See individual stories for the setting, though the framing sequence takes place in Wisconsin.
See individual stories.
See individual stories.
A young man meets an Illustrated Man, whose tattoos are imbued with the power to tell stories and see the future. Despite the Illustrated Man's warnings, he looks at the tattoos, which tells him eighteen stories about the following:
• A virtual reality nursery that becomes a deadly African veldt.
• A rocket that explodes, leaving its crew to die in space.
• A Mars populated by black people, now faced with its first rocket of white settlers.
• A Third World farmer who doesn't understand that atomic war is "the end of the world".
• Survivors of a rocket crash on Venus who must cope with the planet's never-ending rain.
• A family torn apart by the father's constant trips to outer space.
• A planet that's visited by a rocket from Mars the day after the Messiah dropped by.
• A priest tries to save the souls of native Martians who've become fiery blue spheres.
• A normal family faced with a quiet end of the world.
• A Mars populated by the exiles from book censorship that fights an Earth rocket threatening their safety.
• A man traveling space who refuses to believe in anything but space's nothingness.
• A time traveling couple who seek to escape the war-mongering home in the future.
• A gifted telepath who offers solace for exiles on Mars dying from an incurable disease.
• A Martian who sees their invasion of Earth turned inside-out by American cultural imperialism.
• A service that allows people to create life-like robot duplicates of themselves.
• A city that waits twenty thousand years to revenge its dead people.
• A child's game that becomes the way for an invasion from another planet.
• A poor man who provides a rocket trip to his family.
• An Illustrated Man whose tattoos foretell the death of his wife and himself.
With all these stories told, the narrator finds one last tattoo forming: it depicts the Illustrated Man strangling him to death. He flees for safety.
The stories in this collection are diverse but certain common themes emerge. The first is the dangerous nature of the creative imagination: related to this is the allure of storytelling and the danger of children in particular, which in turn leads to the theme of family and its dissolution. Another prevalent theme is the abuse of technology - that is, the use of technology by people who can't fully understand the consequences. On the opposite spectrum of abused science is that of abused faith: the problems that arise when one cannot believe. Other themes that recur are: the acceptance of death; remaining sane in an insane situation; the satisfaction of revenge; the threat of war and other social problems that reflected real life concerns in the 1950s.
The overall mood of these stories is solemn - holding a clear moral view, but refusing to expound on it so that readers can come to their own conclusions. As many of these stories are tied to contemporary concerns of American culture and the foibles of human nature, this seriousness helps to emphasize subtly the implicit social commentary, to place the reader in a critical frame of mind while still appreciating the more fantastic elements of the narrative. There is very little humor in these stories, and most of it is darkly satiric: the best example of this is "The Concrete Mixer," which delights in its parody of Earthian civilization and its discontents.