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Monday, April 17, 2017
DYSTOPIAN VISIONS: Fahrenheit 451
Dossier: Bradbury, Ray. Fahrenheit 451. [Ballantine Books, 1953]
File Under: Statist Dystopia
Executive Summary: Guy Montag is a fireman. Long ago, in a time remembered only in rumors, firemen put out fires, but since homes were rendered fireproof, the new vocation of the fireman is to burn — and burn books, specifically. On the way home one night, Guy meets his new neighbor, a teenage girl named Clarisse, who is odd. She doesn't watch the walls — room-sized televisions that constantly feature vapid, incomprehensible, but addictive soap operas — she believes in conversation, and thinks that there is value in experiencing nature. This is all totally foreign to Montag, but she insists he is more like her than he realizes. Montag returns home to find his wife Mildred has overdosed on sleeping pills. He calls the paramedics, who perform this kind of routine nightly, and who assure Montage that she will wake the next day with no memory of what has happened.
Montag spends more time with Clarisse, until she suddenly disappears, and on his next fire callout, he watches a woman immolate herself rather than have her books destroyed in front of her. Montag, without thinking, secrets a book away for himself, and sneaks it home. After witnessing this woman's suicide and stealing the book, Montag begins unraveling. As it happens, he has stolen a number of books over the last year or so, but doesn't know what to make of them or of himself. Montag's fire chief, Captain Beatty, pays a house call on Montag to see why he has missed work, and casually lectures about how books were slowly banned in the name of public happiness, since people increasingly found books to be a troubling source of introspection and led to discontent.
Soon enough, Montag returns to work, but finds his next call to be out to his own home. Montag is faced with the decision to burn his own home and attempt to re-assimilate into a monolithic society he no longer feels he belongs in, or to try to fight back and see what happens next when the game goes off the rails.
Dystopian Visions: Americans read fewer and fewer books every year, but even so, I like to think most people would agree that an outright ban on books would be something to be universally resisted. Nevertheless, Bradbury here constructs a future society where the written word has come to represent certain patterns of thought — discontent, self-reflection, empathy, abstraction — that the government has deemed harmful to the populace. There is a pervasive passivity to the citizenry that echoes that of Huxley's Brave New World, except in this case the general numbness of the average citizen isn't engendered by drug use or casual sex, but instead by an addiction to vacuous television programs. In watching "the parlor walls," which utilize software that make them interactive and personalized, so that the people on TV look at Montag's wife and ask, "What do you think, Mildred?" people are made to feel included, loved, and important, and the heavy lifting of thinking about their lives or why bombers are flying overhead every day need not be undertaken. It is a world that criminalizes thought. And where Shakespeare wrote that "the devil can cite Scripture for his purpose," Bradbury gives us the figure of Captain Beatty, who is well-read and conversant in how the world came to its current form, and argues eloquently that all is as it should be. "The bigger your market, Montag, the less you handle controversy," he says, in laying out the reasons why the people themselves, not the government, not really, decided that it was in everybody's best interest if we all just put matches to anything that might be in the least provocative.
Utopian Undercurrents: Like so many of the dystopian works we've looked at in this series, our heroes are the outliers, and everybody else is pretty happy. They may be existing only a single rung on the ladder above lobotomized wards of the state, but they're happy enough about it. They don't question, their basic needs are met, and they're comfortable. This fundamental note that sounds across so many volumes and imaginings of future, terrible societies suggests that it is a commonly-held belief that the majority of mankind really don't care about anything outside of their own animal comfort. Bradbury works to undercut this a little, however, in that the vague war hinted at throughout most of the book does make an appearance at the end, and it's reasonable to assume that Montag's "difference," his outsider status or way of thinking, actually prolongs his life, rather than the opposite.
Level of Hell: Seventh. If you're a free-thinker, it doesn't get much worse, but if you're happy to veg out in front of the walls, you're pretty ok. Until the bombs start falling. Easy to imagine a sequel where this same landscape is as hellish as it gets.
Legacy: Simply put, this is one of the foundational texts of the dystopian genre. So many works owe so much to this book that the entire genre would likely be a different animal without it.
In Retrospect: This is a very, very short book that nevertheless manages to weave a compelling story that echoes very clearly with things that are going on today, and have been going on since its original publication. It's a book that manages to hit square in the zeitgeist, whenever a reader happens to come to it. I read this book twice, probably 25 years apart, and it was as resonant the first time as is was last month. There is a prescience in Beatty's recounting of a society's collapse into illiteracy that still sets off warning bells in the modern reader. There are some limits to the characterization, and in some ways those are improved upon in Francois Truffaut's film adaptation, but it's still a book that earns its reputation, and does nothing to harm Bradbury's inclusion on the Mt. Rushmore of sci-fi writers.
For its time: 5/5
Read today: 5/5.
Oppressometer Readout: 10/10.
Posted by Vance K — co-editor and cult film reviewer at the now-Hugo nominated nerds of a feather, flock together since 2012, musician, and Emmy-winning producer.