My recent listening of Killer Women reminded me of how much I love listening to short stories. There’s something very satisfying in completing each snippet, a fulfillment harder to attain by ploughing through 10-20 hour stories on-and-off-and-on-again. (In fact, listening to Jurassic Park led me to conclude that some stories are just more suited to the printed word). In light of both these recent reads, I was certain that I wanted my next listen to be a short story collection – but where to turn?
Ray Bradbury’s been playing on my mind ever since listening to “The Man Who Forgot Ray Bradbury” in Neil Gaiman’s Trigger Warning, and somewhere in the crossroads between that and learning both Gaiman and Joe Hill had contributed to Shadow Show, an anthology celebrating Bradbury’s works, the conclusion became simple. My only previous exposure to Bradbury was a feverish, all-night reading of Fahrenheit 451 that had me confident I was in good hands. And, what joy, Wikipedia informed me that Bradbury is the author of over six hundred short stories, assuring me that if I struck gold, I could be mining it for years to come.
Neither Dark Carnival – Bradbury’s first short story collection – nor its reprint as The October Country were available on Audible, and so The Illustrated Man it was. Bradbury’s second anthology was published in 1951, and collects eighteen short stories of a mostly science fiction nature. The collection hangs around the titular Illustrated Man, a wanderer and former freak-show exhibit whose skin is illustrated with moving stories, telling the tales contained within.
The framing device swiftly disappears after a couple of stories, but returns in time for a chilling and memorable ending. In between, the stories contained are delightful. We begin with “The Veldt”, a tale about technology gone awry. Centered around mis-use of a virtual reality room, it could have been written five minutes ago, let alone sixty-five years. Not all of Bradbury’s futuristic imaginings stand the test of time so well. There are a lot of space stories here, in which the rocket ships and inter-planetary journeying sound very much like a product of Bradbury’s era. But looking past surface level to the very human stories beneath, the emotions are still entirely relatable.
My personal favourite was “The Rocket Man”, which made me desperately sad in the very best way. In it we meet Doug, whose father is constantly away in space on three month missions, returning to Earth for only a few days at a time. Doug’s yearning for his father to stay battles with his own desire to become a Rocket Man, and culminates in a painfully poignant ending. Other highlights include “The Other Foot”, in which Mars has been colonised solely by black people, and we bear witness to the first landing of white explorers. There’s “The Last Night of the World”, in which an ordinary couple go about an ordinary evening, in the knowledge that morning will never come. “The Fox and The Forest” centers around a couple from a war-ravaged future, who abuse new time-travel technology to escape into the past. (Although I kept coming back to the question – if your intent is to escape from war, why would you choose to go back to 1938, and the eve of World War Two???). “Marionettes, Inc” and “Zero Hour” are also thrilling little tales, and if I continue in this vein, I’ll have listed all eighteen stories before too long.
Even the stories that didn’t do quite as much for me – primarily the ones most drenched in sci-fi and space – are stunningly written. Bradbury is clearly an absolute master at his craft, and I can very confidently say that I’ll be returning for more and more of his collections in future.
[Read from 30 November-2 December 2016]