stories. It's not particularly important, but does help a little to link these stories as warning prophecies of the future. The book comprises of eighteen short stories of varying quality and imagination. A few of them, such as 'The Veldt' (a 'smart' house with a holographic nursery that gets stuck on an unsettling scene), 'Marionettes, Inc.' (a man tries to use a life-like animatronic doll of himself to escape his wife's obsessive nature) and Usher II (in an Orwellian book-burning future, a man escapes to Mars to build a real version of Poe's House of Usher, using it to kill those who come after him) are conceptually brilliant, and Bradbury's decent prose is enough to bring them to life and imprint them on the reader's memory. Others, though, are bland and a little repetitive, focusing on similar themes and ideas that left no memorable imprint for me.

While I believe that this collection would be better if trimmed of the excess fat, overall the themes are similar and strong enough to justify the concept, and Bradbury's straightforward and consist ant style of prose contributes to an impressive feeling of often downbeat, sinister parable-telling, with a hint of foreshadowing towards a self-brought end to humanity. But, while it's a little silly to complain about a short-story collection featuring too much content, the concept is watered down through the weaker offerings and prevents The Illustrated Man, in my mind, from being a true genre classic; though I'll definitely get back to Bradbury at some point.