If I had to pick just one science fiction novel to call my favorite, it would almost certainly be Ray Bradbury’s futuristic stunner Fahrenheit 451. It doesn’t revolve around aliens, robots, or mutating viruses. The primary focus is mankind… and the dangers inherent to a society that’s gone almost completely brain-dead.
Minority Report (2004) is an edgy, thought-provoking science fiction film that feels much more realistic than most other films of the same genre, simply because the premise is so alarmingly plausible. Similarly, Fahrenheit 451 hits home in a unique way because the implications are chilling; because Bradbury’s world could very easily become our world.
I suppose this novel might be considered apocalyptic, but certainly not in the typical sense of the word. The story is set in the future, and in this futuristic world books aren’t for reading: they’re for burning, along with houses in which they are hidden. And fireman don’t put out fires: they start them. The irony is a bitter one, indeed.
Enter Guy Montag, a fireman of ten years. He burns books with zeal. He never questions the pleasure of midnight raids nor the joy of watching pages consumed by the flames. He never questions until he meets a 17-year-old girl named Clarisse, who describes a past when people weren’t afraid. Then he meets a professor who tells him of a future in which people could think, really think for themselves. These meetings turn Montag’s world upside down… and he soon begins to realize what he must do.
Bradbury’s world is a vividly painted hell. It’s a place where happiness is the chief aim of life. Trivial information is held up as good; knowledge, learning, and ideas are all condemned as bad. The following quote from Fire Captain Beatty sums it up:
You can’t build a house without nails and wood. If you don’t want a house built, hide the nails and wood. If you don’t want a man unhappy politically, don’t give him two sides to a question to worry him; give him one. Better yet, give him none. Let him forget there is such a thing as war. If the government is inefficient, topheavy, and tax-mad, better it be all those things than that people worry over it. Peace, Montag. Give the people contests they win by remembering the words to more popular songs or the names of the state capitals or how much corn Iowa grew last year. Cram them full of noncombustible data, chock them so d—– full of ‘facts’ they feel stuffed, but absolutely ‘brilliant’ with information. Then they’ll feel they’re thinking, they’ll get a sense of motion without moving. And they’ll be happy, because facts of that sort don’t change. Don’t give them slippery stuff like philosophy or sociology to tie things up with. That way lies melancholy. Any man who can take a TV wall apart and put it back together again, and most men can, nowadays, is happier than any man who tries to slide-rule, measure, and equate the universe, which just won’t be measured or equated without making man feel bestial and lonely. I know, I’ve tried it; to hell with it. So bring on your clubs and parties, your acrobats and magicians, your daredevils, jet cars, motorcycle helicopters, your sex and heroin, more of everything to do with automatic reflex. If the drama is bad, if the film says nothing, if the play is hollow, sting me with the theremin, loudly. I’ll think I’m responding to the play, when it’s only a tactile reaction to vibration. But I don’t care. I just like solid entertainment.
Yet Bradbury’s world is not without hope. There is resistance from certain “outcasts” of society, like Montag – outcasts who refuse to swim downstream with everybody else. They’re going against the flow. They’re challenging the norm. And they’re making a change, however slow, in society.
This book isn’t for youngsters (due to mature themes, some drug-related content, and language). Nevertheless, for those old enough to tackle it, it is a must-read. And you don’t have to be a knuckle-dragging sci-fi buff to appreciate it, either. The warnings are timeless, and the lessons are as prescient today as they were 50 years ago when the book was written.
By all means, read Fahrenheit 451. It will probably haunt you… but that’s pretty much the point.
“There is a way that seems right to a man,
but its end is the way to death.”