Ray Bradbury and Fahrenheit 451

As noted in recent posts, I have been reading some of sic-fi’s classics.   I have just finished Fahrenheit 451 and I’m very surprised by it.  It is in no way what I expected even though I was aware of the premise.  I admit to never seeing the film either.  So, what was surprising.  Mostly that a lot of the 109 pages are a treatise on the life of modern man that is still as relevant now as when the novella was written.

Written in 1953 it somehow extrapolates the technological trends beginning at that time, for example television and easier communication, along with the psychological possibilities those technologies could induce, like isolation of kids in front of televisions or computer games.

The story begins with a fireman, Guy Montag,  in some not-so-far-distant future, who is now burning rather than putting out fires.  And he and his colleagues are burning books because they are deemed anathema to a happy life.  The reason is that there is a belief that the myriad of ideas in both fiction and non-fiction lead to interpersonal and internal conflict for individuals.  Instead homes are fitted with huge televisions that cover full walls in the ‘parlor’.  The programs are interactive to the extend that they are manipulated to input the watcher’s name in appropriate places.  The noise and colour are so all-encompassing that it overrides people s psyche.

All books have been destroyed and any that are left, if found, are burned.  The owner is imprisoned or, in some cases, commit ‘suicide’ with their libraries.

Montag lives the life of a so-called believer until he meets a young 12 year old girl on his way to work.  By asking questions she opens up his deep-seated unhappiness and leads to his rebellion.  He loses his job, his house, his wife but he finds others like him and in the end, when the apocalypse hits the cities, he and like-minded others, survive.

Bradbury writes in an almost philosophical style by letting the reader into the thoughts and emotions of Montag while at the same time using language to build on the depth of the story.  For example in the opening lines he describes Montag’s view of a burning:

‘It was a special pleasure to see things eaten, to see things blackened and changed.  With the brass nozzle in his fists, with this great python spitting its venomous kerosene upon the world, the blood pounding in his head, and his hands were the hands of some amazing conductor playing all the symphonies of lazing and burning to bring down the tatters and charcoal ruins of history.’ 

Immediately you feel the import of the subject, the drama and as it continues you see Montag go through his own epiphany as he rises from the ruins just like the Phoenix.

These days with plasma and LED televisions that cover walls and sound systems that fill a room it is not so amazing to think of television walls or even a room wherein the watcher is part of the program.  Like this blog, my own game-playing and web sites that I administer I spend quite a deal of time staring at a screen, absorbed in what I’m doing but only interacting with others at a distance.

As for burning books, in a way we do that now but we burn them onto an electronic media.  No longer do we carry paper novels or hardcover books but instead eReaders of some kind – they carry a whole library of books.  I read this one on my Sony in fact.

I have to admit that on at least to occasions I nearly put the novella down because it seemed unnecessarily wordy in places, sometimes a bit confusing.  But I was intrigued by the story and continued on.  I’m very happy that I did.

From a writers point of view I realise that classics are really all about the story, the suspense of seeing where it’s going and the readers connection with the characters.  In this case I realise we have all felt confused when learned beliefs begin to crumble.  We have all felt the dissolution and the loss that comes with it when we begin to question our world.  Bradbury captures this very well and thus it is easy to feel for Montag.  I simply had to keep reading so see what would happen to Montag and if he survived thus the story and the tension kept me reading despite the sometimes dense language.

It is still a story that suggests we beware of ‘Big Brother’ and that we should not believe everything we hear and see in the media.  Many of us do question the media these days but it still worries me when I see the bias in newspaper and television commentaries on all types of subjects depending on their editorial directions.  I sometimes wonder if they do believe what they write for these media or simply do it as part of their jobs?  My optimism hopes the latter but my head suggests it is likely the first.

Now I’m going to re-read Bradbury’s Illustrated Man – one of my favourites when I was a teenager.  I bet I have a different view of it now!