The Last Sci-Fi Blog: Digging Into Ray Bradbury's 'The Illustrated Man'

The Last Sci-Fi Blog: Digging Into Ray Bradbury's 'The Illustrated Man'

Jul 05, 2012

The Sci-Fi News: New Photos From 'Elysium' and 'Pacific Rim' and a Trailer For 'Iron Sky'

What is Elysium? It's the next film from District 9 director Neill Blomkamp, so that's all you need to know, really. However, if it's an official synopsis you want, it's an official synopsis you'll get (and while we're here, how about the first image of star Matt Damon?):

In the year 2159 two classes of people exist: the very wealthy who live on a pristine man-made space station called Elysium, and the rest, who live on an overpopulated, ruined Earth. Secretary Rhodes (Jodie Foster), a hard line government of?cial, will stop at nothing to enforce anti-immigration laws and preserve the luxurious lifestyle of the citizens of Elysium. That doesn’t stop the people of Earth from trying to get in, by any means they can. When unlucky Max (Matt Damon) is backed into a corner, he agrees to take on a daunting mission that if successful will not only save his life, but could bring equality to these polarized worlds.

Like District 9, Elysium sounds like it'll make a not-so-subtle political message in between the various explosions and what-not. After all, it's probbaly much easier to get your movie about immigration made if it features Matt Damon blowing thigns up with a huge rail gun.

Hey! It looks like cameras are finally folling on Mad Max: Fury Road! After years of being interrupted by weather, wars and political unrest, director George Miller is finally ready to bring us back to his unique take on the post-apocalypse.

The only currently-filming sci-fi flick that has me more excited than Elysium is Guillermo del Toro's Pacific Rim. What do you get when you let a brilliant mad man of a filmmaker make a giant robots versus giant monsters movie? Something worth seeing, we imagine. A new image from the film gives a peek at the film's anime-inspired costuming and tech and it's a painful reminder that this film is a long way off.

I was no fan of Iron Sky when I saw it at SXSW, but I cannot deny that it is a well made movie and I cannot deny your right to be excited for it. So here's the newest trailer:

The Sci-Fi Book Club: 'The Illustrated Man' by Ray Bradbury (1951)

The Book: Like the vast majority of the books with Ray Bradbury's name on them, The Illustrated Man is a collection of short stories, and like so many short story collections in general, it's a bit of a mixed bag, with some stories making for compelling reading and others practically daring you to skip ahead. However, as a showcase for Bradbury's range, you couldn't ask for a better encapsulation of his talents. The 18 stories collected here rarely tread on the same ground, ranging from harrowing survival tales to warm hearted stories of fatherhood to biting social and political satire.

The stories are bookended with a framing device, which allows all of these seemingly unconnected stories to coexist together in a surprisingly elegant fashion. In the prologue, a hiker meets a mysterious man in the middle of the wilderness and discovers that he is tattooed from head to toe. This "illustrated man" warns the hiker that his tattoos are more than just art…they tell the future. Then, as the two of them sleep, his tattoos come to life and tell our innocent hero 18 random science fiction stories. Although it would be nice if these stories ultimately gelled together into a more coherent vision of the future (if these tattoos do describe "the future," they seem to be describing 18 completely different futures), it's a really cool way to tie the collection together into a great whole.

Unlike some of his contemporaries (namely Arthur C. Clarke and Isaac Asimov), Bradbury has little interest in actual nuts and bolts science and rarely, if ever, offers explanations or creates pseudo-technology to explain why time travel and space travel are possible. Rather, Bradbury is solely interested in the human element of his stories. He doesn't care how a rocket ship works…he only cares how that rocket ship changes the life or perspective of the man piloting it. The same same goes for his prose, which is simple and to-the-point. Bradbury never goes into extreme detail about his science fiction worlds, instead choosing to plant a seed with a key phrase or two and letting our imagination build the landscape of his future.

Despite steering away from "hard" sci-fi, Bradbury's best stories in The Illustrated Man revolve around some pretty tough, bizarre concepts. "Kaleidoscope," which follows a stranded astronaut as he slowly dies while stranded in outer space, is a gut punch of a read, capturing the nightmare of being stranded in an infinite vacuum with no chance of survival. "The Fox and the Forest," which follows a married couple who journey into the past to escape the wars of the the future, feels ready to be adapted to the big screen as its own movie. The best story of the bunch, though, is "The City,' a chilling horror tale about a team of space explorers who encounter a sentient city with a nefarious goal.

Also unlike his peers, Bradbury uses science fiction to explore his religious beliefs, often using fantastic concepts to explore the meaning of faith. Of these particular stories, "The Fire Balloons" is the highlight, examining what happens when a team of Christian missionaries attempt to make contact with alien beings on the surface of mars. Since so much science fiction is an outright rejection of religion, it's fascinating to watch a writer as smart and brave as Bradbury attempt to examine them in tandem.

Not every story is successful. Bradbury's attempts at comedic or satiric stories often feel thuddingly obvious, like season five episodes of The Twilight Zone. However, context is vital here. Stories like "The Other Foot" deal with racial politics in a manner that is eye-roll-worthy by modern standards, but feel radical when placed in the context of the book's 1951 publication. Even when he's at his worst (like the borderline excruciating "The Exiles"), Bradbury is at least thoughtful, open minded and keenly aware of humanity at its best and its worst.

When he's at his best, he just writes some of the best science fiction of all time.

The Movie: I was unable to obtain a copy of the 1969 film adaptation of The Illustrated Man in time for this review, but it looks like I may have dodged a bullet. The film has a lackluster reputation in general and after looking at what stories were selected for the film, I can't help but be completely baffled. While "The Long Rain" is a horrifying survival tale worthy of its own movie, I cannot for the life of me see the cinematic potential in "The Veldt" and "The Last Night of the World" (which is a beautiful little story by itself but feels completely un-cinematic). I will try to track down a copy for the next column, but I find myself dreading the watch, honestly.

In other news, Zack Snyder attached himself to a new film version of the book back in 2007, but it looks like that production is dead in the water. That's probably a good thing: despite the iconic framing device, adapting The Illustrated Man is still like trying to adapt a book of short stories. There's no central narrative to speak of.

Still, there are a handful of stories that could easily make the leap to the big screen on their own. "The City," "The Long Rain," "The Rock Man," "The Fire Balloons" and "The Fox and the Forest" all feel like they could sustain a two hour story.

Our little sci-fi book club will continue next time with Stranger in a Strange Land by Robert Heinlein. Until next time!

Stranger in a Strange Land by Robert Heinlein (7/19/12)
Snow Crash by Neal Stephenson (8/2/12)
Foundation, Foundation and Empire and Second Foundation by Isaac Asimov (8/16/12)
2001: A Space Odyssey by Arthur C. Clarke (8/30/12)

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