Monday, 21 September 2009

Fahrenheit 451: Ray Bradbury

The first thing that strikes me on rereading this 1954 science-fiction classic is how modern it feels. From the diatribe against an education system which equates to 'a lot of funnels and a lot of water poured down the spout and out the bottoms, and them telling us it's wine when it's not' to the recognition that people no longer talk about anything, just mouth cultural reference points at one another, Bradbury could have been writing about early twenty-first century existence as much as he was critiquing aspects of the post war generation.
The narrative focuses on Guy Montag, a fireman. In the near future Bradbury imagines all homes to be fireproof and it is the job of the fire department not to put out fires but to start them. Books have been banned: they make people think too much, question too much. Just as Plato once banished all the poets from the republic for 'spreading untruths' so Bradbury's future society have encouraged the outlawing of novels, poetry and religious scripture. Montag and the other firemen burn the books and houses of those discovered to be hoarding them.
After meeting a curious and free-thinking neighbour, a teenage girl called Clarisse, Montag begins to question his vocation and the entire structure of the culture he finds himself a part of. Subtly underlying Montag's story are hints of encroaching war with an unnamed enemy country. Thus, as Montag's rebellion against his profession turns to outright revolt and the need to escape the city, the presence of war draws ever nearer. Once Montag has escaped the city and discovered there are other dissidents who have all gathered memories of book in their heads, the war begins and the symbolism of burning fully takes over. His home city and, it seems, countless cities across the country, possibly across the globe, are destroyed in the fire and death wrought by atomic weapons. Just as book-burning promised to purge the human race of anti-social thoughts and drives, so this huge-scale city-burning presumably purges the race of such huge numbers of people that it might be possible for Montag and the dissidents to contribute towards rebuilding a society which does not fear free thinking but rewards it. The narrative acknowledges such a society cannot promise utopia but it can promise personal freedom on a scale previously impossible in the conformist nightmare Bradbury has depicted:
'Stuff your eyes with as if you'd drop dead in ten seconds. See the world. It's more fantastic than any dream made or paid for in factories. Ask no guarantees, ask for no security, there never was such an animal. And if there were, it would be related to the great sloth which hangs upside down in a tree all day every day, sleeping its life away. To hell with that...shake the tree and knock the great sloth down on his ass.'
Bradbury once said that his science-fiction was not an attempt to predict the future but to prevent it. Yet this vision of a people glued to their huge television screens, with their ears permanently stuffed with 'seashell' earpieces connecting them to the world and to their friends; this vision bears too many similarities to today's society for safe assumptions that this is a future safely prevented.

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