The Illustrated Man by Ray Bradbury (1951)
This is a collection of many of Ray Bradbury’s best science fiction short stories, including “The Veldt,” a chilling tale that is often assigned as school reading. The stories are tied together by the conceit that they are all represented by tattoos on the body of the “illustrated man,” a circus sideshow freak who is wandering a dusty backroad in the collection’s prologue; he has been kicked out of the circus because his tattoos, and the stories they tell, are too frightening and also tend to come true. The conceit fades away after the first couple of stories, but returns at the end with the final tale, “The Illustrated Man,” and an epilogue.
Bradbury’s style is poetic and evocative, and his stories are fascinating. However, if you are very interested in the science aspect of science fiction, I’d say these stories aren’t for you. Bradbury himself isn’t concerned with the science; he pilots spaceships with only rudimentary concern for how they might work, and sends his characters to neighboring planets without worrying whether they could breathe the atmosphere or withstand the temperatures. Bradbury is much more concerned with the what-if question that sparks each tale. What if you were stranded on Venus, where it rained without relenting? What if you were banished to Mars and met a man who could conjure up images of anywhere you wanted to be? What if your spaceship exploded, and you and your fellow astronauts were set adrift in space?
Bradbury wants to explore how people react to these extreme situations, and he often throws in a twist. The atmosphere of these stories remind me strongly of the old Twilight Zone series, where the science fiction or supernatural premise is merely a device to expose human psychology to extremes and see how it holds up. I admire Bradbury for following his stories through all the twists and turns, for exploring the darkest corners. My favorites: “Kaleidoscope“; “The Long Rain“; “No Particular Night or Morning”; and “The Rocket.”