Monday, April 06, 2020

Lockdown Choices - Issue #3: The Illustrated Man

This is the third in a new series of posts, my Lockdown Choices, where I seek to entertain you while in coronavirus-isolation, and remind you of Bradbury's great works in this, his centenary year.
In these posts, I cover each of Ray Bradbury's books, say something about the contents, then pick the best stories and adaptations.

Lockdown Choice #3: The Illustrated Man

First edition. Doubleday, 1951.

The Book

The Illustrated Man was Ray Bradbury's third book, a collection of mostly science-fictional tales.  It collected twenty stories, most of which had previously been published in various magazines between 1947 and 1951. As with Bradbury's second book The Martian Chronicles, the stories are linked together to create an impression of being more than "just" a collection of stories, although the linking is much sparser here: an introduction and an epilogue to frame the stories, and the occasional reminder of the link between a couple of the stories. It's received wisdom in publishing that short story collections don't sell as well as novels, so it's understandable that Doubleday would favour any attempt to make a collection look like a novel. According to Bradbury (quoted in Sam Weller's The Bradbury Chronicles), it was editor Walter Bradbury (no relation) who asked, "We've disguised The Martian Chronicles as a novel, do you think we can somehow do the same thing with The Illustrated Man?"

You may recall that The Martian Chronicles was marketed as science fiction, against Bradbury's express wishes. Well, if Chronicles established him in the public mind as a writer of SF, it was The Illustrated Man which would confirm it. With two books of SF material in a row, Bradbury would find himself branded forever after as a "sci-fi writer", despite the fact that most of his published works across his whole career was decidedly not science fiction.

Eller & Touponce's book Ray Bradbury: the Life of Fiction (Kent State UP, 2004) reveals some of the compositional history of this book. In May 1950, Bradbury put together a proposed table of contents for a short story collection, with a "tentative title" (his phrase) of Frost and Fire. He clearly tried out various combinations of stories, since the typed table of contents has lots of handwritten crossings out and insertions. But most of the stories which we strongly associate with The Illustrated Man are there, such as "Kaleidoscope", "The Veldt", "The Rocket Man", and "Marionettes, Inc." By Bradbury's own tally, this version of the book would have run to 78,000 words.

Following some back-and-forth between Ray and his editor Walter Bradbury, the contents and title of the book shifted. Ray wanted to have a section of SF stories and a section of fantasy tales, with his fantasy short "The Illustrated Man" as the title story of the volume. But Walter pushed the collection much more towards the science fiction stories, although he did yield to Ray's request for the book not to have the "Doubleday Science Fiction" logo on it. As Ray was gradually won over to Walter's concept, he was finally persuaded that The Illustrated Man would be a great title for the book, but admitted that the titular short story would be out of place in a collection of SF. He instead took the concept of his short story and used it to create a framing device for the book. And hence, one of the twentieth-century's finest SF short story collections is framed by a narrative of total fantasy.

Somewhere along the way, someone or other noted that many of Ray's Illustrated Man tales appear to be hostile to technology. There's a terrible futuristic nursery which seems to run out of control. There's a bunch of astronauts left falling to their doom. The world comes to an end. Bradbury, it was claimed, is anti-science, anti-technology, anti-progress; showing us nothing but a future where everything is bad.

Bradbury's counter-claim was that he wrote such stories not to predict the future but to prevent it. To warn us of the dangers, and thereby allow us to create a good future. A good example of this is "The Veldt". While it's true that the nursery takes over, the villain of "The Veldt" is not the machine. It's the parents, who are really science-fictional analogues for real-life parents who dump their kids in front of the TV.  If we carry on like this, says Bradbury, look where we will end up.

Nevertheless, the skewed claim that Bradbury is anti-progress - like the inaccurate badge "sci-fi writer" - would be pinned to Bradbury for the rest of his writing career.

The Illustrated Man, like The Martian Chronicles, proved to be a very unstable text. With each passing edition, it seems, the table of contents would change. Eventually, even the short story "The Illustrated Man" - originally ejected from the book because it was fantasy rather than SF - would find a home in some editions.

Find out how The Illustrated Man locked Bradbury firmly in as a "science fiction writer" in my Bradbury 101 video below. And scroll further down the page for my pick of the best stories from the book.


The Stories

This is tough. The Illustrated Man doesn't contain a single duff story. Some of them have become famous in their own right (I'm looking at you, "The Veldt") through countless appearances in anthologies and media adaptations. Some ("The Rocket Man") now look like perfect encapsulations of post-war America. But when I started on this series I decided I would pick a few stories from each book, so I shall stick to my own rules. Here then are my personal picks from The Illustrated Man:

"The Veldt" - an absolute classic SF story. A family installs an all-singing-all-dancing nursery in which their children can have the ultimate virtual reality* experience. Their favourite holodeck* programme shows the African veldt:
Now the hidden odorophonics were beginning to blow a wind of odor at the two people in the middle of the baked veldtland. The hot straw smell of lion grass, the cool green smell of the hidden water hole, the great rusty smell of animals, the smell of dust like a red paprika in the hot air. And now the sounds: the thump of distant antelope feet on grassy sod, the papery rustling of vultures. A shadow passed through the sky. The shadow flickered on George Hadley’s upturned, sweating face.
Bradbury is at his prose-poetic best in his detailing of the nursery. Just look at how many appeals to the senses he makes in the paragraph above, and how evocative his word choices are - hot straw smell, cool green smell, great rusty smell, paper rustling. Beautiful.

The parents are only too happy to leave their children - aptly named Peter and Wendy - to play alone in the nursery, while they go about their tedious adult lives. No spoilers, but let's just say that there is a price to pay for parents George and Lydia.

"The Veldt" in its first published appearance, under the title "The World the Children Made",
Saturday Evening Post, September 23 1950.

*Bradbury uses none of these terms, which came into the SF lexicon many years later. Even so, Bradbury was the first writer to really bring to life the ideas we now recognise from VR and Star Trek's holodeck.

"The Rocket Man" - there's no way that the detailing of space exploration in this story would pass muster today. The references to Venus, Mars and Jupiter - common places to visit in pulp science fiction, but not realistic desitinations for us now - really date this story. And the ideal, all-American, nuclear family, sitting on the porch, mowing lawns... all of this is redolent of 1950s America. And yet...

And yet the drama of this story, told directly by a child who hero-worships his astronaut father, and indirectly through what we see and hear of the mother's responses, is heart-breaking. The normality of the father who repeatedly goes off to work, and repeatedly comes home again is contrasted both with the child's heroic vision of the "spaceman", and the reality of the risks of space travel.

We are told, "When he was gone, [mother] never talked of him. She never said anything about anything but the weather or the condition of my neck and the need of a washcloth for it, or the fact that she didn’t sleep nights. Once she said the light was too strong at night." Which, it turns out, reflects the deep fear of the mother, a fear which she cannot share with her child.

Later, the father urges his son not to follow in his footsteps: “Because when you’re out there you want to be here, and when you’re here you want to be out there. Don’t start that. Don’t let it get hold of you. [...] You don’t know what it is. Every time I’m out there I think, If I ever get back to Earth I’ll stay there; I’ll never go out again. But I go out, and I guess I’ll always go out. [...] Promise me you won’t be like me."

There's a beautifully crafted triangle here: father who can't help but go into space; mother who dreads every minute of it; and child who so desperately wants to be like his father, but has to stay home with his fearful mother.

Some people say Bradbury can't write characters. I say: read "The Rocket Man". And if you ever read the biographies of any of the early astronauts who died on launchpads, test flights or landings, you will see that the drives and fears of Bradbury's characters ring absolutely true.

"The Rocket Man" in its first appearance, in Maclean's magazine, March 1951.

"The Last Night of the World" - a story whose very title contains a spoiler! This is a very spare piece of writing, literally a dialogue between two characters. It begins as a "what-if": What if this were the last night of the world? What would you do? It turns out not to be hypothetical; lots of people have had the same dream, of the end of the world, a "closing of a book"; it's going to happen, and happen tonight. The story is by turns philosophical, amusing and sad. It ends with the man and the woman saying "good night" to each other.

"The Fox and the Forest" - I think of this as being one of the few "plotted" stories in this collection. It starts off in Mexico in 1938, but it transpires that the central characters are from 2155. They have travelled back through time to escape an oppressive regime - but have been pursued into the past. How often have we seen this story in science fiction books and movies? But Bradbury was possibly the first writer to use this device in a story of quality.

Some of the mechanics of time travel will be familiar to you if you know Bradbury's other celebrated time-travel story, "A Sound of Thunder".

Bradbury himself clearly liked this story, and saw film potential in it: he wrote more than one screen adaptation of it, although none of them were ever filmed.

"The Fox and the Forest" first appeared under the title "To the Future",  Collier's magazine May 1950.

The Adaptations

The Illustrated Man as a whole has been adapted once for film, and once for radio. But if you think about it, it's an odd book to adapt. Because it's not a novel, it's a short story collection. Consequently, the would-be adaptor is faced with a couple of key choices: how much time to devote to the framing story involving the tattooed man, and which of the stories to adapt?

The most famous adaptation is the 1969 film, starring then-husband-and-wife team Rod Steiger and Clare Bloom. It was written, according to Bradbury, by a real-estate agent. And it shows. While the framing story with the tattooed man is engaging up to a point, the decision to use Steiger in all of the short story adaptations ends up being nothing but (a) mysterious or (b) confusing, depending on your point of view. The framing story weaves in and out of the individual stories, suggesting that there might be some grand reveal, or a unifying of all the story threads. But it never achieves this. I've always thought that the people who made it had no understanding of fantasy storytelling, in particular the need in fantasy to have an underlying logic to the story. It's a shame, because Steiger  is impressive in the title role, and the opening scenes of the film seem to capture the essence of Bradbury.

Press book for the 1969 film. No mention here of screenwriter Kreitsek being a real estate agent...(Click image to embiggen!)

Less well known is the BBC radio dramatisation of 2014. This was written by Brian Sibley, the dramatist behind the 1990s Bradbury series Tales of the Bizarre. The atmosphere was exactly right in both the script and the production, showing once again that radio is an ideal medium for capturing the magic of Bradbury. You can read about Brian's choices of story and how he approached the framing device here.

Many of the individual stories from The Illustrated Man have also been repeatedly adapted for other media. "Zero Hour" has been done for radio several times, and TV a couple of times - and was the basis for the short-lived 2015 ABC TV series The Whispers. "The Veldt" has also been adapted multiple times, as has "Marionettes, Inc."

What isn't so well known is that Bradbury himself wrote several film scripts for adaptations of The Illustrated Man. In 1960, he completed a screenplay for producer Jerry Wald; the film was never produced. In this version, Ray adapted the framing story from the book, plus the stories "The Veldt", "Sun and Shadow", "In a Season of Calm Weather" and "The Crowd" - but only one of these stories ("The Veldt") comes from the book!

Ray Bradbury's file for the Illustrated Man screenplay, now part of the Allbright collection housed at the Center for Ray Bradbury Studies in Indianapolis. Photo by Phil Nichols.

It's clear that Ray saw The Illustrated Man as an opportunity to put his favourite stories on screen, regardless of whether they had any connection to the book. Late in life he wrote another screenplay for The Illustrated Man, this time for the Sci-Fi Channel; again, it went unproduced. The stories in this version? "On the Orient, North" (not from the book!) and "The Veldt" (from the book).

Find Out More...

Read "The Rocket Man " in the official archive of Maclean's magazine, here.

Read "The Last Night of the World" on the Esquire website, here.

I had a lively discussion about The Illustrated Man and the 1969 film adaptation on the Take Me To our Reader podcast, which you can hear here.

In 1969, when the Illustrated Man film was in production, Bradbury was profiled by Canadian TV network CBC for their Telescope series. Watch the documentary here.


The classic SF radio series X Minus One adapted a number of stories from The Illustrated Man. Check out "Zero Hour" here.



In November 2021, I gave a live online talk about The Illustrated Man, in celebration of its seventieth anniversary. Watch it here:

Next Up...

The next of my Lockdown Choices will be Bradbury's fourth book: The Golden Apples of the Sun.

1 comment:

m. d. said...

This is all WONDERFUL MATERIAL wonderfully catalogued and described and greatly appreciated.