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
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

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
. 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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Conceptual Fiction:
A Reading List
(with links to essays on each work)

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Abbott, Edwin A.

Adams, Douglas
The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy

Aldiss, Brian
Barefoot in the Head

Aldiss, Brian

Aldiss, Brian
Report on Probability A

Allende, Isabel
The House of the Spirits

Amado, Jorge
Dona Flor and Her Two Husbands

Amis, Martin
Time's Arrow

The Golden Ass

Asimov, Isaac
The Foundation Trilogy

Asimov, Isaac
I, Robot

Atwood, Margaret
The Handmaid's Tale

Banks, Iain M.
The State of the Art

Ballard, J.G.
The Atrocity Exhibition

Ballard, J.G.

Ballard, J.G.
The Crystal World

Ballard, J.G.
The Drowned World

Barth, John
Giles Goat-Boy

Bester, Alfred
The Demolished Man

Blish, James
A Case of Conscience

Borges, Jorge Luis

Bradbury, Ray
Dandelion Wine

Bradbury, Ray
Fahrenheit 451

Bradbury, Ray
The Illustrated Man

Bradbury, Ray
The Martian Chronicles

Bradbury, Ray
Something Wicked This Way Comes

Brockmeier, Kevin
The View from the Seventh Layer

Bulgakov, Mikhail
The Master and Margarita

Bunch, David R.

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A Clockwork Orange

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Ender's Game

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The Kingdom of This World

Carroll, Lewis
Alice's Adventures in Wonderland

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The Yiddish Policemen's Union

Chiang, Ted
Stories of Your Life and Others

Clarke, Arthur C.
Childhood's End

Clarke, Arthur C.
A Fall of Moondust

Clarke, Arthur C.
2001: A Space Odyssey

Clarke, Susanna
Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell

Crowley, John
Little, Big

Danielewski, Mark Z.
The Fifty Year Sword

Danielewski, Mark Z.
House of Leaves

Davies, Robertson
Fifth Business

Delany, Samuel R.

Delany, Samuel R.

Delany, Samuel R.
The Einstein Intersection

Delany, Samuel R.

Dick, Philip K.
Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?

Dick, Philip K.
Flow My Tears, the Policeman Said

Dick, Philip K.
The Man in the High Castle

Dick, Philip K.

Dick, Philip K.

Disch, Thomas M.
Camp Concentration

Disch, Thomas M.
The Genocides

Doctorow, Cory
Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom

Donoso, José
The Obscene Bird of Night

Ellison, Harlan (editor)
Dangerous Visions

Ellison, Harlan
I Have No Mouth & I Must Scream

Esquivel, Laura
Like Water for Chocolate

Farmer, Philip José
To Your Scattered Bodies Go

Fuentes, Carlos

Gaiman, Neil
American Gods

Gaiman, Neil

Gibson, William
Burning Chrome

Gibson, William

Grass, Günter
The Tin Drum

Greene, Graham
The End of the Affair

Grossman, Lev
The Magicians

Haldeman, Joe
The Forever War

Hall, Steven
The Raw Shark Texts

Harrison, M. John
The Centauri Device

Harrison, M. John

Heinlein, Robert
The Moon is a Harsh Mistress

Heinlein, Robert:
Stranger in a Strange Land

Heinlein, Robert
Time Enough for Love

Helprin, Mark
Winter's Tale

Herbert, Frank

Hoffman, Alice
Practical Magic

Huxley, Aldous
Brave New World

Keret, Etgar
Suddenly, A Knock at the Door

Keyes, Daniel
Flowers for Algernon

Kundera, Milan
The Book of Laughter and Forgetting

Kunzru, Hari
Gods Without Men

Lafferty, R.A.
Nine Hundred Grandmothers

Le Guin, Ursula K.
The Dispossessed

Le Guin, Ursula K.
The Lathe of Heaven

Le Guin, Ursula K.
The Left Hand of Darkness

Leiber, Fritz
The Big Time

Leiber, Fritz
Conjure Wife

Leiber, Fritz
Swords & Deviltry

Leiber, Fritz
The Wanderer

Lem, Stanislaw
His Master's Voice

Lem, Stanislaw

Lethem, Jonathan
The Fortress of Solitude

Lewis, C. S.
The Chronicles of Narnia

Link, Kelly
Magic for Beginners

Malzberg, Barry N.
Herovit's World

Mann, Thomas
Doctor Faustus

Márquez, Gabriel García
100 Years of Solitude

Markson, David
Wittgenstein's Mistress

Matheson, Richard
Hell House

Matheson, Richard
What Dreams May Come

McCarthy, Cormac
The Road

Miéville, China
Perdido Street Station

Miller, Jr., Walter M.
A Canticle for Leibowitz

Millhauser, Steven
Dangerous Laughter

Mitchell, David
Cloud Atlas

Moorcock, Michael
Behold the Man

Moorcock, Michael
The Final Programme

Morrison, Toni

Murakami, Haruki

Murakami, Haruki
Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the
End of the World

Nabokov, Vladimir
Ada, or Ardor

Niffenegger, Audrey
The Time Traveler's Wife

Niven, Larry

Noon, Jeff

Obreht, Téa
The Tiger's Wife

O'Brien, Flann
At Swim-Two-Birds

Okri, Ben
The Famished Road

Percy, Walker
Love in the Ruins

Pohl, Frederik

Pratchett, Terry
The Color of Magic

Pynchon, Thomas
Gravity's Rainbow

Rabelais, François
Gargantua and Pantagruel

Robinson, Kim Stanley
Red Mars

Rowling, J.K.
Harry Potter & the Sorcerer's Stone

Rushdie, Salman
Midnight's Children

Russ, Joanna
The Female Man

Saramago, José

Sheckley, Robert
Dimension of Miracles

Sheckley, Robert

Sheckley, Robert
Store of the Worlds

Shelley, Mary

Silverberg, Robert
Dying  Inside

Silverberg, Robert

Silverberg, Robert
The World Inside

Simak, Clifford

Simak, Clifford
The Trouble with Tycho

Smith, Cordwainer

Smith, Cordwainer
The Rediscovery of Man

Stephenson, Neal
Snow Crash

Spinrad, Norman
Bug Jack Barron

Stross, Charles

Sturgeon, Theodore
More Than Human

Sturgeon, Theodore
Some of Your Blood

Swift, Jonathan
Gulliver's Travels

Thomas, D.M.
The White Hotel

Tiptree, Jr., James
Warm Worlds and Otherwise

Tolkien, J.R.R.
The Hobbit

Updike, John
The Witches of Eastwick

Van Vogt, A.E.
The Mixed Men

Van Vogt, A.E.

Van Vogt, A.E.
The Voyage of the Space Beagle

Van Vogt, A.E.
The World of Null A

Vance, Jack

Verne, Jules
Around the Moon

Verne, Jules
From the Earth to the Moon

Verne, Jules:
Journey to the Center of the Earth

Vonnegut, Kurt
Cat's Cradle

Vonnegut, Kurt
The Sirens of Titan

Vonnegut, Kurt

Wallace, David Foster
Infinite Jest

Walpole, Horace
Hieroglyphic Tales

Wells, H.G.
The First Men in the Moon

Wells, H.G.
The Island of Dr. Moreau

Wells, H.G.
The Time Machine

Wilson, Robert Anton & Robert Shea
The Illuminatus! Trilogy

Winton, Tim

Woolf, Virginia

Zabor, Rafi
The Bear Comes Home

Zelazny, Roger
Lord of Light

Zelazny, Roger
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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