One of Ray Bradbury’s most well-known works, Fahrenheit 451 has made a come back in recent weeks as with a few other dystopian novels you may have heard of, probably because of the impending doom that is upon us. Or, it’s just a coincidence.
In the world of Fahrenheit 451 books are illegal. Firefighters don’t put out fires, they start them; their hoses are not pumped with water, but with kerosene. The number one illicit item that is their target: books. Average-Joe fireman Guy Montag willingly goes about his business until he meets a girl who chances his perspective on the world and his life. Until meeting Clarisse he had never thought twice about his job as a fireman burning books, as it was the profession of his father, and his grandfather. But after meeting her his life is turned upside down. She reminds him that there was a time when people used to spend time outdoors, used to talk with their family and friends, used to read. Nowadays all people do is sit inside and stare at their screens, interacting with virtual worlds they think are better than reality.
When Montag steals a book from a house he is supposed to be burning one night, he smuggles it home to read and realizes how much books have to offer. With the help of a former English professor, he plans to smuggle as many books as he can because now he understands what’s been missing from his life, what is missing from everyone’s lives:
“There is nothing magical in them, at all. The magic is only in what books say, how they stitched the patches of the universe together into one garment.”
The professor reluctantly agrees to help Montag try to convince others of the beauty of books, but it fails spectacularly because no one believes him. Why should they? Fahrenheit 451 was written in the early 1950s when TV was first gaining popularity so it is easy to see why Bradbury would make a dystopian society that is obsessed with “screens” and virtual reality. Clearly he was ahead of his time as far as predicting just how closely intertwined our lives with technology would be.
Before giving my reasoning as to why I don’t think this could ever happen (we have such a rich appreciation for the arts and individuality in the US that I don’t see a mindless robot screen-obsessed existence gaining any popularity ever) I want to touch on Neil Gaiman’s introduction to the 60th anniversary edition of the book where he talks about the purpose of dystopian fiction:
“This is a book of warning. It s a reminder that what we have is valuable, and that sometimes we take what we value for granted…there are three phrases that make possible the world of writing about the world of not-yet and they are simple phrases: What if…? If only… If this goes on…
If this goes on… is the most predictive of the three, although it doesn’t try to predict an actual future with all its messy confusion. Instead, “If this goes on…” fiction takes an element of life today, something clear and obvious and normally something troubling, and asks what would happen if that thing, that one thing, became bigger, became all-pervasive, changed the way we thought and behaved. It’s a cautionary question, and it lets us explore cautionary worlds.”
So no, Bradbury doesn’t actually think we will find ourselves in a world some day where books are contraband. But he did create an outstanding work of speculative fiction that is just frightening enough to make us not want that to ever come to pass, right? It’s a warning. This could happen, it probably won’t, but it could. If you haven’t yet read this classic piece of fiction I highly recommend it. You will love it, and then you will gravitate towards your nearest bookstore or library and be oh-so-thankful that it exists.