Bradbury burns it up: Fahrenheit 451

What can I say about one of the greatest pieces of literature of the 20th century that people haven’t already heard? I’m sure most people are familiar with this book, and even those who haven’t read it probably have a general idea of what it’s about. So without going into any great depth, I’ll just pass along a few of my thoughts after recently reading it for the first time (yes I know, I should have read it a long time ago… I’ve been a bad, bad sf fan…. ).

Science fiction has always had a lot to say about society, projecting current social trends and problems into the future to see where they might lead. And so there have been numerous works of sf pointing out how modern society is becoming increasingly more superficial. It seems to me that Fahrenheit 451 is the granddaddy of this type of socially critical sf — perhaps not in the sense of being the first example (I have no idea if it was) but in the sense of being the most potent work of its type. Bradbury manages to encapsulate, in this short novel, so much of the dumbing down of the modern world and how that world, and especially America, is becoming increasingly more and more shallow.

The most obvious symptom of that in the novel is the death of literature and the firemen whose purpose in life is the burning of books. But that’s only a specific instance of a wider anti-intellectual atmosphere. In Bradbury’s fictional society, not only is book possession a crime, but the very basic acts of thought, reflection, and discussion are deeply frowned upon. Houses are built without porches so people can’t sit there and leisurely mull things over. Curiosity and imagination are considered abnormal personality traits, as is any interest in nature, even the simple act of enjoying the rain or walking at night; these are the kinds of things that can get you sent to a psychiatrist. People are expected to get their all their enjoyment in life from artificial, manufactured entertainment. Bradbury anticipated the modern fascination with big-screen televisions, as well as the idiotic programming they deliver. The characters on the tv walls are considered “family” and are as real to people, or more so, than their real flesh and blood families. The whole society is geared for speed, so no one has time to stop and smell the roses, time to just stop and consider the world around them. Even driving slow is a crime, because it allows one too much opportunity for thinking. And going along with all this, society is dominated by a stifling sense of conformity, what Bradbury calls “the solid unmoving cattle of the majority.” Hardly anyone dares to be different, and those who do may end up in jail, or worse.

Unfortunately, much of what is contained in this novel has a basis in reality. Just consider the speed of modern (especially American) life, with people rushing everywhere, ready to run you off the road if you’re not a speed-demon like them. And then there’s the idiot box, which sucks up far more of our society’s time than reading these days. And consider the execrable fodder people sit there watching: soap operas, game shows, “reality” tv, air-headed comedies, and other assorted garbage. And, sadly, book burnings still occur from time to time.

It seems to me that Fahrenheit 451 could be the poster child for old sf that is still relevant today.

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2 responses to “Bradbury burns it up: Fahrenheit 451

  1. Great review! It’s amazing how prescient Bradbury was. And how scary this book remains, even years after it was written, since it’s still so possible for it to become true.

  2. Today I thought of another way this book speaks to our modern world: the popularity of tv’s in waiting rooms of all types. It’s assumed that people can’t wait for any short length of time without having entertainment shoved in their faces. The worst example I’ve seen lately is a certain bank around here that has a big-screen tv mounted on the wall right behind the tellers. You know, so that no one has to be without entertainment while they wait in line. It’s just unthinkable that people should be left alone with their own minds for a few minutes…. no, that just wouldn’t do, would it?

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