I can’t help but think that it is presumptuous of me–li’l, nobody ol’ me–attempting a review of Fahrenheit 451 (1953), the rare science fiction book to achieve crossover “classic” status. And if a review of the book is unnecessary, given its age and fame, and even if I have nothing original to add to the conversation, well, this is my blog, isn’t it? It’s my corner of the 24 hour media cycle, and this space is devoted to my encounters with the books I read. And isn’t it better to write about good SFF than it is bad speculative fiction?
Fahrenheit 451 is, of course, the temperature at which paper combusts, and the novel opens with book burning. “It was,” says Bradbury of his firemen, who, counterintuitively, start fires, “a pleasure to burn.” Thus Bradbury introduces the reader to a future of enforced censorship, in which the harboring of books is a crime against the state, resulting in the burning of one’s property, and, occasionally, the “disappearance” of the criminal. Published in 1953, Fahrenheit 451 clearly recalls what was at the time the recent history of the Nazi and Soviet regimes, as well as the American context of Joe McCarthy’s communist witch hunt.
Guy Montag, a fireman, is our hero, an everyman who is provoked into questioning his way of life by a chance encounter with his teenage neighbor, Clarisse McClellan. Clarisse is a dreamy wisp of a thing. Unlike her peers (and, indeed, her elders), Clarisse is interested in conversation, and nature, and why things happen the way they do. Montag is at first affronted and confused by his conversations with Clarisse, but his encounters cause him, too, to ask “why.” Montag is reminded of the books he has, illegally, hidden in his home–and at which he will soon begin to look.
Fahrenheit 451 is commonly interpreted as a screed against censorship, and this is undoubtedly true. Bradbury predicts a future in which the state controls media, banning certain types–books–while cultivating others, particularly television. Consider, for instance, Montag’s wife’s “family,” a living room-size, multi-walled television that projects people “conversing” (read: yelling, mumbling, etc.) incoherently all the time, in order to provide viewers company. News broadcasts periodically warn of impending war, but society takes no notice.
But Bradbury is pointing at more than censorship. Dave Itzkoff, in his review of the recent audiobook version of Fahrenheit 451, quotes Bradbury saying that the book “is less about Big Brother and more about Little Sister.” Itzkoff takes Bradbury to mean technology, particularly television. Perhaps Itzkoff is right, but it goes deeper than that. Bradbury repeatedly references the speed and preoccupation of society. Cars travel everywhere in excess of one hundred miles per hour. People are constantly tuned into some sort of media. Near the end of the narrative, one of Bradbury’s hobos–who are all former college professors–reveals himself to be an expert on Jose Ortega y Gasset, author of The Revolt of the Masses. “There are, above all,” Gasset says, “times in which the human reality, always mobile, accelerates, and bursts into vertiginous speeds. Our time is such a one, for it is made of descent and fall.” Ultimately, this is central theme of Fahrenheit 451, the allure and danger of pursuing pleasure in our attempts to flee the essential hollowness of life.
While Bradbury’s vision of a media-saturated, accelerated future was prescient, it is, also, inherently conservative and elitist. Culture, such as it is, remains the province of a small band of persecuted (or, perhaps, forgotten) resistors, who preserve humanity’s heritage by memorization and transmission. The common man can only be expected to continue to pursue pleasure. Montag’s dissent is spurred less by any choices on his part than it is his selection by Faber, an unemployed professor, to receive an illegal book. Female characters are particularly attracted to media, and teenagers, such as they are present, are mostly portrayed as murderous, perhaps a reflection of postwar America’s infatuation with “juvenile delinquents.” For all that Bradbury remains insightful, then, he also fears things that seem constant, or, perhaps, endemic to every generation.
Fahrenheit 451 is a classic not only of science fiction, but also of American literature. Bradbury’s prose is tense and tightly wound, and exhibits the tight control of language readers expect of him. Sci-fi lovers who have not read Fahrenheit 451 are advised to do so; those who read it previously, but not for some time, might consider reading it again soon. Recommended, required reading.