Classic SciFi reviews: Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury

Here at ScienceThrillers.com, I primarily review thrillers (fiction and occasionally nonfiction) with science or medicine in them.  Previously, I’ve discussed how SciThri is different from SciFi (read post What is a Science Thriller?).  This is part of my series of reviews of classic SciFi novels.

Fahrenheit 451 (the temperature at which paper ignites) by Ray Bradbury was first published in a short form in Galaxy Science Fiction in 1950 under the title “The Fireman.” Novel form: 1953

Summary: Guy Montag is a fireman in a future when the fireman’s job is to start fires.  Not just any fire, but fires specifically to consume books and the buildings that house them.  He does his job without question (he thinks) until he meets the oddly thoughtful teenage girl Clarice who sees the world in ways he no longer can.  Then a chance encounter with an aged professor and a disastrous night of burning changes him, or allows the change within him to burst forth.  He acts, not knowing why or how, and in the process destroys his “comfortable” life.

(Now ignore my plot summary. The plot is concise and in its way, thrilling, but I can’t summarize it without giving spoilers.)

Review:  Fahrenheit 451 is part of a body of 20th century literature that envisions dystopian futures in which urban populations are subdued and lobotomized by over-powerful governments or interfering social structures. (Think Brave New World and 1984.) As much as these other novels paint disturbing pictures, I found Fahrenheit 451 to be the most terrifying because it now seems the most plausible. The brutality of Big Brother in 1984 may be greater and the mind control in Brave New World more explicit in comparison with Bradbury’s future society, but real-life events of the past fifty years make Ray Bradbury’s novel prescient in a way the other two are not. Yes, technology enhances the potential for absolute totalitarianism, but technology also makes resistance easier (see Arab Spring).

The dystopian future of Fahrenheit 451, however, is a bottom-up phenomenon (as opposed to top-down imposition from an all-powerful state). What profoundly disturbs about this novel isn’t only the soul-less, amoral future where keeping books is a criminal offense; it’s the process Bradbury describes by which society reaches this point. The firemen don’t come into being by imposition of totalitarian rule from above. They emerge from an organic process broadly based in a society that gradually rejects contemplation, conversation, and intellectual rigor in favor of fast-paced visual entertainment, voyeuristic “reality” programming, and relationships with digital avatars over real human contact.

Sound like any societies you know?

Keep in mind that Bradbury’s first version of this tale came out in 1950–ancient history in tech terms. Yet much of what he describes is now coming true thanks to the Internet and digital technology. The subtle accuracy of his vision terrifies me: if he was right about the erosion of intellectual rigor in favor of shallow hedonism, will he also be right about the social consequences? Tell me it doesn’t scare you that Bradbury describes these as mileposts on the road to the world of Fahrenheit 451:

  • the decline of reading
  • the rise of organized & spectator sports

More sports for everyone, group spirit, fun, and you don’t have to think, eh? Organize and organize and super-organize super-super sports. More cartoons in books. More pictures. The mind drinks less and less. Impatience.

  • a decline in critical thinking and deeper understanding of anything

Give the people contests they win by remembering the words to more popular songs…chock them so damned full of ‘facts’ they feel stuffed but absolutely brilliant with ‘information’. Then they’ll feel they’re thinking…Don’t give them any slippery stuff like philosophy or sociology to tie things up with. That way lies melancholy.

  • acceleration of the pace of daily life that eliminates time for quiet contemplation
  • the abolition of front porches and other physical aspects of urban architecture that would otherwise allow conversation and social interaction
  • the blanding of all discourse to avoid offending any “minority” group

Don’t step on the toes of the dog lovers, doctors, merchants, chiefs, Mormons, Unitarians, second-generation Chinese, Texans, Brooklynites. The people in this book, this play, are not meant to represent any actual painters, cartographers, mechanics anywhere. The bigger your market, the less you handle controversy!…Magazines became a nice blend of vanilla tapioca. Books were dishwater.

I’m scared. And I’m wondering what is to be done about these trends.

On the positive side, Bradbury delves into the question of what it means to be truly happy. Beatty, the fire chief, asks:

What do we want in this country, above all? People want to be happy…Don’t we keep them moving, don’t we give them fun? That’s what we all live for, isn’t it? For pleasure, for titillation? And you must admit our culture provides plenty of these.

Yet Montag’s wife, who embodies the shallow hedonism of the society, claims to be happy  while attempting suicide. Our society is waking up to this disconnect between pleasure and happiness. Happiness studies, as goofy and new-agey as they sound, are providing insight into what makes people truly happy. We would do well to heed the results of these studies. True happiness is neither easy nor quick. Sometimes it’s even painful.

Along the same lines, Bradbury acknowledges that Fahrenheit 451 isn’t about books per se. It’s about what’s inside the books, about what books represent. A character says books are not magical, they are “only one type of receptacle” for the kinds of deep, meaningful experience and connection that create true happiness.

After reading this great book, I’m motivated to continue to seek wisdom from books and also from the many other paths of genuine experience that make us human.

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