Saturday, October 20, 2012

Fahrenheit 451 - Ray Bradbury

Last month I ran a poll to help me decide which book should be reviewed work number 300 on Random Comments and tied it to the Grand Master Reading Challenge for which I still have to read a couple of novels. Ray Bradbury won. I had expected one of the big names I hadn't covered it to get it, perhaps Jack Vance or Robert Heinlein but, as one commenter pointed out, with Bradbury's passing at the age of 91  just a few months ago, perhaps it is not so surprising he come out the favourite. I haven't read anything by Bradbury before so I figured I'd read the book he is best known for. Fahrenheit 451 was published in 1953 so it's too old to have won any of the major science fiction awards but it has been added to countless list of best books in science fiction and is well regarded outside the genre. It is one most influential dystopian novels, often mentioned in one breath with Orwell's 1984 and Huxley's Brave New World. In short, a book with quite a reputation.

Fahrenheit 451 is a dystopian novel set in a future America where books are outlawed and a fireman's job is to burn them instead of putting out fires. One such man is Guy Montag, who unquestionably burns book, the source of all dissent in society. Until he meets the 17-year-old Clarisse that is. She talks to him about ideas that make no sense and about doing things that no rational, we ll adjusted man should even consider. She makes Montag thing and without him understanding why, he develops an aversion against his job, starts questioning his life and develops a curiosity about books. Montag is in trouble.

Bradbury's prose is not something you regularly encounter in science fiction. His style is overflowing with metaphors, with lengthy stream of consciousness passages when Montag is face a crisis or living though a breakthrough. Bradbury demands your full attention when reading it, he makes you feel the panic, stress and confusion of Montag in what might appear rambling scenes to the unfocussed reader. By today's standards it is a short novel but it is pretty intense reading. It certainly took me a few pages to get used to this style. I guess it's not surprising people see different things in this book but I was ab it surprised to find the book's message wasn't what I thought it would be.

Book burnings are something of a symbol and censorship, promoting ignorance, removing ideas that don't fit into a particular world view. Books, or rather the ideas they contain, can be dangerous to people with narrow ideas on what society should look like. Books make people think, they stimulate curiosity, open up the mind to experiences one would normally not encounter. Banning books and controlling the media are tools of dictators. Fahrenheit 451 is frequently seen as a work warning us of these dangers and protesting state sponsored censorship. From what I have read about it, I was more or less expecting something along those lines. Much to my surprise, that isn't exactly what this book is about. His depiction of society is chilling but it is not the book burning that is doing the damage. In fact, from the people around Montag you might say they are unnecessary.

Probably the most disturbing element in the novel is the way Montag's wife Mildred surrounds herself by television. The is completely absorbed in empty soap operas or news that is composed of meaningless one liners and takes the shape of cheap entertainment more often than not. Mildred is entirely disconnected from her husband and the world around her. It is not the suppression of ideas that is keeping the population in check, it is just that books are completely replaced by a passive, strictly controlled form of entertainment. It doesn't encourage people to think or be critical. They just have to take it in. When Montag asks his wife what her favourite show is about, she can't really produce a coherent answer. In fact, she is surprised he even asks. It should be obvious. What Bradbury is objecting to here is the replacements of books by simplistic television and other media. If Bradbury felt like that in the 1950s, what must he have thought of the current media landscape? Whatever you may think of Bradbury's position, it clearly is still relevant.

Thematically and stylistically I can see why this novel does well in literary circles as well as the science fiction genre. It does not escape the shortcomings of many science fiction novels of the period though. Montag is the central character and decently rounded but the rest of the cast is mostly there to symbolize a part of Montay's dilemma and rarely rise above the archetypical.  It is also stuck in a very traditional pattern of gender rolls and, by now, fairly dated ideas on future technology. It has aged more gracefully than many of his contemporaries though. Bradbury doesn't focus on a technological idea in this novel and his ideas on the media have turned out to be pretty accurate at some points. The depiction of Montag's pursuit struck a chord with me in particular.

All things considered, Fahrenheit 451 is a remarkable novel in the context of the science fiction genre at the time as well as the literary acclaim it has received. It didn't turn out to be quite the book I had expected but it certainly delivers a thoroughly disturbing image of the future. Right at the end, Bradbury surprised me again, with a ray of hope that Montag is offered. In the same novel Bradbury is showing how easy it is for people not to notice the emptiness of their existence and the lengths they will go to, to preserve something they value highly. For those of you who are still predicting the end of the dead tree type of book, I think  Bradbury would disagree. And for what it's worth, so do I.

Book Details
Title: Fahrenheit 451
Author: Ray Bradbury
Publisher: Voyager
Pages: 227
Year: 2008
Language: English
Format: Mass Market Paperback
ISBN: 978-0-00-654606-1
First published: 1953


  1. An interesting side note, this book is required reading in many American high schools--the last time, in fact, I read the novel. Along with Brave New World or 1984, it is one of few sc-fi works the establishment deems incapable of polluting young minds. I remember liking the book a lot, even though you could easily guess the ending. Thinking about it now as an adult I wonder: does the novel really challenge anything? I guess I need to go back and read it again before I judge further. Thanks for the nudge. :)

    1. Hmm, I'd say it does challenge the reader to think about their media consumption at least. In terms of scary government practices I'd say 1984 does a lot better but it has been close to twenty years since I read that. I haven't read Brave New World (should I?)

    2. Yes, you're right; I'd forgotten about Mildred.

      With regard to Brave New World, it is one of those rare books that critics, the literati, and readers coming from a variety of genre backgrounds, enjoy. (It too is required reading in numerous American high schools.) If you run across a copy, I highly recommend picking it up.