The unrelated stories are tied together by the frame device of "the Illustrated Man," a vagrant with a tattooed body whom the unnamed narrator meets. The man's tattoos, allegedly created by a time-traveling woman, are animated and each tell a different tale. All but one of the stories had been published previously elsewhere, although Bradbury revised some of the texts for the book's publication.
The concept of the Illustrated Man would later be reused by Bradbury as an antagonistic character in Something Wicked This Way Comes, the tattoos coming to represent the souls of sinful victims of a mysterious carnival.
A number of the stories, including "The Veldt," "The Fox and the Forest" (as "To the Future"), "Marionettes, Inc.," and "Zero Hour" were dramatized for the 1955-57 radio series X Minus One. "The Veldt," "The Concrete Mixer," "The Long Rain," "Zero Hour," and "Marionettes Inc." were adapted for the TV series The Ray Bradbury Theater.
A mother and father in a futuristic society begin to worry about their children's mental health when the three-dimensional nursery they bought for them begins projecting a veldt in Africa populated by hungry lions feasting on a set of carcasses. The child psychiatrist they hired suggests that the family is being babied by the automated house they've been living in and should shut it off and be more self-sufficient. The children initially throw a tantrum over the thought of not having the automated house do everything for them (and not having the 3D nursery on), but soon coolly agree to it. When the parents go to look for the kids, the parents are locked in the nursery and realize that the carcasses in the veldt were themselves. The psychiatrist and the children have lunch in the veldt, and when the psychiatrist looks off into the distance, he sees the lions feasting on their fresh prey.
A group of astronauts are sent floating helplessly through space after a malfunction in their ship. The story illustrates the final thoughts and conversations of the crew members as they face their death. The narrator bitterly reflects on his life and feels he has accomplished nothing worthwhile. His final thought is a wish that his life would at least be worth something to someone else. Ultimately, the narrator is incinerated as he falls through Earth's atmosphere and appears as a shooting star to a child in Illinois.
"The Other Foot"
Mars has been colonized solely by black people. When they learn that a rocket is coming from Earth with white travelers, they institute a Jim Crow system of racial segregation in retaliation for how white people have treated blacks over the years. When the rocket lands, the traveler tells them that the Earth has been destroyed—including all of the horrific mementos of racial discrimination (such as trees used for lynching blacks). The blacks, feeling sorry for the white travelers losing their homes, decide to take them in and choose not to go through with their segregation plan.
A husband and wife living by a highway in rural Mexico go on living their normal, idyllic lives as the highway fills with people fleeing a nuclear war. The story ends with some young travelers they help telling them about the nuclear war, and how the world is ending. After the travelers leave, the husband wonders what they meant by "the world," before returning to his work as normal.
A group of space explorers land on a planet to find the population living in a healthy state of bliss. Upon investigation, they discover that an enigmatic visitor came to them. Further description leads the two spacemen to believe that this man is Jesus (though he is never named, leaving room for other religious personas). One decides to spend the rest of his days on the rejoicing in the wake of the man's glory. The other continues in his spaceship, "chasing 'him' always a step behind, never fast enough to catch up to him, constantly trying to achieve the unachievable." Other members of the crew decide to stay on the planet to learn from the contented citizens, and are rewarded by the discovery that "he" is still on the planet.
A group of astronauts are stranded on Venus, where it rains continually and heavily. The travelers make their way across the Venusian landscape to find a "sun dome," a shelter with a large artificial light source. However, the first sun dome they find has been destroyed by the native Venusians. Searching for another sun dome, the characters, one by one, are driven to madness and suicide by the unrelenting rhythm of the rain. At the end of the story, only one sane astronaut remains and manages to find a functional sun dome.
"The Rocket Man"
Astronauts are few in number, so they work as they desire for high pay. One such astronaut goes off into space for three months at a time, only returning to earth for three consecutive days to spend time with his wife and son. The story is told from the perspective of the son, who holds an interest in one day also becoming an astronaut. Talking with his father, the son learns of the constant battle he faces with yearning for the stars at home while yearning for home while in space. Despite this he has several times attempted to quit, staying at home with his family as he realizes his constant absence has nearly destroyed his wife. At the end of the story the father takes off into space one last time, only to meet his end by the sun. His wife and son now avoid the daytime and become nocturnal.
"The Fire Balloons"
A group of priests travel to Mars to act as missionaries to Martians. Once there, they discover that the natives are actually entities of pure energy. Since they lack corporeal form, they are unable to commit sin, and thus do not need redemption.
"The Last Night of the World"
A married couple awakens to the knowledge that the world is going to end that very evening. Nonetheless, they go through their normal routines, knowing and accepting the fact that there is no tomorrow.
Numerous works of literature are banned and burned on Earth. The fictional characters of these books are portrayed as real-life entities who live in a refuge on Mars. However, they are vulnerable, as when all the books on a character are destroyed, the character itself vanishes permanently. When the group of characters learn that some people are coming for them, they stage a counterattack, but are foiled by the astronauts who burn the last remaining books from Earth, unknowingly annihilating the entire colony.
"No Particular Night or Morning"
Two friends in a spaceship, Clemens and Hitchcock, are having a discussion about how empty and cold space is. Hitchcock is a little bit insane and shows signs of being solipsistic. He keeps asking questions about how there is nothing sure in space and there is no night or morning. He refuses to believe anything about reality without sufficient evidence and soon becomes skeptical of everything he cannot directly experience. He said that he doesn't believe in stars because they are too far away. Clemens is wandering about the ship when he learns that someone has left the ship, and it is Hitchcock. Hitchcock is still talking to himself and has killed himself by letting himself fly freely through space.
"The Fox and the Forest"
A couple living in a war-ravaged future society on the brink of collapse escape by traveling back to 1938 Mexico (using a traveling agency in which people can travel to different time periods) and enjoying life before chemical, nuclear, and biological warfare ruined everything. Unfortunately, their superiors have also traveled back in time and won't rest until they get the couple back to the future.
Mars is used as isolation for people with deadly illnesses. One day, the planet is visited by a young man of eighteen who has the ability to perform thought transference and telepathy. The exiles on the planet are thrilled with his ability and a violent fight breaks out over who will get to spend the most time with their visitor and enjoy the illusionary paradises he can transmit. In the struggle, the young man is killed and the escape he provided is lost forever.
"The Concrete Mixer"
A reluctant Martian soldier is forced to join the army as they prepare to invade Earth. However, when they arrive, they are welcomed by a world at peace, full of people who are curious rather than aggressive. The protagonist meets a movie director, and it becomes clear that the people of Earth have planned to exploit the Martians for financial gain. He tries to escape back to Mars, but is run over by a car and killed.
A man who was blackmailed into marriage buys a realistic robot to act as a surrogate so he doesn't have to deal with his wife. When a friend decides to purchase his own robot, he discovers that his wife replaced herself with a marionette. The robot of the protagonist soon falls in love with the man's wife and locks the real man in the crate in which the robot was delivered.
A rocket expedition from Earth lands on an uncharted planet to be greeted by a seemingly empty city. As the humans begin to explore, they realize that the city is not as empty as it seems. The city was waiting for the arrival of humans; the contingency plan of a long dead civilization, put in place to take revenge upon humanity after their culture was wiped out with biological weapons by humans long before recorded history. Once the city captures and kills the human astronauts, the humans' corpses are used as automatons to finalize the city's creators' revenge: a biological attack on the Earth.
Children across the country are deeply involved in an exciting game they call "Invasion." Their parents think of it as harmless fun until the invasion actually occurs.
Fiorello Bodoni, a poor junkyard owner, has managed to save $3,000 to fulfill his lifelong dream of sending one member of his family on a trip to outer space. The family, however, finds it impossible to choose who will go because those left behind will inevitably envy the chosen one for the rest of their lives. Bodoni instead uses the money to build a replica rocket from an old mock-up, and sets up a 3D theater inside the cabin and convinces the children they are actually going through space.
The British edition, first published in 1952 by Hart-Davis omits "The Rocket Man," "The Fire Balloons," "The Exiles" and "The Concrete Mixer," and adds "Usher II" from The Martian Chronicles and "The Playground."
Editions published by Avon Books in 1997 and William Morrow in 2001 omit "The Fire Balloons" and add "The Illustrated Man" to the end of the book.
Literary expert William Stendahl has retreated to Mars to escape the book-burning dictates of the Moral Climate Monitors. On Mars he has built his image of the perfect haunted mansion, replicating the building from Edgar Allan Poe's short story "The Fall of the House of Usher," complete with mechanical creatures, creepy soundtracks and the extermination of all life in the surrounding area. When the Moral Climate Monitors come to visit, each of them is killed in a manner reminiscent of a different Poe story, culminating in the immurement of the lead inspector. When all of Stendahl's persecutors are dead, the house sinks into the lake.
When Charles Underhill was a boy, he was tormented by neighborhood bullies. When his son begins playing in a local playground, he becomes deeply disturbed when he sees a bully from his youth.
"The Illustrated Man"
An overweight carnival worker is given a second chance as a Tattooed Man, and visits a strange woman who applies skin illustrations over his entire body. She covers two special areas, claiming they will show the future. The first is an illustration of the man strangling his wife. Shortly after this comes to pass, the carnival workers runs a man down, beats him, and looks at the second area. It shows an illustration of the beating he is engaged in.
Boucher and McComas gave The Illustrated Man a mixed review, faulting the framing story as "markedly ineffective" and the story selection for seeming "less than wisely chosen." However, they found the better stories "provide a feast [from] the finest traditions in imaginative fiction" and later named it among the year's top books. Villiers Gerson, reviewing the volume for Astounding Science Fiction, praised it as "a book which demonstrates that its author is one of the most literate and spellbinding writers in science fiction today." In The New York Times, Gerson also praised the book for its "three-dimensional people with whom it is easy to sympathize, to hate, and to admire."
A film adaptation of The Illustrated Man was released in 1969. It was directed by Jack Smight and starred Rod Steiger, Claire Bloom, and others, including Don Dubbins. The film contains adaptations of "The Veldt," "The Long Rain," "The Last Night of the World" and expands the prologue and epilogue with intermittent scenes and flashbacks of how the illustrations came to be. A short documentary, The Making of The Illustrated Man, details the process the filmmakers used to cover Steiger's body in mock tattoos and shows actors and filmmakers preparing for the movie.
A musical adaptation by Samuel Otten was released as a musical expression of the stories to go along with the reading.
Influence on Dark Star, 1974
Bradbury's "Kaleidoscope" inspired the 1974 science fiction movie Dark Star, which ends in a similar final scene.
Influence on To the Dark Side of the Moon, 2010
A theater adaptation of "Kaleidoscope", with influence from music by Pink Floyd was used to produce To the Dark Side of the Moon, in reference to the Pink Floyd album by the same name. This adaptation was produced by Stern-Theater, a Swiss-based theater company. The script was written by Daniel Rohr and was first shown at the Theater Rigiblick in Zurich, Switzerland on February 6, 2010. The music includes creative use of a string quartet and a piano.
BBC Radio, 2014
A radio adaptation was broadcast on BBC Radio 4 on 14 June 2014 as part of the Dangerous Visions series adapted by Brian Sibley, directed by Gemma Jenkins and starring Iain Glen as "The Illustrated Man" and Jamie Parker as "The Youth". The stories adapted for this production were "Marionettes, Inc.", "Zero Hour" and "Kaleidoscope".
Director Zack Snyder is attached to direct, at least in part, a film adaptation of three stories from The Illustrated Man: "The Illustrated Man," "Veldt," and "Concrete Mixer." Screenwriter Alex Tse is writing the screenplay.
The Visitors television series
The Visitors is an upcoming American television series based on the short story "Zero Hour."
Numerous references to "The Illustrated Man" are made throughout an episode of Criminal Minds (episode 20, season 5, entitled "A Thousand Words") that deals with a serial killer whose body is covered in tattoos.
In 2012, shortly before author Ray Bradbury's death, Canadian musician deadmau5 produced a song titled "The Veldt," including lyrics by Chris James based upon the short story. The music video, released after Bradbury's death, is dedicated to him.
Post-rock band, Deadhorse, refer their 2010 album release We Can Create Our Own World to be directly influenced by the book and Ray Bradbury's vision in evoke imagination in his readers.
Jason Lee's character can be seen reading the book in Cameron Crowe's film Almost Famous while on a tour bus.