Dark Futures Book 4: Fahrenheit 451

Dark Futures is a 20-book exploration of the fears of our futures, an odd sub-genre of Science Fiction that draws in on the society of the time and projects it forward, into uncomfortable visions of the world to be. The idea is the same across many books, the results, very different.  After three books in the UK, we finally move onto American fears…

 

So far we’ve a world where culture is suppressed to make everyone happy, and a world where its suppressed to keep everyone under control, with Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 we have a world where it’s suppressed because….well, actually I’m not sure. To quote Winston Smith, “I know the How. I do not know the Why”. And that’s the question that lingers after finishing 451, actually, and colours the slightly quizzical opinion I have of it.

Now, before anything thinks that I’m going to shoot at some sacred cows here, I’m not. This is unquestionable one of SFs great works, and it’s a book exploding with big ideas, but at the same time, its got so many ideas, some of them – some good, interesting ones – get a little lost in, and in some ways, the why is one of them. But I’ll come to that later. First, a summation of the story, for those that don’t know. The lead character, Guy Montag, is a Fireman, in a world where books are banned, tasked with attending houses where they are found and incinerating them. The story follows his rising doubts, before turning his back on the system and fleeing it.

Theres two things to draw early attention to, I think. The first is that 451 is very short, closer to a novella than a full novel, and the second is that it is a rare case of so many ideas almost getting in the way of a good story. I mean, the setup itself is interesting, and the presentation of how the world got to such a state is worthy of examination itself. Montag’s boss, the main spokesman for the “the system” has a big speech about books being elitist, and being suppressed to prevent people feeling stupid, which sounds like one of the straw-men arguments from Ayn Rands’ The Fountainhead, which implies a sort of drift towards culturelessness. This also ties in with  the theme about culture becoming faster and shallower.

On the other hand, there is implication of something more sinister. Their neighbours talk about presidential debates being solely on looks and the “outs” candidate looking sweaty and shifty (this years before the infamous Nixon-Kennedy debate!), and the whole building war subplot, left in the background but steadily rising leads you think about there being some sort of conspiracy to distract. But it flashes by and I’m not wholly sure if Bradbury really decided or just threw as many things in there to get you thinking as he could.

It’s not really a criticism but I do feel that after the precision of something like 1984 or Brave New World it’s a little woolly and betrays its conceptual origins as an amalgam of several short stories. Its brevity also robs it of a character depth – both “adversary” characters (Montag’s wife and boss) needed more time, I thought, to really get enough emotional connection to Montag so that his estrangement from the first and murder of the second have more weight.

I raised a wry smile, incidentally, at an SF novel, child of the pulps that they are, holding up books as indisputable high art and the moving picture and inherently stupid and dumbed down. It’s an interesting line to draw, although the Parlours, with their families are a stunningly well done idea and, with a phrase I’m already starting to over-use, surprisingly relevant today. And I’d totally forgotten the heavily symbolic ending, with the world itself burned in fire, and those that had not forgotten, returning from the wilderness to lead a renewal.

In the final analysis then, Fahrenheit 451 is a book of ideas that lacks a little in craft, perhaps, when compared to the literary giants I read directly before it. You have to be careful in such a circumstance, and I really don’t want to sound overly picky. This is one of those books you should read – it’s clever and thoughtful and conceptually bright, and maybe more accessible than its predecessors. If Orwell warned about what could be taken away from you, Bradbury warns of something just as dangerous – what you may let go, and never miss until it is gone.

Next time: neither Will Smith nor Charlton Heston will appear in Richard Matheson’s I Am Legend

Feedback, corrections and other comments welcome either here or by email to grampus(at)dissectingworlds(dot)com or on twitter @thegrampus. Earlier Reviews in this series can be found using the tag “Dark Futures” or the column name “Tolkien Gestures”.

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2 comments

  1. I think the culture was suppressed for both of those reasons, to keep them happy and under control, unoffended and unthinking. When you have a society that’s lost the ability to ask ‘why’, you can wage wars and elect pretty, yet superficial, leaders without any resistance or complaint.

    The videos they were watching in the Parlours were certainly stupid and dumbed down, but I think that was due to broadcasted media being easier to control than the printed word. It seemed more of a statement on the way the government was using the medium rather than the medium itself, in my mind anyway.

    I do agree that giving the other characters more time to develop, allowing us to better connect with them, would have added a lot. His boss in particular seemed like a really interesting and complex character, someone who went through the same curiosity as Montag and decided to take the other route, while seemingly having grown to hate himself for choosing that direction, and the book could have benefited by diving into that a little more.

    Very cool book, but I think you’re right – it’s full of big ideas what could have had a bit more impact without the cracks in the craft.

  2. Regarding presidents being chosen on looks, I’m reminded of a subtle gag subplot in the hitchhiker’s guide to the galaxy books that the president is a distraction from the real power.

    Also I must admit that recently I have been going on an anti-book campaign because of elitist book snobs who think I must love books if I’m a writer and that audiobooks don’t measure up because you don’t get the same level of interpretation (It’s the exact same text and film studies exist because films can be reinterpreted) but as I am one to bemoan “learn the lessons of scifi” I guess I can understand the fear behind the elitism.

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