The eponymous Illustrated Man is a carney who breaks his leg and must find another way reason for the carnival to keep him. So he gets tattooed. More than just full sleeves, he’s nearly completely covered. There was, however, something strange about the old crone that did the needlework. He soon finds out that his tattoos come to life at night and play out their stories on the stage his body provides. They’re not happy stories either. It isn’t long before ring leader sends the man and his eerie inkwork on his way. So carnival to carnival he travels and the same thing happens each time.
The story starts with our narrator meeting this strange man. After some ominous tone setting, they settle in for the night and that’s when the stories within the story begin. They range from the utterly alien to the frighteningly possible.
There’s the story about an automated house and the family that lives there. It cooks, it cleans, and even rocks you to sleep at night. It comes complete with a mind-reading room that transforms into whatever you wish. Only the trouble starts when the parents find the children have created an African veldt complete with a pair of lions feasting on a fresh kill. They know no good things can come from this.
Another tattoo shows a precursor to Fahrenheit 451. This time controversial authors, and their creations, find themselves on Mars. It seems every time an author’s books are burned they find themselves on the great red planet. Yet, what happens when the last copy of their work is burned?
Then there’s the yarn about Marionettes acting as a stand-in for people. A company can create a copy of you. Buy one and you can free yourself up to take that vacation you’ve been meaning to.
How about a successful invasion of Earth by Martians? It happens on the weird man’s tapestry of tattoos. Yet, the only reason they won is because Earth gave up before the fighting started.
The escape of African Americans to Mars, just before the white folk decimate Earth and thus must seek asylum from the very people they abused and a rocket man’s family and how they deal with his leaving them behind as he journeys amongst the stars are among the other stories the tattoos described. However, the last tattoo is the most ominous, at least for our narrator.
Bradbury was a true visionary. The stories were a little somber for my tastes but he was such a skilled writer with such a vivid imagination that I’m sad I only read Fahrenheit 451 and the Martian Chronicles whilst he was still among the living. I’m a little abashed by the fact that his death drove me to see what I missed but at least I’m reading more now. I suggest you do the same. Even those of you that couldn’t care less about Martians and rocket ships should pick up a copy. Those devices are just for show. When you strip away all the fantastical creations you’re left with profound questions about the human condition. Bradbury had a way of getting his readers to think and what better praise can be heaped on a writer but that?
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