The 5 Best Short Stories from The Illustrated Man

By: Graeme, June 6th, 2023 12:06 pm.

View on Any discussion about the late, great Ray Bradbury and what his greatest work was, will have The Illustrated Man in the conversation.

Released in 1951, this short story collection features 18 stores that are not connected to each other, but primarily deal with space and space travel.

The book opens by setting the framework. A man meets The Illustrated Man, a former carnival performer whose body is covered in tattoos. However, each tattoo is more of an illustration which comes to life, and the man sees each story through the mans artwork.

In 1969, the book was adapted into a movie of the same name. It starred Rod Steiger and Claire Bloom, although only three of the stories from the book made the list.

In this article, I’m going to list what I felt were the best 5 short stories out of the 18 stories in The Illustrated Man.

It can be hard to judge each story and set guidelines as to what constitutes the “best” story out of the bunch.

For this list, having just finished the book, I’m going with the stories that stayed with me.

What stories days later, I am still thinking about.

I should note it was very difficult to narrow this to just 5, and I changed the order and list multiple times before posting. Every story in this collection has merit to belong on this list. I need to give a shout out to The Veldt, which came close.

Please note, there are spoilers of each story in this article.

#5:The Visitor

There is a deadly illness sweeping Earth, known as “blood rust”. People from Earth are exiled there to die a slow death. The main narrator for the story is Saul Williams, who spends his day lonely like the others, and dreaming of returning to earth to visit his beloved New York City.

A rocket lands on the planet, and aboard is a man with a special skill. Leonard Mark can perform telepathy, and can make people see anything they want. He demonstrates this for Saul, by showing him New York City as if he was living in it. Saul also asks him if he can conjure up a creek that Saul was able to swim in as a child, and Mark is able to do that.

Mark has these incredible powers, but Saul is concerned about the other exiles and wants Mark for himself. Saul ends up knocking him out and takes him to a cave to hide him.

The other exiles show up at the cave. A fight results over it all, and Mark ends up getting shot and killed.

I love those stories that really make you feel something, and that’s what I felt here. So much frustration at Saul and the others, and their fighting over Mark and how they were unable to get along. The selfish behaviour of human beings that has plagued our planet for many years, and will continue for many more.

A fantastic story and key statement on human nature.

#4: The Long Rain

This is the story of a group of men on the planet Venus. Their rocket crashed, and they are trying to make their way to a Sun Dome. The way Bradbury describes a Sun Dome and their search for it is like someone searching for an oasis in the desert.

These sun domes are like heaven. It has every comfort you could ever want in life, along with a miniature sun. The story is one endless struggle after another, first walking for days only to find themselves back at the rocket and realize they have walked in a circle. Or finding a sun dome only to discover that the people of Venus have destroyed it.

Throughout their journey, each survivor dies via various means, leaving just the lieutenant left. The story ends with him finding the sun dome.

The setting of this was great, and the feeling of being in a rainstorm that was never ending was so easy to picture. It made you really empathize with the characters, and it was a story of perseverance. Of course, it’s a bit ironic considering what we know about Venus now, but that wasn’t the case back then.

#3: The Fox and the Forest

This story takes place in 1938 Mexico. William and Susan Travis lived in 2155 A.D. where time travel vacations have just been created. There are strict rules in regards to coming back, however the couple decide not to return to the war-ravaged time.

Instead they traveled to New York, and then fled to Mexico. They think they are safe until they spot a man watching him. They can tell he is from the future as he indulged himself in the same way they did when they initially traveled with the likes of various cigars.

This story making the list for me might be more of a “homer” pick. I absolutely love anything to do with time travel. It was also one of those stories that really left me wanting more. And I love the way the story progressed, where you suddenly realize that Melton isn’t what he seems, just as our protagonists find out.

#2: Marionettes, Inc

A story which we’ve seen in other forms over the years, as it deals with technological advances and how humans abuse them. Braling is a character in a bad marriage. He can never get a break from her. He finally gets a night out with his friend Smith, who has a wife that suffers from a wife that is too affectionate.

The two discuss their marriages, and Braling explains that he purchased a robot from a company called Marionettes, Inc, unbeknownst to his wife. The robot is spending time with Braling, while he is able to go out with his friend. Braling explains he is finally going to go on a trip to Rio by himself, and his wife will never notice he is gone.

When Braling returns home however, the robot, Braling Two, has evolved. Instead of listening to his every command, it’s decided that it loves his wife, and then locks Braling in the cellar and replaces him.

The story has the final twist of Smith returning to his wife, considering getting a robot of his own to get a break from his wife. He then notices that their bank account is wiped out and when he goes to confront his wife, notices she has a ticking in the chest, indicating that she is actually a robot.

Just a fantastic story. It’s short and to the point, so very dark and so very satisfying. One of those stories that despite so few words, are able to pack multiple punches.

#1: The Last Night of the World

If you look up the best short stories from The Illustrated Man, this one doesn’t make many lists. But it made mine.

It takes place in October, 1969. A man asks his wife if this was the last night in the world, what would you do? He reveals that he had a dream that indicated that tonight was the last night in the world. It is then discovered that everyone else had that dream and that apparently, the world is going to end.

It’s a fascinating story on human nature. The couple realize that they are powerless to do anything, and that death and the end of the world is inevitable. They don’t stray from their normal routine. They do the dishes, put their kids to bed, then spend the night together.

They go to bed with the wife realizing she forgot to turn off the faucet in the kitchen. She goes and does that, and then the couple laugh about how preposterous it was to do that, considering the world is ending.

This is just such a chilling story to me. Just how inevitable the end of the world was, and how powerless the couple were. It rings true about so many aspects of life, and how we are powerless to stop so many negative aspects of life.

The calmness of how they handle it as well really stood out. This is one that stuck with me long after I was done.

What about you? Have you read The Illustrated Man? What were your favourite stories? Let me know in the comments below.

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