Fahrenheit 451

by Ray Bradbury

Reviewed by Ted Gioia

If there were ghettos in the literary world, they would
be occupied by science fiction writers, the most
scorned and marginalized players in the whole realm
of fiction. All you need to do is look at the covers—I’m
embarrassed to be seen holding these gaudy
realizations of adolescent wish-fulfillment—to know
what the publishers think about these books and their
intended audience.

Yet somehow Ray Bradbury crossed
over from sci-fi to mainstream fiction.
And no book did more to secure his
passage out of the ghetto than this
compact volume, which is now
routinely assigned in high school
and college classes and was recently
selected by the National Endowment
for the Arts (NEA) for its “Big Read”
program. What a great choice—to
promote reading with a book that
showed the dangers of a bookless society!

Bradbury’s crossover success is well-
deserved. Of the great dystopian classics about an imagined
future—
1984, Brave New World, The Road—this book has
the most relevant things to say to us today. Orwell’s classic is
bold and chilling in its depictions, but after the Berlin Wall
came down (in 1989, five years after the symbolic title date),
the political situation which gave rise to the novel no longer
seemed quite so current. There are fewer "Big Brothers" in
positions of power these days, but the book-free (and
newspaper-free) society seems just around the corner.

But the brilliant move in
Fahrenheit 451 was Bradbury’s co-
opting the firefighters to become the censors in his dystopia.
Instead of putting out fires, they start them . . . in order to
eradicate books from society—the novel’s title is simply the
temperature at which paper burns. The functionaries who
once protected us now enslave us. This would be a masterful
touch of irony if we didn’t have so many historical examples
of precisely this type of corruption of once benevolent
institutions. The Hegelian concept of things turning into their
opposites in a dialectical process may sound like
philosophical mumbo-jumbo, but Bradbury's key insight here
is that these reversals are now a recurring phenomenon in
contemporary life and represent a dangerous juncture—a
danger amplified by the powers conferred by modern
technologies.

Just re-read Bradbury’s book and ask yourself how much of it
describes what we see around us? Recall that the book-
burning in
Fahrenheit 451 did not begin until the dumbing
down of media and education had been long entrenched.
Sound familiar? And in the world of Bradbury’s novel people’
s thinking skills have been enervated by their obsession with
their home entertainment centers. Sound familiar? And
Bradbury describes the shifts in these forms of mass
entertainment that allow individuals to immerse themselves
in customized and interactive stories that soon come to
replace their interest in day-to-day reality. Can anyone here
spell C-Y-B-E-R-S-P-A-C-E?

No, Bradbury doesn’t get credit for inventing the Internet,
but his depiction of a society degraded by its own forms of
mass entertainment could very well be a description of your
own neighborhood. Recently Panasonic thrilled the
Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas by unveiling a TV
screen that was more than six feet high. We aren’t quite at the
four walls of surround-television of Bradbury’s book, but
does anyone doubt it is coming?

Yet Bradbury also deserves praise for the quality of his prose.
Among the pacesetters of the post-WWII generation of sci-fi
writers, Bradbury was the one who was most determined to
break away from the constraints and formulas of pulp fiction
writing. Even the finest books by Heinlein, Asimov and Dick
are often marred by dialogue and writing hopelessly
compromised by dime novel phraseology. They may be
writing about the future, but too much of the prose sounds
like watered down Raymond Chandler or worse.

In contrast, there is not a single hackneyed line in
Fahrenheit
451
. None of the characters talk like rejects from a Bogart-
Bacall movie. If you didn’t know that Ray Bradbury was more
influenced by Herman Melville than by Hugo Gernsback, you
might guess it just by reading this book. Yet the story has all
of the exciting conceptual content, imagination and plot
twists that distinguish the best science fiction writing. After
all, this story first appeared in
Galaxy, then another version
appeared in
Playboy—two periodicals that required (for
different reasons) stories that grabbed their readers’ attention
and didn’t let go.

Bradbury worked over the idea of book-burning censors in a
number of stories written in the 1940s. In “Usher II”—
included in the first edition of
The Martian Chronicles, then
removed in a later printing, then finally reinstated—he
describes a fanatical fan of Edgar Allan Poe who plots revenge
against the censors using methods drawn from Poe’s stories.
In “The Exiles,” included in
The Illustrated Man, Edgar Allan
Poe actually appears (along with a host of other deceased
writers) to get his own share of vengeance. Both these stories
are incongruously set on Mars. Perhaps the most interesting
angle here is Bradbury’s depiction of a book-burning
mentality focused on tales of horror and imagination. A
reader approaching these Bradbury works today can’t help
but be reminded of the outraged religious groups complaining
about the malicious influence of Harry Potter.

Yes, the zeal to censor and subjugate minds—especially young
minds—continues to be a relevant issue. I look forward to a
day when
Fahrenheit 451 will no longer be quite so up-to-
date. If that glorious time of tolerance and open-mindedness
ever arrives, we will have Ray Bradbury to thank, at least in
some small degree, for prodding us in the right direction.
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Childhood's End

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Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?

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Flow My Tears, the Policeman Said

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Ubik

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Camp Concentration

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Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom

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Like Water for Chocolate

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Dune

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Brave New World

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Suddenly, A Knock at the Door

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Flowers for Algernon

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The Book of Laughter and Forgetting

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Gods Without Men

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Swords & Deviltry

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The Wanderer

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His Master's Voice

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Hell House

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Cloud Atlas

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Behold the Man

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Beloved

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Some of Your Blood

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Gulliver's Travels

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The Bear Comes Home

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Lord of Light

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This Immortal


Special Features
Notes on Conceptual Fiction
When Science Fiction Grew Up
Ray Bradbury: A Tribute
The Year of Magical Reading
Remembering Fritz Leiber
A Tribute to Richard Matheson
Samuel Delany's 70th birthday
The Sci-Fi of Kurt Vonnegut
Curse You, Neil Armstrong!
Robert Heinlein at 100
A.E, van Vogt Tribute
The Puzzling Case of Robert Sheckley
The Avant-Garde Sci-Fi of Brian Aldiss
Science Fiction 1958-1975: A Reading List

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