There are things we know without really having experienced; they are part of the background on which our lives are painted. There are words we know, and perhaps use, but cannot strictly define. There are names we’ve heard without really having an appreciation for why they exist in the popular vocabulary. For a long time the name Ray Bradbury was one of these things in my life; I knew he was an author of science fiction (my poison of choice for many years) and that he was highly regarded. Last year I felt a desire to correct this situation at a time that happened to coincide with a heavy erosion of my ‘to read’ pile.
The thing that struck me most immediately about Fahrenheit 451 was the way in which the whole idea of the story seemed to spring from the simple word play of a fireman lighting fires instead of putting them out; every other aspect of the setting could very well have been simply an exploration of the question, “In what world does such a person exist?” This is a deliciously strong vector for a story to evolve along and it keeps good company; The Hobbit was similarly a story that evolved from a simple word play.
Next, I was struck, as I often am when reading older science fiction, by the colour of the technology; at once wonderously surreal and curiously outmoded. Like many works of its era the world of Fahrenheit 451 seems a world of the middle of last century and it reads, now, more like an alternate past than an alternate future.
And then the telling social commentary began to hit home. The insights of Clarisse into the inanities that occupy peoples’ thoughts and their conversation, the extreme emotional investment in passive media, and Montag’s raw frustration at a world that has lied to him until the lies become the only truth that is available all left me feeling exposed and vulnerable; so much of the society presented in this book is uncomfortably familiar. All the elements of modern society that are broken and malicious and soul-destroying are reflected straight back off the page. And the fact that the book is fifty years old and these same issues clearly existed then in more-or-less the same form adds a layer of squirm to the mix. This book affected me emotionally in ways that a lot of science fiction doesn’t.
Fahrenheit 451 is a cutting analysis of a society that has wilfully buggered itself inside out and become the antithesis of everything good that humanity is capable of. And what is most scathing is the focus on the role of the individual in the perpetration of this evil on a large scale. There are no faceless governments and corporations that can hide behind their façade of weasel-words and claim to be free of the responsibilities of morality; there are only the people that make up these organisations, all of whom make a conscious choice at some point in their lives to abandon their ethics and give themselves over wholesale to the collective impoverishment of humanity.
And shining like a lighthouse in the middle of this godawful misery is the story of the belated coming of age of a middle-aged man. Guy Montag’s perspective is blown open by the simple act of human interaction and he is left gaping, confused, and scared in a world he suddenly doesn’t recognise. And just possibly, amidst the murder and rape of history and smuggling away in the night of the only good people left in the world, against all the odds and despite his most desperate fuck-ups, he may just emerge from this situation a better person.
RIP Ray Bradbury.