Excursions Of A Bibliophile

What are u reading these days?

Stories from The Illustrated Man – Ray Bradbury

Posted by Vish Mangalapalli on November 29, 2011

2011 will go down as my year of knowing many fantastic writers I have never heard or read before. Foremost among them is Ray Bradbury. He is – I am coming to realize – a writer of extraordinary talent, range and prolificity. Novels, short stories, essays, literary criticism, plays, movie scripts and an odd poem here and there – his output is staggering. But above all he is an absolute pleasure to read. Here is a collection of his short stories viz. “The Illustrated Man” which I have read recently

The setting of his stories in this collection whether it is a noiseless and indifferent space, the alien landscape of Mars, time travel into past from future or our own but morphed earth is a beguiling façade, a ploy and a master writer’s technique to bring a necessary isolation and consequently an intense focus to the diverse human predicaments that are being observed, discussed and portrayed

Here are a few from the collection which I liked quite a lot and which I would not hesitate to read again. There is a beauty, effortlessness and a larger theme in the storytelling technique that Bradbury adopts

The Fire Balloons: As human beings we develop points of view which even in the most universal contexts are narrowly anthropocentric. This kind of thinking puts us on an unwitting path of presumptions. We assume that we have a monopoly on issues related to ethics, sin, soul, righteousness and puff up unwittingly. A group of church pastors travel to Mars to redeem the inhabitants – who appear as irradiant blue flames – by introducing the concept of sin, soul and God. It turns out that these inhabitants are evolved souls who have already reached a state of nirvana and bliss and do not need any instruments, processes and symbols of earthly spirituality. The revelation of this advanced state of evolution comes to the pastors in one long gentle monologue from one of the blue flames and there is an enjoyable touch of eastern and Zen like quality to this story. The conclusion of the earthlings is a pleasant shocker:

No he thought, we couldn’t build a church for the likes of you. You’re beauty yourself. What church could compete with the fireworks of the pure soul?

Probably the best story in the collection for the grandness of its philosophical bent and the simplicity of narration

The Long Rain: I always maintained that the greatest evocation of the feeling of rain was done by Maugham in his story “The Rain” – that is till I read this story of Ray Bradbury. The sheer verbal energy that Bradbury brings to a landscape battered by rain is superbly done in this story. Man’s need for safety against rain and the need for regular sunlight and how the weak hearted give up is brilliantly narrated. The story opens with this torrent of flawless words:

The rain continued. It was a hard rain, a perpetual rain, a sweating and streaming rain; it was a mizzle, a downpour, a fountain, a whipping in the eyes, an undertow in the ankles; it was a rain to drown all rains and the memory of rains. It came by the pound and the ton, it hacked at the jungle and cut the trees like scissors and shaved the grass and tunneled the soil and molted the bushes. It shrank men’s hands into the hands of wrinkled apes; it rained a solid glassy rain, and it never stopped

Mildly frightening but thoroughly enjoyable

The Last Night Of the World: The job of a writer among others is to constantly point and remind us who we are as human beings, what is that makes us and what ticks us – the result could be a picture or a snapshot of the complex diversity that defines us. Bradbury does this extremely well in this story by demonstrating how we have become creatures of habit.

A couple is in the know that the world is coming to end at midnight. Yet they continue with the regular chores of a normal day including the trivial act of turning off the running tap in the kitchen even while the imminent and impending doomsday cataclysm is staring right into their faces. There is a wonderful sense of pathos and summing up that Bradbury brings to his characters through this simple yet powerful dialogue

“We haven’t been too bad, have we?”

“No, nor enormously good. I suppose that’s the trouble – we haven’t been very much of anything except us, while a big part of the world was busy being lots of quite awful things”

In some ways, isn’t this our state too?

 Kaleidoscope: A good question to ask is: How do we sum up our lives in the face of impending death? But a better question would be: Ideally what should the desirable summary be while summing up our life while facing death? This is a wonderful story of a group of astronauts on a failed and wrecked spaceship drifting apart from one another in the vastness of space in different directions to their unavoidable doom and talking to one another about life, death, living, memories on a weakening communication system. Misery, it is said, loves company but misery also brings out our inherent meanness and generosity to the fore in these last moments. This aspect is wonderfully portrayed in this story. Consider this snippet:

Lespere had lived a good full life, and it made him a different man now, and he, Hollis, had been as good as dead for many years. They came to death by separate paths and, in all likelihood, if there were kinds of death, their kinds of death would be as different as night from day. The quality of death, like that of life, must be of an infinite variety, and if one has already died once, then what was there to look for in dying for good and all, as he was now?

The narrator who is hurtling to earth with a feeling of remorse for letting life pass by in petty jealousies and frivolous attitudes consoles himself that he will be useful by becoming ash and spreading over the earth. A wonderfully poignant story which I read many times over for the sheer beauty of its storytelling

The Fox and the Forest: A couple time travel into past to avoid their world which is regimented, controlled, censored and full of war and induced disease. They are hunted back to future by agents of Govt. A moving portrayal of desperation to escape to a state which is civilized, gentle and above all human. There is place in the story where the husband sums up the world he lives which is eerily familiar and has immense resemblance to our current state

And we lived in a world that was evil. A world that was like a great black ship pulling away from the shore of sanity and civilization, roaring its black horn in the night, taking two billion people with it, whether they wanted to go or not, to death, to fall over the edge of the earth and sea into radioactive flames and madness

Two billion or Six Billion – are we any different?

Marionettes Inc.: I hope to meet a man or woman who despite unwavering belief in the institution of marriage would not confess to the occasional constraints and suffocation that marriage imposes on them. Here is a story of two friends in such a predicament and one of them tries to beat it by hiring an identical looking marionette to substitute his place while he plans to proceed on a long awaited holiday. However the marionette has its own evil plans. Inspired, the other friend also proceeds to procure a marionette for substitution but realises to his horror that his wife is already ahead of him in the game… a thoroughly enjoyable tale with a mildly chilling twist in the tale. – while the friends turn out to be gullible the marionette in the former case and the wife in the latter case turn out to be cleverer

No Particular Night or Morning: In general, we have romantic notions of space but space can be bewildering. It unhinges and disorients as it effectively robs one of a sense of dimension, a sense of time, notions of night and day and a feeling of intense isolation. A gruesome tale of a person who begins with enthusiastic love for space but gradually goes mad and ends up committing suicide on a spaceship

The City: A city that has been conquered, ravaged and left to dereliction by humans recoups itself over a period of twenty thousand years organizes itself to seek revenge on its perpetrators.  In ways it is also a parable to remind us how nature can seek revenge for human excesses. There is a movie like quality to this story

The Rocket Man: Industrialization and advancement has induced a strange bewitchment with the work we do. We define ourselves with the kind of work we do and carry on till our end doing so. Here is a poignant story of a man who is a space traveler and finds it hard to stay put on earth despite his family’s need for him only to end perishing in an accident while traveling to sun leaving his family in darkness

The Veldt: Probably the most chilling story of the collection. Two young kids whose parental needs are substituted by their all providing mechanical house plot and do their parents to death to avoid the threat of shutting down the mechanical house they love so much. The portrayal of a clinical indifference with which the children carry out their act is superbly done

Bradbury has written close to five hundred stories. One thing is for certain: I will read all of them from this cornucopia

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