Friday, 6 May 2011

Book #30 Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury

Fahrenheit 451

I enjoy a good dystopian fiction novel. For those of you who don't know what dystopia is, its when a novel, or a film depicts a future world or an alternate reality that is frightening or disturbing, bleak for humanity.

Examples of the genre include 1984 by George Orwell, Brave New World by Aldous Huxley, The Handmaids Tale and Oryx and Crake by Margaret Atwood, which each describe different horrors which might await us. Personally, it is the stories of this type which were written in the past but which project predictive visions of society as we know it today in a way which is both interesting and sinister, that I like most. As an example a personal favourite of mine is the E.M Forster short story 'The Machine Stops' written in 1909 which tells of a nightmare future in which humans depend on communicating with a machine, to work, to live, to listen to music, to travel and to talk to one another. The fascinating thing about this past vision of an oppressive future machine is that it is pretty much home computing as we know it today.

Despite its extremes Fahrenheit 451, written by Bradbury in 1953 is one such novel. The plot follows a character named Guy Montag who is a Fireman, but in Montag's world, Firemen don't put out fires they start them, they start them to burn books that people have hidden in their homes, and to take those hiding literature to prison. Books are banned and so is reading.  There is of course the obvious allusion to the countries of post-war Communist Europe in which certain reading materials were banned and arrest for the crime of being an intellectual might occur should you be caught in possession of such literature. Bradbury takes this concept of state controlled reading and takes it a step further to a state were reading of any kind is not tolerated. Bradbury considers the implications for humans as individuals and for society as a whole. Worryingly, he hits the nail on the head for aspects of 2011 society as it stands with some of his ideas.

He speaks of a culture were subjects such as history, philosophy, languages and English spelling and grammar are no longer respected. We live in a time were many universities are closing their philosophy and/or language departments because the funding, and simply, the interest is not there to run them, students have become consumers in an education market rather than seekers of knowledge.

In a conversation between Clarisse and Montag, Clarisse says "My uncle says his grandfather remembered when children didn't kill each other. But that was a time when they had things different" The James Bulger Case caused an outcry nearly 20 years ago, but now child on child crime is becoming ever more commonplace. Some weeks ago I watched a harrowing documentary 'Scenes From A Teenage Killing' charting the amount of murders of teenagers over the last year by their own peers. The reactions of some London commuters whose journeys were interrupted by one murder showed only annoyance and irritation at the situation and no sense of shock or tragedy. Murder seemed to have become an unremarkable event.

In Fahrenheit 451 people use earphones to block out real world interactions with strangers or family with music or radio they enjoy like every iPod addict today causing the disintegration of real relationships. They mount multiple TVs to their walls and the characters feel like their true friends and family.
In one conversation Beatty speaks about how classic novels were once condensed into short articles or serial performances so that they would gain more attention. This made me think of the BBC adaptation of Bleak House some years ago. A great adaptation of a great book but, it was said, that it was to be shown in half hour installments in the hopes of creating a soap opera vibe, and attracting soap opera viewers. The TV programmes in the world of Fahrenheit 451 are short, snappy, often silly trying to keep viewers attention. When you look at some of the things on TV now, like that awful quiz show with the Hare that comes on before Doctor Who, amid complaints that Doctor Who itself is too complicated, you can see that our TV world isn't far off Bradbury's.

Beatty mocks intellectual thinking and is glad that it has become "the swearword it deserved to be" He talks about how it was always the bright boy in school who was hated and tormented. "We must all be alike." This reminded me of the modern trend for the celebration of ignorance, particularly ignorance in women. The kind of world where people take to their hearts reality TV contestants who think East Anglia is abroad and don't know if Shakespeare is alive or dead. The kind of world in which Jordan is a best selling author.

Bradbury really does come too close for comfort in Fahrenheit 451 to the worst of the now, the nightmares of the past are the commonplace of the present. That's a scary thought.

Outside of these projected visions that provoke thought, I wasn't sure how much I liked Fahrenheit 451 in terms of liking the main characters, Clarisse is really a great character wasted and should have had a greater role, Mildred is terribly annoying but I would think that's deliberate, but Montag is a desperate man whose desperation is clearly felt and well written. The book is also very visual, you can really see its events unfold in your mind. This is always the mark of a good novel.

I don't know whether the fact that Fahrenheit 451 is short is to its favour or its detriment. I almost feel like I was left wanting more, but isn't that a compliment to its writer really? The other good thing about this book is that I couldn't find it on iBooks or Kindle so i had to buy a paper copy. Although I love my iPad it is really nice to read in the old school way at times. 7/10

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