Review: Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury

Ray Bradbury loved metaphors. Maybe Fahrenheit 451 is a metaphor about taking away our right to bear and buy arms 24/7.
It's been a long time since I read Bradbury, but I don't remember him ever being one for logical world building - or even accurate science for that matter. He was told one of his Venus stories had descriptions that were wildly out of date according to known science. He replied that he didn't care and basically scoffed at the idea that it even mattered. For him, the environment was just a backdrop for the story. You see the same unconcern for world building in Farenheit 451. The novel is not an elegant allegory or warning about any particular political structure, it's more like an angry polemic against modern society itself. It's not about the end goal of authoritarians, it's about the process that hollows out society. When politicians are judged on their slick broadcast appearances rather than substantive viewpoints, any old ideology will do for these story purposes. Mildred based her voting decisions solely on the most facile visual factors, she had no concern for what candidates actually said. There was no need for a 1984-style surveillance regime in Bradbury's dystopia. He took Orwell's model and flipped it on its head by turning the camera around and allowing society to gaze through the lens via their home screens, becoming docile voyeurs in the process. Books were a danger because they competed with the screen for the narrative of reality.

Bradbury claimed he got the idea for the story after walking innocently down the sidewalk in L.A. when a cop asked him what he was doing. He supposedly replied, "I'm putting one foot in front of the other." It didn't escape Bradbury's attention that everyone in the neighborhood was inside their homes watching television at the time - the ghostly "glowing screens" seen through windows in the novel. This was the perfect story for a 13-year-old like me in the early 70s who used it as yet another excuse to feel alienated and superior to society at large. Other obnoxious kids had Fountainhead, I had Farenheit 451. And it didn't escape my attention that I liked to read, and most other people liked to watch television, almost all of it garbage in my view.

Farenheit 451 was expanded from "The Fireman", a short story appearing in Galaxy in 1951, two years before the novel's publication. That makes perfect sense when you think about editor Horace Gold and his push away from Campbell's science-centered dominance into wry, social commentary. In that context, 451 fits nicely with, say, Pohl & Kornbluth's The Space Merchants or Robert Sheckley's brilliant, short parodies of modern mores. It may seem goofy to have characters who self-identify as classic novels and spout prose from memory, but it's no more off-kilter than Sheckley's characters in "The Seventh Victim" (April,1953) who assasinate their victims in government sanctioned, corporate sponsored "hunts". These were the pages of Galaxy in the 50s, and this was the type of story Bradbury was writing.

How does Bradbury compare to Orwell today? I think the important dystopias of that era - Brave New World, 1984, Farenheit 451, The Humanoids - all have useful elements that can be extracted for modern times. 1984 was an attack on Stalinism, long since dead, but it left us the concept of Big Brother, an accusation used by all political parties these days it seems. But I would give the nod to Bradbury for being the most prescient. Obviously, modern communications are more diverse and pervasive than anyone could've imagined in 1953. But what if Bradbury was right? Like Mildred, most U.S. citizen's only political act is their vote. The rest of our political bandwidth seems to be absorbed by electronic media with various elected officials appearing as sports commentators while our perspective God Kings play Capture The Flag every four years. I don't know if a culture of reading will improve the situation, but a circus needs spectators, and Bradbury was dead to rights about mass media promoting an unthinking culture.

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